Summer ’67 was busy for clean water

by George Sedlacek
“A special meeting of the Marquette City Commission will be held at 7:00 p.m. this evening in the city hall for the purpose of discussing the sale of water to Marquette Township.”
0907hlthSound familiar? No, you didn’t just see this headline this week; this was the topic of discussion back in March 1967. Good drinking water and safe disposal of sewage are items we take for granted or grumble about the cost. That we have great and safe water in the U.P. is due, in a large part, to municipal water supplies and effective home wells and septic systems. Nearly one billion people in the world do not have safe water. Michigan still truly is a water wonderland.
Forty-two years ago, 125 people attended a hearing on land and water resources held in Negaunee’s Thimmes Memorial Hall. The need for more adequate and safer water was told by several representatives from the various municipalities. Negaunee and Ishpeming’s water was deemed adequate by its leaders.
Rodney Hodge, Negaunee city manager, stated the city was concerned about the future of its water supply, Teal Lake. The Hanna Mining Company was “thinking” of draining the lake to mine the large iron ore deposits under it. This would be a concern for the people who are fortunate enough to live on Teal Lake, including myself. It helps explain one possible reason why the last houses built in the “Beverly Hills” addition near Lakeview School were along the lake.
Another personal story about the water in Negaunee…We had just moved in 1988, when my wife drew a tubful of water. It was a mix of red and green. (Didn’t bother me since I’m color blind.) She called the public works department to ask about it. They laughed and said she must be new to Negaunee. Today, Negaunee is part of the Negaunee-Ishpeming Water Authority (NIWA), which uses well water, not surface water, which requires more stringent treatment processes. No one jokes about getting a glass of vegetables with their water in Negaunee anymore.
Ishpeming’s city manager, Frank Gerstenecker, said Ishpeming was more concerned about quantity. Every summer, it had to restrict water use during summer months. Ishpeming got its water from four small lakes surrounded by iron mines. Wesley Larson, representing Negaunee Township, stated the township was interested in beginning a municipal supply. Arlene Hill deputy clerk from Forsyth Township, indicated an interest in a water pollution solution caused by a population increase at K.I. Sawyer.
Of course, Marquette Township had water quantity problems with wells. A Mining Journal editorial of the time said it made perfect sense for Marquette township and city to work cooperatively. The city needed land, the township had a lot of land but no water. The editorial concluded that the best solution was the exchange of service for the land. Forty-two years later, it’s clear that issue still festers.
The ’60s saw the advent of several federal and state laws that preserved drinking water supplies. New state laws were developing that mandated safe well constructions that wouldn’t pollute groundwater. Laws also addressed the licensing of well drillers. Negaunee’s Edwin Hakala was the first chairman of the statewide Michigan Water Well Drillers advisory board, which worked as an advisory board to the state health department. Hakala was a partner in a private well and pump service company.
At an October 1966 meeting, Alan Budinger, chief sanitarian for the newly formed Marquette County Health Department (prior to 1966, each city and town was responsible for its own health department), stated Michigan landfill sites after 1965 had to comply with operation and maintenance of sanitary landfill regulations. Both the City of Negaunee and Tilden Township closed their sites and joined Ishpeming.
This three-municipality landfill operated until the opening of the Marquette County Solid Waste Management Authority. The old landfill was capped and it can be seen from the Iron Ore Heritage Trail between the cities of Negaunee and Ishpeming as a wide open space between the trees and ridges. Today, all municipalities in the county belong to this successful collaborative disposal of solid waste.
Both Budinger and Dr. Richard Potter, the first department health officer, began to advocate for the adoption of a county-wide sanitary code for the safe disposal of sewage. Marquette County was the last county to have such a code in the state. They reported on testing of a number of local lakes and streams, which revealed the presence of significant quantities of bacteria from human excrement.
At a public hearing, township supervisors Kenneth Walimaa from Ishpeming Township and A.J. Menhennick from Chocolay Township stated that water pollution and sewage problems in their areas indicated the need for a standard county sanitation code. But most township officials at that time complained that it gave the health officer too much power over the regulations and that each township should have the right to do its own inspections.
Over the summer of ’67, the difference of opinions made the adoption not likely. But in September of that year, both the Ishpeming and Marquette chambers of commerce backed the proposal, along with the Mining Journal, and the Marquette Medical Society persuaded the Marquette County supervisors to pass it—27-13 (forty-member board versus the seven of today) on September 21, 1967. It went into effect January 1, 1968. Prior to the passage, there were no regulations at all on the size of septic systems and many homes simply had a pipe that went to the nearest lake or stream. Our bathing beaches along Lake Superior and inland lakes thank these people from forty years ago.
Today, we have excellent examples of intergovernmental agreements to provide safe drinking water and the disposal of sewage and waste in Marquette County. These agreements are never easy, but, in the long run, have at heart the best interest of the health of Marquette County residents.
Ernest Ronn, chairman of the Marquette County Economic Study committee, said it best at that February 2, 1967 meeting: “Finally, it has been emphasized here today, that there are communities in our county that do not have safe, sanitary supplies of drinking water, and an inadequate supply to guarantee safe fire protection. To me these conditions are far more important in emphasizing the need for water resources in Marquette County than any economic factor that might be involved.”
The health department still conducts inspections of wells and septic tank systems. Many of the systems installed under the sanitary code years ago remain effective in protecting groundwater and providing safe drinking water. More than fifty percent of all county residents are on water well systems; 1967 seems like a long time ago, but it’s a mere blip on the screen.
Here’s my wish to you: a good, clear glass of water, and that in 2050 our children’s children can have the same.
For information on water testing kits for well water, contact the Marquette County Health Department at 475-4195 or visit

— George Sedlacek

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