Michigan Land Use Institute

MLUI / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / State Senate Again Considers Groundwater Protection

State Senate Again Considers Groundwater Protection

Birkholz bill takes a more limited approach

March 12, 2003 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Michigan farmers pump more than 100 million gallons of groundwater a day for irrigation. A new bill introduced by state Senator Patricia Birkholz could eventually require some farmers who are over-pumping aquifers to implement technologies similar to this one, which is saving water in Manistee County

Lansing, MI — State Senator Patricia Birkholz, chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee, has introduced new legislation that would for the first time provide public oversight of new, large-scale withdrawals from Michigan's underground freshwater reservoirs. 

Ms. Birkholz's proposal has the full support of Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema, who in 2001 led the bipartisan Senate Great Lakes Preservation Task Force that issued an urgent call for action to improve how the state managed its water resources. Developing and approving new legislation to protect the state's groundwater supplies was among the task force's top five priorities.

Ms. Birkholz's bill is an important first step toward that goal. It would help the state better monitor its groundwater supply and offer at least some regulatory control of high-volume water users. It has already attracted criticism for being too weak from several groups favoring groundwater reform, and also attracted a sharply negative response from a Michigan business group that says the new law is unnecessary. Michigan currently has a 19th-century approach to overseeing its groundwater supplies that essentially allows anybody to take as much water as they want at any time.

Sikkema Wants Aquifer Protection
In introducing her proposal, Sen. Birkholz is acting on behalf of Sen. Sikkema, a fellow Republican who tried unsuccessfully last April to turn some of the recommendations of his task force into law. Mr. Sikkema's proposals, which were more ambitious than those Sen. Birkholz is presenting, were never voted out of committee. Sen. Birkholz held the first public hearing on her legislation, Senate Bill 289, on March 11. 

"I asked chairman Birkholz to hold hearings on this issue," said Sen. Sikkema in an interview. "My charge to her is that we want to focus on protecting the integrity of aquifers. Our task force hearings around the state documented that we had a problem in Michigan in some places with aquifer depletion because of overuse. Michigan has no statutory framework, or any legal framework, to address that problem."

"We did our report," Sen. Sikkema added. "We hurriedly got some bill introduced to get the issue out there and force the interest groups to start reacting, which they did. Look, we need an aquifer protection law."

The proposal introduced by Sen. Birkholz would require that certain, prospective groundwater users perform extensive investigations of the subsurface water supplies they propose to tap and provide the state with basic information about them. Based on those findings, the state would either issue a permit allowing the proposed, high-volume pumping or direct the applicant to conduct further studies.

“This current legislation is not final,” said Sen. Birkholz, the Senate President Pro-Tem who represents Saugatuck. “But the goal is to be more proactive in our ability to protect this important resource for current users and future generations. My job now is to work out a consensus among the diverse interests affected by this type of law.”

Achieving that consensus could be a complicated task. Many business people, from well drillers to officials in industries that use large volumes of water, argue that the plan is excessive. But many water experts contend the plan does not go far enough because it fails to provide enough meaningful protection for citizens and their freshwater resources.

An Advantage for Some, a Problem for Others
One of the first groups to take a strong position against the Birkholz bill is the Michigan Manufacturers Association. Mike Johnston, the association’s director of regulatory affairs, contends groundwater regulation would be a waste of state resources and could hamper economic activity by forcing businesses to pay and then wait for the results of lengthy scientific studies and state permitting processes.

“One of the greatest advantages we have in Michigan is ready access to abundant natural resources, particularly water,” Mr. Johnston said. “The direction the Senate clearly wants to head would place severe limits on that unique advantage.”

But proponents of groundwater law reform say this “unique advantage” is precisely the problem. They observe that Michigan currently has no law controlling how much water can be withdrawn from any aquifer. Focused almost exclusively on water quality, the state’s laws ignore the serious problems that high-volume groundwater withdrawals can create for both other water users and other bodies of water the aquifers interconnect and affect, including the Great Lakes.

“This is not about protecting aquifers for aquifers’ sake,” said Noah Hall, water resource program manager for the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Natural Resource Center. “This is about protecting aquifers to ensure water for drinking and other uses such as industry and agriculture. And it is about protecting aquifers because they keep our lakes, wetlands, and rivers functioning properly.”

A single groundwater withdrawal, whether by a bottling plant or a school, often is not perceptible in a system as vast as the Great Lakes, groundwater experts agree. But taken together, unrestrained use by residential, agricultural, or industrial consumers has in fact drained some local groundwater reserves and reduced the flow and depth of some lakes and rivers.

Aggressive groundwater withdrawals by quarries in Monroe and Oakland counties, for example, have drastically lowered water levels in the areas surrounding them and left thousands of families without the well water they depended on for decades.

In Saginaw County, farmers using larger pumps and deeper wells to irrigate their crops over the past ten summers have significantly lowered the water levels of wells used by nearby homeowners. They will likely do the same again this summer. In Kent County, certain municipal water withdrawals have sparked clashes with rural residents. Each conflict has triggered costly legal challenges, scientific studies, or the digging of still deeper wells.

Lawmakers Try Again  
Last year as a Democratic candidate, Governor Jennifer Granholm repeatedly called for comprehensive laws to protect groundwater and prevent diversions. Her stated positions were consistent with many of the steps that Sen. Sikkema’s task force urged the Legislature to adopt.

That task force’s January, 2002, report, Citizen’s Agenda: An Action Plan to Protect the Great Lakes, cited “an immediate need for an aquifer protection statute to protect the public and the environment from both present and future problems caused by water withdrawals.” It urged the Legislature to enact sweeping groundwater use laws to protect underground aquifers. Four months later Sen. Sikkema introduced legislation that would have directly linked a community’s plan for future growth to its available water supply. That legislation, however, never passed out of committee.

Now, with Sen. Sikkema serving as majority leader and with the governor embracing strong groundwater laws, conditions might be more favorable for proposing truly aggressive reforms. But Sen. Birkholz’s draft proposal, by her own description, falls short of what was both called for and proposed last year.

“This bill doesn’t go as far as the legislation introduced by Sen. Sikkema,” she acknowledged. “The challenge is to address the problem but not over regulate the people who need to use this resource. I want to hear specific comments and criticisms from the public.” 

The proposed legislation would require the state Departments of Agriculture and Environmental Quality to create a permit process for water users who want to withdraw more than 100,800 gallons per day — enough to fill approximately 2,000 bathtubs. These users would be required to file an application describing the purpose, location, and scale of their project. They would also have to conduct a preliminary study of the underground rock formations and water deposits to determine the geographic dimensions of the aquifer they propose to tap, how much water it holds, and how much can be safely removed.

Before permitting a new withdrawal, state regulators would evaluate those scientific studies to determine how it might affect neighboring wells and other, interrelated water resources like streams and wetlands.

But the proposal does not trigger more extensive safeguards unless a proposed water withdrawal exceeds the aquifer’s natural limitations, or if an actual problem already exists. Only then would applicants be required to implement modern conservation practices, avoid environmental degradation, and demonstrate that their proposed withdrawal is consistent with the community’s growth plan.

Measured Support, Strong Opposition
The National Wildlife Federation’s Mr. Hall said that what is is good about the proposed legislation is that it would at least encourage the collection of sorely needed scientific information about aquifers around the state and would, after ten years, apply a permitting process to all existing high-volume users, not just new ones. But he expressed concern that the proposal ignores the connection between underground and aboveground water resources. He also said future laws must better recognize how groundwater affects the state’s economy and environment.

But while agreeing that the state needs more precise scientific knowledge about its extensive aquifer system, the Michigan Manufacturing Association’s Mr. Johnston said any new law should focus solely on resolving existing conflicts.

“There’s no groundwater withdrawal problem in Michigan,” he said. “We’re at the center of the Great Lakes. The perception of a problem has evolved out of this one case in Saginaw were some residents have run out of water. That case is unfortunate, but it’s not representative. Certainly we need some policies to resolve disputes when they arise. But anything beyond that is overkill.”

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


Michigan Land Use Institute

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