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Granholm Proposes Water Protection Laws

Republican leader, some business groups resist regulation

March 10, 2004 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Pat Owen
  The governor’s proposal would regulate water withdrawals in order to protect underground aquifers, lakes, and streams from over-pumping that could lower their levels.

LANSING — Nearly two decades after Michigan’s elected leaders promised Great Lakes neighbors that they would limit large water withdrawals within the state and cooperate in preventing wholesale exports of water out of the region, Governor Jennifer M. Granholm has introduced a legislative proposal to finally fulfill that commitment.

The proposal, the Water Legacy Act, was introduced on March 3, 2004 and would move Michigan closer toward meeting the terms of the Great Lakes Charter, an agreement signed in 1985 by the region’s eight American states and two Canadian provinces to boost stewardship of the region’s matchless fresh water resource. By signing the good faith, nonbinding accord years ago, Michigan pledged, among other things, to regulate bulk withdrawals of fresh water from lakes, rivers, streams, and aquifers. However, Michigan lawmakers never turned that commitment into law.

Regional water experts say that Governor Granholm’s new proposal could help restore some of the credibility Michigan has lost on water protection issues by lagging far behind most other Great Lakes governments in implementing the charter.

Sam Speck, a former Republican Ohio state legislator and the director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said Governor Granholm's proposal offers Michigan an opportunity to catch up with its neighbors.

“In terms of certain kinds of regulatory activity, Michigan is certainly behind most of the [Great Lakes] states,” said Mr. Speck, who also is the chairman of the Great Lakes Commission, a public agency established by the region’s states in 1955, and chairman of the Water Management Working Group, an effort by the Council of Great Lakes Governors to develop regional standards for evaluating future water withdrawal proposals and avoiding the harmful ones. 

“Anything the states do to show their commitment to the Charter and move forward obviously creates a greater degree of faith among other states and provinces. I would regard it [the governor’s proposal] as a positive sign.”

But at least one of Michigan’s top Republican lawmakers reacted to Governor Granholm’s proposal far differently than Mr. Speck. State Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema, who two years ago championed the protection of the Great Lakes water supply, is openly skeptical of the governor’s proposal. And while many environmental groups in the state support the Water Legacy Act, some others worry that the new legislation does not go far enough.

Regaining Leadership
When she unveiled the legislation last week, Governor Granholm, a Democrat, called her proposal “the most significant legislation of our lifetimes” and said it will ensure plentiful water supplies to keep the economy competitive and preserve the environment.

“Lack of direction and management where the Great Lakes are concerned will carry serious consequences for our state’s economy,” she said. “This legislation will make Michigan a regional leader in protecting the Great Lakes so that future generations may enjoy them.”

The Water Legacy Act, which reaches the Legislature this week, directs the state’s lead environmental agency to develop a program that for the first time in the state’s history would regulate large water withdrawals from ground and surface sources such as aquifers, springs, rivers, and the Great Lakes. Initially, all new water projects proposing to pump more than two million gallons a day — enough to fill some 66,600 shopping carts with one-gallon jugs — or 100 million gallons a year would require permission from the Department of Environmental Quality. Eventually the act would sharply cut the number of gallons necessary to trigger such regulation.

The governor’s proposal, like the 1985 charter, responds to the growing pressure on fresh water resources caused by unchecked development, growing demand, pollution, changing climate cycles, and outdated water management practices. Even in the water-rich Great Lakes region, unsupervised withdrawals have at times drained thousands of residential wells, drastically altered underground water cycles, and diminished the Great Lakes themselves.

Disappointment, Relief, Opposition
The proposal drew sharply contrasting reactions from conservationists, business groups, and Republican leaders in Lansing. 

It disappointed at least some environmentalists, who noted that the proposal would not immediately address the bitter, ongoing legal conflict that erupted between Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) and Nestle Waters North America, which continues to pump spring water from the Muskegon River valley for its Ice Mountain bottling plant in Stanwood. They also point out that the proposal does not specifically prohibit the future diversion of Great Lakes water for private profit.

“The legislation does not address the significance of groundwater withdrawals affecting surface water resources where there is a diversion of water for sale,” said Jim Olson, the Traverse City-based lawyer for MCWC. “That is the most important, fundamental water rights question Michigan needs to address. And if we don’t deal with that question, we remain susceptible to losing out to diversions for sale to a thirsty world.”

But other water activists are more supportive. They see the governor’s action as a reasonable and long-overdue step forward.

“This is nothing new,” said Noah Hall, the water resource program manager for the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Natural Resource Center in Ann Arbor. “This legislation would put in place 20 years of bipartisan principles for water protection in Michigan. The governor’s proposal provides a comprehensive framework and state authority to make sure that, at a minimum, the largest water withdrawals aren’t damaging our natural resources.”

The legislation would require permit applicants to identify the location, amount, and purpose of their proposed water projects, outline a conservation plan, and anticipate the effects of the venture on the environment and nearby water users. It also recognizes concerns in the business community by stipulating that the state will issue permits within six months and that permits are transferable between parties.

But the emphasis on new regulation immediately prompted resistance from the state’s key Republican leaders and a parade of influential Lansing lobby groups, including the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, Michigan Manufacturers Association, and Michigan Farm Bureau.

“On the surface, the word ‘permitting’ stands out, and that’s a problem for us,” Rob Anderson, legislative counsel for the Michigan Farm Bureau, told the organization’s March 4, 2004 edition of AgriNotes and News.

A Sharp U-Turn?
 “You're talking about a permit system,” Senator Sikkema, a Republican from Grandville, told the Michigan Public Radio Network’s Sarah Hulett. “You're talking about government regulation. You're talking about more power for the Department of Environmental Quality. You're talking about annual fees. I think it's incumbent on us to not over-regulate.”

Some observers see Senator Sikkema’s reaction to the Water Legacy Act as a sharp change in his position on Great Lakes stewardship. In 2001 and 2002, the senator chaired the bipartisan Great Lakes Conservation Task Force, which after months of study and statewide hearings strongly urged the Legislature to adopt a comprehensive water withdrawal law. In March 2002, Senator Sikkema specifically proposed regulating all groundwater withdrawals exceeding 100,000 gallons per day, something Governor Granholm’s proposal would not require until 2010.

Given Mr. Sikkema’s initial response to the governor’s proposal, it remains uncertain whether the Republican-controlled Legislature will even debate it. Bill Nowling, Mr. Sikkema’s spokesman, told the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service that the majority leader would wait for guidance from the Michigan Groundwater Conservation Advisory Council, a review panel established by legislation that Governor Granholm signed last August.

What Will The Council Do?
The 10-member council, which met for the first time in January 2004, is charged with studying the natural characteristics of the state’s underground water resources and deciding whether to provide additional public oversight of withdrawals. The group is also responsible for making recommendations to lawmakers to ensure that Michigan complies with a forthcoming supplementary agreement to expand the 1985 Great Lakes Charter, known as the Great Lakes Charter Annex.

The Charter Annex would amend the original 1985 agreement to further strengthen legal protections for fragile water resources throughout the basin. Michigan affirmed its commitment to that process in June 2001 when then-Governor John Engler signed an initial draft of the annex agreement. The governors and premiers are expected to present a final draft of the agreement for public comment this summer.

Jon Allan, the director of environmental services for Consumers Energy, introduced members of the Groundwater Conservation Advisory Council to the concepts of the Charter Annex at the group’s February meeting. However, he also informed his fellow council members that Michigan has yet to fulfill its obligations under the original Great Lakes Charter.

“Michigan has never really met the standards under the Charter to manage their water withdrawals, consumptive uses, and diversions,” Mr. Allan said.

Mr. Allan, appointed by Senator Sikkema to serve on the bipartisan council, said that the Great Lakes Charter expressly encourages the region’s governments to regulate and manage all withdrawals exceeding two million gallons per day. In fact, he said, adopting such a policy gives a state authority under the charter to review, and even veto, large water projects in neighboring states or provinces that share Great Lakes water resources.

He added that failure to implement the Great Lakes Charter could complicate Michigan’s ability to work effectively with bordering states and provinces toward strengthening it with new provisions, such as the supplemental annex agreement. “Michigan has never been kicked out of the charter process,” Mr. Allan said, “but the other states get a little testy sometimes. And in terms of the governor’s language about how this doesn’t give Michigan a lot of credibility, I think she’s right.”

The advisory council will discuss the governor’s proposal at its next meeting, which is scheduled for April 15 in Lansing.

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

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