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A Tide of Influence Swamps Groundwater Protections

Proposal for more research is setback for Sikkema

May 4, 2003 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Pat Owen
  A state Senate committee voted last week to significantly weaken a proposal that would have would have gone a long way toward protecting Michigan's supply of ground and surface fresh water for future generations.

LANSING  — Ignoring a bipartisan task force recommendation to protect Michigan’s groundwater supply, a Senate committee bowed to special interest groups last week and voted to delay dealing directly with the issue. Instead, the committee voted to conduct more studies, thereby significantly weakening a proposal  that would, for the first time, have taken steps to reform the state’s 19th century water laws, which permit completely unrestricted withdrawals of virtually any amount of groundwater.

The vote by the Senate Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee on April 29 essentially postpones any action to prevent ill-advised groundwater withdrawals in Michigan for at least two years. The bill is expected to pass the full Senate.

The committee's decision was a sharp reversal for Republican Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema, who chaired the bipartisan Senate Great Lakes Conservation Task Force in 2001. That panel held hearings statewide to assess threats to the Great Lakes and made more than 60 recommendations, including modernizing how Michigan managed groundwater. The task force urged lawmakers to move quickly to protect Michigan aquifers from over-withdrawals that could drain neighboring wells, wetlands, ponds, lakes and streams.

Nestle' Waters Trial Comes At Same Time
The Senate committee vote also came as Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation and Nestle' Waters North America square off this week in Big Rapids in a long-awaited trial in state circuit court that will help decide whether multinational corporations have the authority to divert groundwater for sale out of the Great Lakes basin. State water and public trust laws, the citizens group argues, do not allow wholesale diversions of pure water out of its natural basin for commercial sale nationwide and are “unreasonable.” Nestle Waters North America, which recently completed a groundwater bottling plant in Mecosta County, insists it has the right to sell bottled water to anybody. The trial, which begins on May 5, is expected to last three weeks. 

Public protest over Nestle' Waters bottling plant in Mecosta county in 2000 and 2001 spurred much of the legislative attention to the security of Michigan's groundwater supply. But assurances by Sen. Sikkema and other prominent elected leaders, including Michigan's Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm, that state action would be forthcoming vanished under a wave of opposition by business interests who argued that more regulation was unnecessary. 

Birkholz Reverses Herself on Her Own Bill
Reflecting the charged politics of the issue, State Senator Patricia Birkholz, the Republican from Saugatuck who authored the original bill to protect groundwater and chaired the committee hearings on it, actually voted to weaken her own bill.

“I wanted to go farther,” said Ms. Birkholz.. “But if you look at the information the state has on groundwater aquifers it’s simply not realistic. I can’t in good conscious build a regulatory system on the limited data we have.”

But Noah Hall, the water resource program manager for the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Natural Resource Center, said the committee was voting to delay, not expedite, the protection of Michigan’s groundwater.

“We’re all in favor of gathering more information, compiling data on water users, and developing a better understanding of the water resources we have,” Mr. Hall said. “But at some point Michigan must find the political will to use that information and implement some real protections.”

A Question of Leadership
Originally, Ms. Birkholz’ Senate Bill 289 proposed a regulatory regime for industrial-scale water withdrawals and required potential high-volume users to perform baseline scientific studies on the size of the supplies they intended to tap. Sources say those measures were eliminated because of misperceptions about groundwater resources and the influence of special interest groups intent on avoiding government regulations, permit fees, and ecological studies.

The vote also spotlights how much legislative trouble Gov.Granholm is encountering.  Ms. Granholm campaigned successfully last year on the urgency of protecting the state’s water supply. But her work to accomplish reforms is not making progress in a Legislature dominated by arch-conservative Republicans who are ignoring their own leaders’ wishes.

Even in its original form, Sen. Birkholz’s bill fell far short of the aquifer protection plan that was first championed by Mr. Sikkema during the last legislative session. Mr. Sikkema personally signed off on his task force's finding that Michigan’s water resources remain vulnerable as long as the state does nothing to manage heavy aquifer withdrawals.

During last fall’s campaign, both Ms. Granholm and Mr. Sikkema called for water protection reforms and, since then, have urged the Legislature to act. But in this first attempt of the new Legislative session to deal with a task force recommendation, the Senate has demurred. The proposal directs the state Department of Environmental Quality to inventory water use data and create statewide maps of Michigan’s underground water supply, requires high-volume water users such as farmers to register their well operations, and establishes a council to study the possibility of more oversight.

Through her spokeswoman, Gov. Granholm said she supports the delay. “The governor supports the legislation,” said Liz Boyd. “But we must make sure that farmers and the agricultural community provide sufficient (water use) information and that funding is made available for the state to carry out this mandate.”

Grabbing the Wheel
Administration officials insist that Gov. Granholm remains solidly committed to a statewide groundwater regulation program, even though Democratic legislators have done little to either toughen Sen. Birkholz’s current legislation or propose a more aggressive, competing plan.

Ironically, this strategy has left state Republicans in the driver’s seat on water laws, say environmental leaders. The party not only controls both houses of the state Legislature, it is bidding to be the architect of whatever Great Lakes water preservation and improvement legislation is actually passed. For example, freshman Republican state Representative John Moolenaar of Midland introduced, and the House passed, a bill to help resolve conflicts among competing groundwater users. State Representative Ruth Johnson, a Republican from Holly, has offered a plan to create a water use protection fund within the state treasury. Sen. Birkholz successfully pushed a Senate resolution creating a Great Lakes Legislative Caucus and has formally proposed developing an adopt-a-watershed program. 

Even Sen. Sikkema is much less supportive of his task force’s findings than he was a year ago. Ms. Birkholz’ now very toned-down water withdrawal bill enjoys his full support. A year ago, he introduced his own much more ambitious aquifer protection plan; it fueled public debate about groundwater use but never moved in the Legislature.

“Quick fixes never fix anything,” said Bill Nowling, Sen. Sikkema’s spokesman. “The task force said Michigan needs a process in place to protect groundwater and (Sen. Birkholz’s) legislation begins to create that process. With so many interests involved we need to take incremental steps. This is a good compromise.”

Russ Harding is Back
One strong proponent for going slow is the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. It opposed Sen. Birkholz’s original bill because, the group claimed, it could pose unnecessary and costly burdens on business. The group now supports the significantly weakened bill.

“We fully support the concept of collecting data and identifying problem areas,” said Douglas Roberts, the Chamber’s director of environmental and regulatory affairs. “We need to determine whether the shortages we’re experiencing in certain areas are a statewide problem, or just a local issue.”

The Chamber’s tactics for slowing groundwater management reform include commissioning and publishing an anti-regulatory study by the former, avowedly pro-business head of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Russell Harding. Mr. Harding’s April 2003 report, which mirrored the Chamber’s position on groundwater withdrawals, dissected the water rules of several other Great Lakes states, warned that the regulatory climate is a key to economic competitiveness, and questioned the need for managing Michigan’s growing water demands. It advised the state to ignore the potential effects proposed pumping projects might have on wetlands, streams, and lakes and favored state involvement in water-use issues only when actual conflicts occur.

The Chamber's strategy for making its influence felt in Lansing on this and other issues also includes timely campaign donations. It supported the campaigns of three of the five members of the Senate Natural Resources and Environmental Committee, donating $1,100 to Sen. Birkholz, $2,500 to Sen. Gerald VanWoerkom of Norton Shores, and $5,000 to Sen. Bruce Patterson of Canton. All three Republican senators voted for the scaled-back proposal.

The Chamber also contributed $650 to the campaign of Rep. Moolenaar, who introduced a bill enabling the state to receive, investigate, and resolve groundwater use complaints. That bill passed the House earlier this year and awaits Senate approval.

“We initiated the Moolenaar bill,” said the Chamber’s Mr. Roberts. “We feel it’s important to be able to resolve conflicts as they arise.”

The Road Ahead
Proponents of tougher water withdrawal standards, however, contend that Michigan should strive to prevent water use conflicts and shortages before they occur. The National Wildlife Federation’s Mr. Hall, speaking from his Ann Arbor office, said his organization is already tracking groundwater over-pumping conflicts in Monroe, Saginaw, Oakland, Macomb, and Kent counties.

Sen. Birkholz’s revised bill does almost nothing to resolve these conflicts or provide meaningful protection for Michigan’s freshwater resources and the communities that depend on them, Mr. Hall said.

 “The Legislature is buying themselves two years,” Mr. Hall said about the current bill, which he acknowledges takes at least a very small step in a good direction. “And in two years we’re going to see more water shortages, more environmental impacts, more pressure on the Great Lakes, more conflict, and more citizen pressure on lawmakers to take action.”


On Thursday, May 8, 2003, the state Senate unanimously approved a bill designed to require the state to prepare an up-to-date inventory of groundwater -- or water tables -- and draft a map of the state's ground water supply within two years of the bill's enactment. The measure, approved on a vote of 38-0, now goes to the House.

Pat Spitzley, spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Quality, told the Associated Press that the department supports the bill, but noted that it demands uniform reporting and adequate funding. "We think it represents a step forward in our common goal, protection of our aquifers," Spitzley said.

The bill also would increase water-use reporting fees for large industrial and processing facilities from $50 to $100. Agricultural irrigation facilities which pumped more than 100,000 gallons a day would either have to register with the state Department of Environmental Quality and pay the fee or submit a water use conservation plan with the Department of Agriculture.

State Senator Patricia Birkholz, a Republican of Saugatuck and the bill's sponsor, said the inventory and mapping requirements would cost $1.36 million a year.

The proposal is Senate Bill 289; the companion  is House Bill 4087.

Andy Guy, a journalist covering Great Lakes water issues, recently returned from the World Water Forum in Japan. He manages the Michigan Land Use Institute’s office in Grand Rapids. Reach him at andy@mlui.org

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