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New Groundwater Council Could Challenge Granholm

Conservationists await governor’s water proposal

January 15, 2004 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Johanna Miller
  Water protection activists in Mecosta County and elsewhere criticized Governor Granholm for excluding them from her recent decision concerning a Nestles water bottling plant that they strongly oppose.

A special state groundwater conservation task force holds its first meeting in Lansing today against a backdrop of sharply increased legal and political controversy concerning the state's management of fresh water. As the legislatively mandated council begins studying how to best protect Michigan’s underground water supply, Michigan's Democratic Governor Jennifer M. Granholm faces vying with Republicans for Legislative command and public credibility on an issue that helped get her elected in 2002.

The reason is that in December, Gov. Granholm and state Department of Environmental Quality Director Steve Chester filed an amicus brief supporting Nestle Waters North America’s request to stay a circuit court decision to close one of Michigan's largest spring water bottling operations in Mecosta County. The administration said it was concerned about the number of jobs that Nestle contended would be lost if the plant shut down, an assertion that the citizens group that brought the case said was overstated. Water conservation and environmental groups promptly accused the governor of blindly embracing the company's message and backing away from campaign promises to make protection of Michigan’s matchless freshwater supply a top priority.

Critics also pointed out that the governor, after a year in office, had yet to take any meaningful public action to safeguard ground water. Instead, her first significant action on ground water involved intervening in a court case to defend the world's largest food company's authority to continue pumping millions of gallons of ground water for sale out of state. Critics rebuked the administration for reaching its decision to intervene in the case only after it held a private meeting with Nestle officials that excluded the very same water protection citizens group that as a gubernatorial candidate Ms. Granholm explicitly and publicly supported.

To blunt the criticism over its decision to side with Nestle, Gov. Granholm’s office simultaneously announced that it would issue a set of legislative recommendations on groundwater and Great Lakes water withdrawals. The administration has not yet issued such a package, though Patricia Spitzley, the DEQ's chief spokesperson, reiterated that pledge earlier this week. “The governor promised to propose legislation creating a comprehensive water withdrawal and water use statute this January," she said. "The Legislature comes back soon and this is a top priority.”

The Legislature, though, has indicated very clearly that it is more than willing to take command of the hgh-profile issue from the governor. The Groundwater Conservation Council, mandated by a Republican-sponsored bill that Ms. Granholm signed, is evidence of that desire.

New Council to Study the Basics
The 10-member advisory council includes well drillers, manufacturers, irrigators, miners, power utilities, environmentalists, and academics. Republican Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema, House Speaker Rick Johnson, a Republican from LeRoy, Mr. Chester, Department of Natural Resources Director K.L. Cool, and Department of Agriculture Director Dan Wyant made appointments to the council, which is supposed to study whether Michigan’s aquifers can sustain commercial, agricultural, and residential wells. The panel must also decide if additional public oversight of large withdrawals is necessary and ensure that Michigan complies with a forthcoming regional agreement to prevent bulk water diversions from the Great Lakes ecosystem.

In contrast, say critics of the administration, the promises made last month by both Gov. Granholm and DEQ Director Chester to draw up proposals on protecting Michigan's waters are vague; there are no stated deadlines or specific subjects contained in administration statements or press releases. This means that the newly inaugurated water council, many of whose members represent interests clearly worried about increased regulation of water resources, may be able to set both the tone and pace of what could become a highly contentious debate and political process.

Council member Dr. Alan Steinman, director of the Annis Water Research Institute at Grand Valley State University, assserted that the council’s work could set the tone for the next 10 to 20 years of water policy debate in Michigan. Dr. Steinman, who was appointed to serve on the council by Sen.Sikkema, said that safeguarding groundwater for both a community’s use and the protection of lakes, streams, and wetlands generally requires comprehensive data collection, improved understanding of environmental dynamics such as climate change, and effective growth management.
“Water quantity planning should be an integral part of our land use planning,” Dr. Steinman said. “One important question we need to ask is, ‘What level of new growth and demand can our water resources sustain?’”

The absence of substantial ground water regulation in Michigan means that industrial companies, farmers, residents, and other users are increasingly pitted against one another over a limited and poorly understood resource. The state’s traditional hands off approach has already effectively allowed the draining of the wells of thousands of homeowners, including those north of Grand Rapids and in the Saginaw region. The state's approach also frustrated farmers in agricultural zones and interfered with economic growth in a number of areas around the state, including Monroe, Saginaw, and Oakland counties.

Nestle Controversy One of Many
The council begins its work two days after Nestle Waters, the world’s largest purveyor of bottled water, petitioned the Mecosta County Circuit Court for a retrial. The company claims that, among other things, the decision by Judge Lawrence Root to shut down their water withdrawal operation there reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of testimony presented by its expert scientist, Dr. Charles Andrews.

Judge Root ruled in favor of the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, a grassroots group opposed to the withdrawals, in November 2003. He determined Nestle’s central Michigan pumping operation violated three state environmental laws, threatened nearby streams and wetlands, and ignored the private property rights of riparian landowners. A judgment on the motion for a retrial is pending. Meanwhile, thanks in part to Gov. Granholm’s backing of Nestle’s request to an appeals court for a stay of the judge’s shutdown order, the company continues to pump a monthly average of 250 gallons of water per minute.

Michigan’s Great Lakes neighbors are also struggling with the spread of water bottling facilities. For example, the Canadian province of Ontario, which borders four Great Lakes, recently declared a one-year moratorium on new or expanded permits for water bottlers while officials study groundwater resources and draft new rules. “The days of taking water for free are over,” said Environment Minister Leona Dombrowski.

In Indiana, conservationists have called for a new sales tax aimed directly at bottled water. 

The Groundwater Conservation Council, however, must look beyond bottled water plants as it considers new policy to effectively manage future withdrawals, protect existing users, and preserve sensitive natural features, according to those familiar with the debate. Clean, fresh water in the 21st century has become a scarce and strategic natural resource. And several existing withdrawal operations in Michigan demonstrate that some municipal, agricultural, and commercial wells already have the ability to exhaust local supplies.

“We’ve observed more and more warning signs that suggest this issue is a bigger problem than previously perceived,” said James Clift, who was appointed to the council by Mr. Chester and who is policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council.

A Gradual Approach?
Advocates for industry, agriculture, and other heavy water users typically resist new water use regulations. But Mr. Clift hopes to engage council members in an incremental approach to new regulations that ensure future water projects do not steadily sap Michigan’s abundant supply.

“Instead of regulating the entire universe of withdrawals right away,” he said, “perhaps we can start with a phased approach that first improves protections for our trout streams, fens, and other sensitive water resources. That way we steadily begin to build our history and knowledge of water withdrawal management.”

In April 2002, Sen.Sikkema introduced what water resource professionals called Michigan’s most far-reaching groundwater withdrawal legislation to date. But his proposal, which looked at linking community growth plans with the amount of water actually available in a local area, never received a public hearing.

Instead, the Michigan Legislature last year passed, and Governor Granholm signed, two bills to begin dealing with this striking challenge at the center of one of earth’s most remarkable fresh water ecosystems.

Public Act 177, sponsored by Representative John Moolenaar, a Republican from Midland, took what DEQ Director Chester called the “first step in addressing groundwater disputes.” The law created a new program to investigate and resolve disputes among feuding well owners. Mr. Chester announced last October that the program would be ready to receive complaints by July 2004. Citizens living in Saginaw and Monroe counties, where groundwater shortages have remained a regular occurrence for the past decade, are expected to be among the first applicants.

Sounding Board or Leadership Role?
Public Act 148, sponsored by Senator Patty Birkholz, a Republican from Saugatuck, directs the DEQ to generate a map of the state’s groundwater resources; requires heavy water users such as farmers and manufacturers to report withdrawals to better inform future management decisions; and creates the water use protection fund to finance groundwater protection efforts. Sen. Birkholz’s bill also established the Groundwater Conservation Council that is meeting today.

The council could serve as a sounding board for Gov. Granholm’s promised water proposals to clarify and strengthen regulations for large-scale groundwater projects. Business leaders have made cautious statements about what has often proved to be an attention grabbing issue.

“We are interested to see what kind of a role the council intends to play, especially now that the governor intends to announce her own plan,” said Doug Roberts, Jr., director of environmental and regulatory affairs for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. “Before Michigan dives ahead with a full scale regulatory system, we need accurate data to inform our decisions. And this council could help pull that information together.”

Andy Guy directs the Great Lakes Water Security Project at the Michigan Land Use Institute. He also manages the Institute’s office in Grand Rapids. Reach him at aguy@mlui.org.

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