Michigan Land Use Institute

MLUI / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / House Republican Task Force on Great Lakes Protection

House Republican Task Force on Great Lakes Protection

testimony of Arlin S. Wasserman MPH MS Policy Specialist, Michigan Land Use Institute

July 1, 2001 | By Arlin Wasserman
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

On behalf of the Michigan Land Use Institute, I want to thank the House Republican Task Force on Great Lakes Protection for this opportunity to deliver testimony regarding needed improvements for managing our Great Lakes.

The Michigan Land Use Institute ("Institute") is a 501(c)3 organization based in Benzonia, Michigan. The Institute’s primary goal is to maintain a vibrant economy and ecology in northern Michigan’s working rural landscape. Our expertise includes policy and economic analysis concerning land use, watershed management, transportation and hydrocarbon development.

The Great Lakes are more than just the greatest amount of freshwater on earth. They also are the basis for much of the state’s quality of life, especially recreational enjoyment. For northern Michigan communities, they are the foundation upon which our local economies are built.

Each Michigan community is a part of a watershed that help clean and replenish the Great Lakes. The choices you make in Lansing concerning the health of the lakes affect local communities. The choices each community makes also affect the watershed, the Great Lakes, and our neighbors.

This Task Force can lead Michigan to a better future, one that values and benefits from the Great Lakes, through legislative change that makes communities work better without significant taxpayer expense. There already is excellent scientific information concerning the health of the Great Lakes. Across the country, other communities are serving as the laboratories for developing the best programs for local communities to manage our common natural resources.

The Institute has conducted extensive research on three areas of concern to the health of the Great Lakes. These are best watershed management practices, hydrocarbon development, and land use planning in rural communities. After careful research and reasoned analysis, the Institute has developed recommendations in each of the three areas of concern.

Watershed Management Practices


In the Grand Traverse Region, and elsewhere across the state, communities are recognizing the need to make land use decisions on a watershed basis. Downstream communities are especially aware of the affects from upstream communities’ land use decisions. Clearly there is a need for local governments to come together to manage common natural resources. The Grand Traverse Bay Watershed Initiative, Tip of the Mitt Watershed Initiative and New Designs for Growth are a few examples of local efforts to meet this challenge.

The Institute conducted a survey of watershed management practices across seventeen states, evaluating the successes and failures of some of the country’s most effective and well-known programs. (The Institute’s report on best watershed management practices will be forthcoming in the fall of 1997.) From this effort, there are four clear conclusions and policy recommendations.

Michigan spends a great deal on watershed planning and restoration activities. Nowhere have efforts to provide state funding from polluter penalties, tax check-offs, or environmental license plates ever succeeded as a stable revenue source. Much of the money spent on watershed programs comes through local governments on an annual appropriation cycle.

Funding is adequate to meet most of the needs of a watershed, unless it is facing extraordinary threats. These might include significant pollution or degradation to the health of a river.

But good programs to generate accurate scientific data, develop better management practices, educate a community or bring back the health of a river take many years. Local governments tend to budget from year to year. Again and again, watershed organizations say it is not the level of funding, but the inability to fund long-term programs, that is a hindrance.

The House Republican Task Force on Great Lakes Protection should restructure state grants to local governments to meet the needs of watershed management organizations. Specifically, multi-year projects must be separated from annual appropriation cycles. The significant resources spent on watershed programs by the state also should be appropriated periodically for multi-year programs.

• In 1997, the River Federation and the National Park Service National Center for Recreation and Conservation published a report on funding River Conservation, the main purpose of watershed organizations. In addition to confirming many of the Institute’s findings, the report also found that Michigan’s existing Natural Rivers programs is one of the most cost-effective watershed management programs in the nation.

The Natural Rivers program has maintained and improved watershed health through prevention and using local governments and zoning ordinances as the chief management tool.

The Task Force should promote the Natural Rivers model for adoption by local watershed initiatives, including the citizen advisory committees not required in the legislation but used by the Department of Natural Resources as a model for watershed planning. The Task Force also should allow communities to more easily designate new segments of river for management under the program even if they do not currently meet the program’s aesthetic criteria, common to many undeveloped rivers.

Land use decisions made across watersheds are no different than those made by local governments in the town halls. There are competing and conflicting interests. Some development proposals are not sustainable or preclude other types of development, such as the decision by a village to become a tourist destination rather than a manufacturing center.

For many good reasons, land use decisions are made by democratically elected officials or their appointees through a public process. While watershed organizations do not have significant regulatory authority, their influence on land use decisions is growing.

But not all watershed organizations use the same decision making process. Some use self-appointed boards of directors. Some do not benefit from participation by local governments. Others are set up as private corporations and give directorships to large donors. In these instances, self-interest rather than the health of the watershed may color decisions. The best science or the interests of the community do not always guide such organizations.

The Task Force should establish a standard for Watershed Organization Boards of Directors that includes representation from all affected units of government and that limits participation from special interests to a minority or advisory capacity. The Task Force also should urge all local governments to participate actively and offer incentives for such efforts.

• There are many decisions made on a regional basis that affect the health of watersheds. Many of these decisions, such as road building, drainage and erosion control programs, and the extension of sewer, water and power into undeveloped lands, are made by state and regional authorities. These measures already are out of the hands of local communities.

State and regional agencies develop long-range plans for such developments. These plans should integrate a watershed management component.

The Task Force should require the Department of Public Works, Public Works Authorities, Drain Commissioners and Soil Conservation Districts to participate in watershed planning and incorporate watershed principles in their own work plans. This can be accomplished by having watershed organizations their advisory boards and by having these bodies participate in watershed organizations within their service districts.

Hydrocarbon Development


Extracting oil and gas from underneath the land has wreaked havoc on watersheds throughout the northwoods. In addition to ecological damage, proposals to drill underneath the Jordan River Valley and Ludington State Park have highlighted public opposition to losing recreational opportunities. Plans to drill underneath Lake Michigan have brought similar public criticism.

With respect to hydrocarbon development along the coastline, the Institute does not believe that directional drilling poses a greater risk to the public health and environment than other technologies. However, it is not a panacea. There are limits to how far directional drilling can reach from a surface location. And surface locations still contain the array of diesel engines, gas processing facilities, hazardous compounds, noises and odors that come with any petroleum facility as well as many other industrial activities.

Permitting haphazard drilling along the coast is a decision to industrialize Michigan’s shoreline. Michigan’s residents enjoy Lake Michigan, appreciating it largely from beaches and coastal villages. Communities have grown their economies around this. People have invested in homes in order to be close to the lake. The residents of Michigan have determined that there are better uses for the coast than heavy industry.

The Institute also believes that the economic benefit to Michigan from tourism, recreation, real estate and year-round coastal communities far outweighs any economic activity that a short-term natural gas or oil boom could generate. If one makes decisions only on dollars, then much of the coast should be off limits for drilling. But this Task Force and the residents of Michigan also place a special value on the Great Lakes themselves, and this tips the scales even further.

The Institute believes that there are appropriate locations for industrial activity along the Lake Michigan shoreline. There are already factories, shipping ports and other similar land uses along the shoreline. These are the appropriate areas for new industrial activity such as drilling sites.

The Institute recommends that the Departments of Natural Resources (DNR) and Environmental Quality (DEQ) in conjunction with the Environmental Science Board (ESB) and local governments identify appropriate locations for industrial activity along the shoreline. The ESB and DEQ already are evaluating the technical ability of directional drilling. By choosing appropriate surface locations and knowing the abilities of the technology, it will be a simple process to determine what hydrocarbon resources can be developed.

The degradation of natural resources that many fear will come from drilling along the coast already has occurred in many of northern Michigan’s significant watersheds. While directional drilling technology does not pose an increased threat, surface processing facilities and roads litter the landscape with little concern for their impact on the health of a watershed. Sediment from dirt roads flows into rivers. Brine from on-site waste disposal facilities leaks into groundwater. Forest and habitat are cut into small fragments by roads and pipelines. The sound of diesel engines and the odor of poisonous hydrogen sulfide gas are frequent in the northwoods.

• This Task Force should require hydrocarbon development plans be completed by the private sector before oil and gas drilling permits are issued. These plans should identify the best locations for surface facilities and procedures for minimizing environmental impacts include a plan for abandoning facilities once the gas and oil are gone.

Currently, the petroleum industry nominates state-owned minerals for auction, and subsequent development, through an administrative process. The DNR and DEQ spend large amounts of time interacting with the public when inappropriate tracts are nominated for auction process. There is no public process for determining the acceptability of any particular tract for auction and development.

• This Task Force should establish a citizens’ advisory committee to review tracts nominated for lease sale. Members of watershed organizations should sit on a state advisory committee or such committees could be formed within each DNR district. An advisory committee would ensure that hydrocarbon development proposals are compatible with watershed planning efforts..

The Pigeon River is the only watershed that has a hydrocarbon development plan. Unitization is required under the plan. Under unitization, pipelines, roads and processing facilities are shared by all companies drilling for oil and gas, rather than each building their own. Outside the Pigeon River, unitization is not required. Companies still must go through a lengthy process to secure permits from either the DEQ or Public Service Commission (PSC) by proving the meet criteria established by the state.

• The Task Force should add unitization to the permitting criteria. Before a developer is permitted to build its own set of pipes, roads and facilities on public lands, it must demonstrate that there are no existing facilities with adequate processing capacity.

Land Use Practices


Watershed Management and Hydrocarbon Development both are land use practices. These activities ultimately affect the choices we make regarding how the surface of a watershed develops. They both effect what happens to the water that runs underneath and across the surface.

Emerging of scientific data has shown watersheds can only tolerate a certain range of surface activities before their overall health begins to decline. There are a few tools absent from most local land use plans and zoning ordinances that assist in protecting watersheds through local governments.

• The Task Force should enact legislation to permits local governments to control the following aspects of land use through existing zoning tools.

1.Limit the amount of pavement, concrete and other impermeable surfaces in a watershed and place a paving moratorium into effect when more than ten percent of the surface in a watershed becomes impermeable.

2. Manage septic systems under public programs that include inspection and proof of service every 3-5 years.

3. Limit the use of hazardous compounds for nonagricultural commercial purposes to areas serviced by municipal sewer and water.

4. Support programs in northern Michigan to preserve farmland, forests and open space.

Michigan Land Use Institute

148 E. Front Street, Suite 301
Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
p (231) 941-6584 
e comments@mlui.org