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Lake Michigan Springs a Leak

There’s a way, but little will, to stop it

February 24, 2004 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Federal scientists say that some communities on Lake Michigan’s west coast are pumping so much groundwater that they are now actually drawing from the big lake, not their local aquifers.

LANSING — Using deep wells that reach further into the ground than Chicago’s tallest skyscrapers soar into the sky, communities hugging Lake Michigan’s west coast are pumping the aquifers beneath them so hard that they now pull water in through the bottom of that Great Lake. According to the nation’s top natural science agency, the wells are reversing a flow as old as the lake itself and that for millennia used rivers, streams, wetlands, and the ground to gather, filter, and return water to the big lake.

Researchers for the United States Geological Survey say that, because water from Lake Michigan is now flowing the other way, communities in southeastern Wisconsin are actually withdrawing Great Lakes surface water, not just groundwater, when they pump. Scientists admit that they do not fully understand the effects of this on fish, wildlife, and other aquatic resources. But they maintain that, because the Great Lakes hold more than six quadrillion gallons of water, the 10 million gallon per day backflow they discovered is, by itself, insignificant.

But Ken DeBeaussaert, director of Michigan’s Office of the Great Lakes, said he disagrees: “This is a significant amount of water leaving Lake Michigan, and it demonstrates that we don’t know a lot about the connection between our withdrawals and the effect on ground and surface waters. This is an issue that we in Michigan must be concerned about.”

Advocates for better protecting Great Lakes water say that the heavy pumping across Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha, and other Wisconsin counties studied by the researchers is actually just a small snapshot of a much larger picture — rapidly increasing rates of water extraction by communities around the entire Great Lakes Basin. It also represents a century-old pattern of regional water taking that has been proven to increase health risks, public costs, and conflict; threaten signature water resources; and perplex lawmakers charged with the stewardship of one of Earth’s increasingly rare and valuable fresh water reserves.

One scientist who worked on the project, the first to document the consequences of large ground water removals on Lake Michigan, said he sees a warning in the data that he and his colleagues collected, which is now posted at http://wi.water.usgs.gov/glpf/cs.htm.

“We project increased pumping, more draw-down, and more effect on surface waters,” said Daniel Feinstein, a hydrologist in the Wisconsin district of the USGS.

Twin Challenges
Others project a big effect on the region’s water politics. News of the leak at the bottom of Lake Michigan comes as the governors of both Michigan and Wisconsin prepare to introduce separate legislative initiatives aimed at regulating large water withdrawals and securing the Great Lakes supply. Michigan Governor Jennifer M. Granholm and Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle, both Democrats, have pledged to introduce their proposals by the end of February and April, respectively. Both say they intend to see new laws enacted this year.

“Let’s promise the people of Michigan that we will not let any other state or country dip its straw, let alone its pipeline, into our waters without our explicit approval,” Governor Granholm said in her 2004 State of the State address.

“In Wisconsin, we recognize that clean air and water are the cornerstones of a strong economy,” said Governor Doyle in his annual address. “Tonight, I’m calling on Democrats and Republicans to pass legislation to protect our groundwater against withdrawals that significantly damage our rivers, lakes, wetlands, and springs.”

Governors Granholm and Doyle face similar challenges as they push for better regulation of growth and Great Lakes water use. The controversy over withdrawal has built steadily in both states for decades. State-mandated studies of the issue and schemes to ship Great Lakes water by pipeline to the American Southwest or by freighter to China have occasionally catapulted water to near the top of each state’s political agenda.

The issue extends well inland: Late last year, for example, a circuit court judge in central Lower Michigan’s Mecosta County ordered a Nestle Waters plant there to stop pumping water from the local aquifer because it could affect wetlands, streams, and inland lakes — which, observers note, ultimately feed the Great Lakes. But an appellate court, supported by Governor Granholm’s public appeal to keep the plant open, stayed the lower court order. The governor’s action drew heavy criticism from water conservationists and environmentalists.

“It’s easy to simply say no Great Lakes diversions,” observed Michigan Senator Patty Birkholz, a Republican from Saugatuck who, like Michigan’s governor, says she is a strong advocate of protecting Michigan’s water supply. “It’s an entirely different challenge to say that we must rethink our traditional water use. We’re at a point now where we have to make some big decisions about stewardship.”

Making the Case
For stewardship to succeed, political observers say, each governor must persuade a business community and a Republican-dominated legislature that new regulations serve long-term economic interests. And each must rally vocal public support for preserving aquifers, lakes, rivers, and wetlands, even when it means more responsible water use at home.

Michigan and Wisconsin are the two largest American users of Great Lakes water. Together they withdraw more than 1.4 billion gallons of ground water every day for industrial, agricultural, and domestic use. Largely unsupervised, the withdrawals have led to localized conflicts in the Michigan counties of Monroe, Saginaw, Kent, and Oakland, as well as in Milwaukee, Madison, and Wisconsin’s Lower Fox River Valley. In numerous cases, over-pumping has polluted or drained residential wells and damaged open bodies of water.

This is happening because, while both states have laws to safeguard water quality, neither regulates quantity. Both states, however, have recognized the need for new laws.

In 1987, officials in Michigan recommended establishing minimum flow levels for certain rivers. In 1992, the state published a report, Michigan's Environment and Relative Risk, which recommended developing an overall water budget to guide future water use decisions. In 2002, the Michigan Senate’s bipartisan Great Lakes Conservation Task Force urged the Legislature to enact comprehensive water withdrawal laws. And last year the body created the state’s Groundwater Conservation Council to study the issue.

In Wisconsin, state leaders formed the state Groundwater Coordinating Council in 1984 to coordinate program activities and gather information. In 1989, leaders recommended a new law to addresses the potential environmental consequences of large groundwater removals. And as early as April 1997 a report, Status of Groundwater Quantity in Wisconsin, concluded that heavy subsurface pumping near Lake Michigan was a problem.

“Originally, groundwater flowed east and discharged into Lake Michigan,” it stated. “Now, Lake Michigan recharges groundwater in the Milwaukee area.”

Big Facts, Small Actions
Yet neither state has taken substantive action on such recommendations. Whether the USGS report on Lake Michigan’s leak will trigger immediate action in either state is questionable. Even as heavy withdrawals strain groundwater sources around the region in ways far more visible than altering the underground water cycle, business leaders in both states remain slow to support new regulations. They claim that documented groundwater conflicts are isolated incidents and that more stringent regulations could harm the region’s ability to lure new economic development.

“There is no question that this is a regional issue,” said Doug Roberts Jr., the director of environmental and regulatory affairs for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. “The question is, ‘How do we get our arms around it?’” 

Mr. Roberts said the Chamber supports the ongoing work of the Council of Great Lakes Governors to develop a regional agreement about future water withdrawals. The agreement, known as the Great Lakes Charter Annex, is an attempt to outline the basic principles local governments need to evaluate new water withdrawals and avoid harmful projects. A draft of the principles is expected for public review later this summer.

But some water resource experts believe the issue is a long way from the critical mass necessary to trigger meaningful action.

“Business leaders, farmers, and municipalities are weary of additional regulatory burden unless you can make a strong case that it’s necessary,” said George Kraft, a professor of water resources at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. “There is no constituency for rational groundwater use in the Great Lakes Basin.”

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

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