95% of Michigan rivers too polluted to swim, new study finds

MANISTEE — Michigan’s ample supply of freshwater may be its most valuable natural resource, but for decades, the state’s waterways have been marred by pollutants.

The nonprofit looked at waterways and bodies of water in all 50 states by surveying the most recent available state Integrated Water Reports filed with the Environmental Protection Agency.

Rivers and streams

The report, The Clean Water Act at 50: Promises Half Kept at the Half Century Mark, found that 95% of rivers and streams and 43% of lakes and reservoirs are impaired for swimming and recreation in Michigan.

It defines “impaired” waters as those that are too polluted to meet safety standards for swimming and recreation, aquatic life, fish consumption or for use as drinking water.

That means more than 54,000 miles of rivers and streams in the state are polluted with things like nitrates, bacteria or other contaminants which could make them unsafe for swimmers.

Indiana tops the list of states with the most dirty waterways. Indiana has 24,395 total miles of rivers and streams listed as impaired for swimming and recreation.

Oregon has the most overall miles of rivers and streams categorized as impaired for any use at 122,800 miles, followed by California with 83,361 impaired miles. Michigan is third with 54,687 impaired miles.

About 96% of Michigan’s rivers and streams are deemed impaired for fish consumption, and 15,776 miles were listed as impaired for aquatic life, according to the report.

The report assessed 1,426,619 miles of rivers, streams and creeks across the US and found that over half were impaired for any use.

Lakes and reservoirs

More than half of assessed lake acres nationally have been designated as impaired for at least one use, according to the report.

The study assessed a total of 814,808 lake acres in Michigan, and found that 91% of inland lakes and reservoirs were impaired for water contact recreation, and fish consumption.

However, only 3,318 acres were assessed for water recreation impairments. For comparison, Houghton Lake, the largest inland lake in Michigan, has a surface area encompassing 20,044 acres.

Over 378,000 acres were assessed in Michigan for fish consumption.

The study also found that 3% of assessed lake acres were impaired for aquatic life.

Nationwide, the states classified 11.2 million acres of lakes, ponds and reservoirs as impaired, which was about 55% of assessed lake acreage.

Great Lakes

Michigan assesses both the open water of the Great Lakes and the health of their shorelines.

For its portion of the Great Lakes, Michigan reported in a 2020 Integrated Water Report, that 100% of assessed open water was impaired for fish consumption, under EPA quality standards.

“But the state either had insufficient information or did not sample enough to determine the impairment status of other uses of open water, such as to support aquatic life,” reads part of the Environmental Integrity Project study.

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