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Pumped Out:

Quarries’ water withdrawals leave homeowners high and dry

August 7, 2003 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Clive Lipchin
  When her well’s water level fell drastically, Aretta Schils began conserving and recycling water to prevent it from completely drying up.

Aretta Schils used to invite nearly 200 people over to her house every Fourth of July for a bang-up party. But no more: Her water supply has become so unreliable that Ms. Schils now makes other plans on that hottest of summer holidays.

“We had to give it up because that many people just use too much water,” she says of her sadly missed annual gathering. “Lifestyles definitely change when you have little or no water.”

Ms. Schils does not live in Arizona or Utah. In fact, she lives in southeast Michigan’s low-lying Monroe County, which borders Lake Erie. She lives about 30 miles from the big lake, the 11th-largest in the world, and her county is in the middle of the planet’s largest supply of fresh surface water. So, like 2.6 million other citizens in Michigan who also depend on private wells — and like millions more throughout the Great Lakes Basin — Ms. Schils was always confident that she would have an abundant supply of clean, fresh water.

But drought and large, unregulated groundwater withdrawals, particularly by heavy rock mining operations concentrated in the county, have caused significant drops in local underground water levels. Today the county’s drastically lower water table levels have caused wells to go dry, allowed toxic substances like sulfur to contaminate many household wells, and forced many residents to bear the cost of drilling new wells or importing water for drinking and domestic use.

Planning for People and Water

Clive Lipchin
  Because their wells have either gone dry or become polluted, some residents of Monroe County, Mich., must pay to have water delivered to their homes.
Monroe County generally sits atop enough groundwater to meet domestic needs, according to the United States Geologic Survey. Since the early 1990’s, however, the amount of water withdrawn by rock quarries has more than doubled and several thousand homes across five different local jurisdictions have lost — either sporadically or permanently — access to a secure water supply.

The problem extends beyond Monroe County. Unplanned community growth and the lack of clear standards for local water use have led to high management costs, environmental damage, and shortages for citizens across the Great Lakes Basin in areas of Michigan, New York, Wisconsin, and Illinois.
Great Lakes governments can prevent these problems from growing and avoid new conflicts by establishing a coordinated policy that promotes efficient water use, creates clear standards for all water withdrawals, and strives to improve the integrity of the region’s freshwater resources.
Costing the Community
Map by MLUI/Source: National Wildlife Federation
  Click to enlarge
Until this occurs, the current absence of comprehensive water withdrawal standards will continue to drain financial resources, hurt the local ecology, and lower the quality of life in Monroe County.
 Ms. Schils lowered her groundwater pump 23 feet deeper into her well to maintain some semblance of a reliable supply. But many of her neighbors have had to take much more drastic measures. Some have completely replaced their wells, which can cost as much as $5,000.

Augusta Township installed 26 miles of municipal water lines to serve some 650 homes where wells had run dry. This cost the community approximately $7 million and now fuels a rural building boom that threatens to further stress local water supplies. Some citizens also report depreciated property values, wetlands loss, the death of mature trees, and the disappearance of native plant species.
Conserve, Protect, Improve
In June 2001, Michigan’s then-Governor John Engler joined with leaders from other Great Lakes governments trying to avert more such problems in the future. Together, they signed the Great Lakes Charter Annex, a framework designed to guide the water use decisions of individual states and provinces toward a common goal: Protecting and enhancing Great Lakes waters, including the local water supplies and the lakes, rivers, and aquifers that make up the freshwater ecosystem.
“Reaching consensus to manage the waters of the Great Lakes on the basis of actually improving these resources — not presiding over their gradual degradation — meets the challenge of a growing, thriving society seeking to reconcile conservation and economic growth,” Gov. Engler said while signing the Annex. “In the future, water projects will be approved only if they do more good than harm.”

Yet today, despite continued bipartisan support in Michigan for a comprehensive system of rules to evaluate water withdrawal projects, the visionary principles of the Great Lakes Charter Annex remain non-binding.

Michigan and other Great Lakes governments must absorb the agreement’s modern water use principles — conservation, do no harm, and improvement — into local law, make the standards legally enforceable, and prevent conflicts like those in Monroe County from burdening future generations. Leaders have committed to doing so by June 2004.

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