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Water Experts Urge Great Lakes Action

West’s hard lessons, Midwest’s deteriorating aquifers underline treaty delay

February 26, 2003 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Pat Owen
  Even in Michigan, the heart of the Great Lakes basin, the inability to balance rising water consumption with the amount of water that is actually available has led to water use conflicts, and court battles that could affect lake levels. Low water levels in Lake Michigan continue to expose unusually large expanses of beach.

STEVENS POINT, WI — The same patterns of development and waste that drained water supplies in Western states now threaten the Great Lakes, according to experts who recently spoke here at a large gathering of conservation and environmental groups. These experts said that rapidly falling water tables and water use conflicts in some Great Lakes states indicate that the problem needs immediate attention.

Western water lawyer Robert Glennon, one of the speakers at the annual gathering of the Wisconsin Stewardship Network, an alliance of more than 100 groups, highlighted numerous examples of dwindling water supplies across the United States, including some in the Great Lakes region. Speaking at the conference on February 15, 2002, he said that the region’s leaders could help avoid the kinds of problems that plague his home state, Arizona, by quickly establishing policies that better control new withdrawals of water and promote its efficient use.

“Think of an underground aquifer like a giant milkshake,” said Mr. Glennon, who teaches law at the University of Arizona. “And that every well is a straw into that milkshake. What [Wisconsin] law permits is a limitless number of new straws. When you have unrestricted access to a common public resource such as groundwater you encourage overexploitation. We must break this cycle and begin to pinch the straws.”

Mr. Glennon’s warning comes as five new Great Lakes governors complete their first weeks in office. One of them, Michigan Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm, strongly reiterated in the State of the State address earlier this month her campaign promise to protect the state’s clean water much more effectively than it has been in the past. She applauded the state’s Senate majority leader, Republican Ken Sikkema, for “his leadership on protecting our groundwater” and promised to work with him to prevent the diversion of Great Lakes water.

Mr. Sikkema has also spoken out since the election, recently telling the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service that he intended to protect the integrity of aquifers by passing new state laws to address the problem.

The next few weeks could serve as a litmus test of just how urgently senior leaders throughout the region view water security. That’s because progress on a sweeping, five-year-old treaty process designed to strengthen safeguards for freshwater resources in all of the Great Lakes states and provinces — a process the governors and premiers are directly responsible for — has seemingly slowed.

Triggering a Water Rebellion
That process, called Annex 2001, began in 1998 after a Canadian company proposed to haul tankers full of Lake Superior water to Asia. It gained significant momentum in June 2001 after the Perrier Group began exploring springs in Wisconsin and Michigan as possible sources for pumping, bottling and selling water throughout the Upper Midwest.

When it met fierce resistance in Wisconsin, Perrier built its new plant in Michigan instead, after former Governor John Engler engineered a $10 million tax subsidy and a five-week permit approval process for the company. Perrier’s plans also triggered grassroots rebellions in both states and a citizen lawsuit in Michigan, which will be heard in May at the state circuit court in Big Rapids, near where the bottling plant was built and now pumps approximately one-half million gallons per day from a local aquifer. The dispute has heightened public interest in Annex 2001. 

As the Perrier controversy grew, officials of state and Canadian provincial governments within the Great Lakes basin formally agreed to the basic principles of the Annex, which are aimed at preventing over-pumping, misguided diversion projects, and other 21st century threats to the region’s most important resource. The officials also committed to turning the agreement’s principles into binding law by 2004.

But experts close to the Annex project say budget deficits, recent changes in political leadership, and the complex nature of creating consistent, comprehensive water laws across eight American states and two Canadian provinces have sapped what was once a collective sense of urgency. Meanwhile, according to another conference speaker, George Kraft, a professor of water resources at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, water problems within the Great Lakes basin continue to mount.

Great Lakes Have Limits
“The water levels across broad chunks of Wisconsin are going down substantially due to lots of pumping and the nature of the geology,” Mr. Kraft said. “In the Madison area a number of springs have dried up. In the Lower Fox River valley [ground] water levels have been drawn down an estimated 300 feet below where they were at predevelopment times. And in the Milwaukee area there’s been a maximum draw-down of 450-some feet since predevelopment.”

Groundwater levels in parts of Wisconsin continue to decline at rates approaching 17 feet per year, Mr. Kraft said. Other experts have noted that the phenomenon of subsiding subsurface water supplies is also evident in New York, Ohio, and Illinois, where unrestrained use by homes, farms, and factories draws heavily on underground reserves. Even in Michigan, the heart of the Great Lakes basin, the inability to balance rising water consumption with the amount of water that is actually available has led to water use conflicts, scarcity, and court battles.
“We don’t have the appropriate tools or processes in place to manage our groundwater,” Mr. Kraft maintained. “Frequently, we’re flying blind. In many places we don’t have data on stream flows or groundwater levels. We also don’t know who the heck is pumping what. To a large degree, it’s the Wild West out there. If you can drill a well, you can have the water.”

Mr. Kraft also explained that the depletion of groundwater quantity is intimately linked to groundwater quality. He highlighted two Wisconsin cases where over-pumping of subsurface water sources altered underground chemistry and created elevated levels of salt, radioactive materials, and the highly poisonous element arsenic.

Warning from Arizona
In his presentation, Mr. Glennon highlighted another consequence inherent to continuously removing large amounts of groundwater. His recent book — Water Follies: Groundwater Pumping and the Fate of America’s Freshwaters — explores the effect of groundwater removal on surface water sources. Depleting underground water reserves, he explained, has the real potential to degrade aboveground water resources because the Great Lakes are one hydrologic system comprising an intricate web of interdependent streams, underground aquifers, wetlands, and inland lakes.

“In Arizona we have dried up 90 percent of our low-level desert streams so that they look like a child’s sandbox,” he said. “That’s because the rules governing groundwater in Arizona, as in Wisconsin and many other states, are completely different and disconnected from the rules governing surface water, even though the science obviously indicates that it’s all connected. In Minnesota, for instance, they are pumping lots of water from wells located immediately adjacent to rivers and a major problem is coming.”

Great Lakes leaders have said that Annex 2001 would add new provisions to the Great Lakes Charter, an agreement to improve water stewardship that was signed by American and Canadian officials in 1985. It would, they said, further outline and strengthen the basic principles individual governments use to evaluate new water withdrawal proposals, avoid harmful projects, and improve the region’s freshwater resources. A working group of representatives from industry, agriculture, environmental organizations, and state and provincial resource agencies and executive offices have labored for nearly two years to develop and begin implementing a legally defensible agreement.

Slowing Down
But after missing a self-imposed June 2002 deadline to present a draft agreement for public review the Annex process continues to lose popular and political momentum.

“There’s a real upwelling of support for protecting Great Lakes water,” said Derek Scheer, the water policy director for Wisconsin’s Environmental Decade, a Madison-based advocacy group. “But there’s little knowledge about the Annex 2001 process.”          

Currently, no new target date exists for releasing a draft Annex 2001 agreement for public review. No meeting is scheduled for the project’s advisory committee, which consists of representatives from approximately 20 regional stakeholder groups, although many expect a gathering will take place this March.

A familiar catchphrase among Annex 2001 participants says, “We’d rather have a strong agreement than a quick one.” They insist they are on track to meet the 2004 deadline.

“There is an immediate need for reasonable rules based on conservation and environmental improvement to help guide local water use decisions,” Mr. Scheer said. “But I’m not exactly sure when the governors intend to release this plan.”

Andy Guy, a journalist covering Great Lakes issues and co-author of Liquid Gold Rush, a seminal 2001 report on groundwater use in Michigan, manages the Michigan Land Use Institute’s office in Grand Rapids. Reach him at andy@mlui.org.

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