Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner Jim Nash, center, speaks with guests at an event for Pure Oakland Water at the Cranbrook Institute of Science in 2013.

Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner Jim Nash, center, speaks with guests at an event for Pure Oakland Water at the Cranbrook Institute of Science in 2013.

File photo by Erin Sanchez

Next generation gears up for the fight to protect Michigan water

By: Kayla Dimick, Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published March 9, 2020


OAKLAND COUNTY/LANSING — When a few local organizations got together to host a program for young people on careers in water — a topic that might sound dull to some — they were pleasantly surprised to find out that there was interest, and plenty of it.

In fact, the program was completely booked within hours of its announcement.

The inaugural event, called “Blue Planet Jobs: Careers in Water,” will take place Monday, March 16, at the Cranbrook Institute of Science, with sophomore and junior students from high schools around Oakland County. They’ll learn about careers in water from the county’s water resources commissioner and Pure Oakland Water, a nonprofit that aims to protect water sources and advocates for environmental and sustainable policies to protect ground and drinking water through public education.

At the event, tying in with Cranbrook’s annual Freshwater Forum, students will meet industry professionals, including the famed Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician credited for exposing the Flint water crisis.

“We are excited to collaborate with Cranbrook Institute of Science and Oakland Schools to offer Oakland County students this one-of-a-kind event,” Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner Jim Nash said in a prepared statement. “I often say it’s up to this generation to fix the environmental problems that my generation created, and a career in water is an excellent opportunity to make a difference.”

Oakland County students aren’t alone. Across Michigan, students have expressed interest in large numbers in protecting not just the Great Lakes, but the drinking water in Michigan’s taps.

“We saw the biggest response to the event from science classes: Advanced Placement biology and agricultural science,” Nash said in an email. “We believe students are interested in our event because they are very passionate about environmental issues facing the next generation. Students are interested in a career that makes a difference.”

On March 3, the Michigan House of Representatives’ Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Committee took testimony on House Bills 5104 and 5105, which aim to protect children from lead and other toxic contaminants in school and child care facility drinking water.

The nonpartisan bills would establish a Filter First program across Michigan, requiring schools and day cares to install filtered drinking water fountains and sometimes even on-tap filters.

Charlotte Jameson, the program director for legislative affairs, energy and drinking water for the Michigan Environmental Council, said that the aging infrastructure in Michigan is a contributing factor to lead in drinking water.

The MEC is a nonprofit organization created in 1980 and dedicated to promoting public policies that ensure Michigan families can have clear water, clean beaches, and healthy environments and communities, according to its website.

“Essentially, we know that given the age of the school buildings in Michigan and child care facilities in Michigan, that there is lead in pretty much all of these buildings’ drinking water,” Jameson said. “How do we go about protecting kids from drinking water that’s contaminated with lead?”

In the past, local leaders have tried to combat this by demanding lead testing at schools and child care facilities, but Jameson said the results from those tests can vary.

“With that, testing is pretty expensive, and also not the most reliable way to find out if a tap is safe or not. Lead is sporadic. You could get one sample that says this water fountain is perfectly fine and then later find out that it has 20 parts per billion of lead.”

Studies show, Jameson said, that even “lead-free” fixtures and plumbing still have a small amount of lead in them.

“Lead-free” fixtures are just not the answer, she said.

“Whereas we know filters are incredibly effective at filtering out lead, if we use point-of-use filters either on taps or filtered water fountains … then we’ll  be providing safe drinking water to our kids.”

With the bills, Jameson said, clean water advocates are also asking for funding to help schools and child care facilities cover the cost of the filters and installation.

Jameson said the goal is to have all schools and child care facilities up to date with filters by the 2024-25 school year, starting with elementary schools in the next school year.

“Let’s start with the young kids who are the most vulnerable and move up to school-age kids going forward,” she said.

Once laws are in place to protect drinking water, the massive amount of work it could take to repair Michigan’s water infrastructure could create a new industry with high-wage, in-demand jobs, according to Jarred Grandy, the executive director of Oakland Schools student services.

“We always want to partner with schools, employers and organizations to provide students with opportunity to have meaningful interaction with professionals in various industries. Blue Planet Jobs is another example of this type of partnership,” Grandy said in a press release.

According to a 2018 report from the American Water Works Association, while most utility fields are not expected to add jobs within the next decade, water and sewer positions are expected to grow by close to 6%.

“Students will learn (at the career event) about high-skill, high-demand careers related to one of the Earth’s most precious natural resources,” Grandy said.

To stay up to date on the status of the bills, go to legislature.mi.gov.

To learn more about Blue Planet Jobs and Pure Oakland Water, visit pureoaklandwater.org.