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Lake Michigan’s Wild West Coast:

Looking for water laws and order

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

11th Hour Photography
  While Chicago draws its drinking water directly from Lake Michigan, many of its suburbs rely on underground aquifers for their needs.

The cities flourishing along Lake Michigan’s western shore are using up the water from the region’s aquifers at a prodigious and unsustainable rate. From the northern suburbs of Green Bay to the south side of Chicago, unchecked development has drained local water supplies, spoiled water quality, and motivated public officials to search for bigger and better sources of fresh water — like Lake Michigan.

This is why the entire Great Lakes community must enact modern policies to protect its most important resource from poorly planned growth, water waste, apathy, and ignorance. But, observers say, those policies are nowhere in sight.

“Frequently, we’re flying blind,” said Dr. George Kraft, a professor of water resources at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. “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.”

No Limits, Big Consequences
This 19th-century attitude toward water resources plagues the Great Lakes community. Water supply levels are falling rapidly in many places across the Great Lakes Basin — in New York, Ohio, and Illinois — as homes, farms, and factories draw heavily on underground reserves. Even in Michigan, the heart of the Great Lakes Basin, the imbalance between rising consumption and available supply has led to water-use conflicts, scarcity, and legal challenges.
But falling groundwater levels and inadequate groundwater management policies are particularly acute along Lake Michigan’s west shore and threaten to make even responsible residential, business, and recreational development more difficult.

“The groundwater levels across broad chunks of Wisconsin are going down substantially due to lots of pumping and the nature of the geology,” Dr. Kraft said. “In the Madison area a number of springs have dried up. In the Lower Fox River valley groundwater 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.”

Groundwater levels in parts of Wisconsin are now falling at nearly 17 feet per year, according to Dr. Kraft. They have fallen as much as 900 feet in the Chicago metropolitan area.

Basic Science Requires Basic Laws

Map courtesy of USGS, WRI Report 00-4008
  Communities across the Great Lakes Basin rely on underground aquifers to supply water for residential, industrial, and agricultural needs.
Click to enlarge
Groundwater is much more important to the inner workings of the Great Lakes ecosystem than policy makers realize, according to the United States Geologic Survey. Approximately 35 percent of the water that feeds Lake Michigan originates from groundwater that flows into rivers and streams.

Only rain and snow replenish the groundwater system. This water seeps into the subsurface and migrates slowly through aquifers — porous layers of rock, sand, and gravel — which sustain wetlands and forests in times of drought. These aquifers also connect elaborate webs of lakes, rivers, and other natural habitats even as they provide clean water for homes, farms, factories, and recreation. 

But despite this understanding of groundwater’s economic and ecological value, Great Lakes communities lack basic strategies for managing large withdrawals. Wisconsin and Illinois typically permit unlimited, new withdrawals from aquifers regardless of how they might affect nearby lakes, streams, or other well owners.

The region needs a modern water policy that recognizes how interrelated ground and surface waters are. The policy must set standards for withdrawals, promote efficient water use, and improve the integrity of the region’s supply.

Conserve, Protect, Improve
In 2001, the governors of Illinois and Wisconsin signed an agreement with other U.S. states and Canadian provinces in the Great Lakes Basin. They pledged to support the Great Lakes Charter Annex, a road map to help guide the water-use decisions of individual states and provinces toward a common goal: Protecting and enhancing Great Lakes waters, including local water supplies and the lakes, rivers, and aquifers that make up the freshwater ecosystem.

“The Annex is an important step in the ongoing process of creating a strong regional water management system for the Great Lakes,” said then-Wisconsin Governor Scott McCallum. “Lakes Superior and Michigan are a treasure we must protect by ensuring that our water is used wisely and effectively to the benefit of all our citizens.”

Wisconsin’s new governor, Jim Doyle, renewed the call for modern laws to regulate high capacity wells in April 2003. But despite continued bipartisan support for comprehensive water supply safeguards, the Annex’s visionary principles remain non-binding.

Wisconsin 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 ensure robust water supplies for future generations. Leaders have committed to doing so by June 2004.

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