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Governor’s Conservation Bill Treads Water

Citizen panel, state Legislators go slow despite strong public support for proposal

May 2, 2004 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  A poll indicates overwhelming support for Governor Granholm’s groundwater withdrawal regulations. Some industrial, agricultural, and recreational operations, including golf courses, are heavy groundwater users.

LANSING — Three months after Governor Jennifer M. Granholm presented the Michigan Legislature with a “comprehensive plan” to improve stewardship of the state’s unmatched fresh water resources, the cornerstone of her Great Lakes initiative is swiftly losing political momentum.

The governor’s proposal, which she called Michigan’s Water Legacy Act, aims to prevent reckless water withdrawals from draining lakes, wetlands, rivers, and aquifers. But the measure has gained little traction with appointed and elected leaders here despite a recent statewide poll that indicates strong, widespread support for the new initiative.

The challenge of marshalling support for the proposal was plain to see on April 15, 2004 when the Michigan Groundwater Conservation Advisory Council,  a working group of business, academic, and environmental leaders, convened in a cramped, windowless room tucked away in a suburban office park here to publicly evaluate the Water Legacy Act. Senior leaders of the state Department of Environmental Quality, who helped to draft the proposal and manage the council, hoped the meeting would produce a clear recommendation of support and new momentum to take to the Legislature. Instead, after hours of discussion that evolved into an exhausting page-by-page review of the 26-page proposal, the council developed more questions than conclusions about the draft legislation.

The long and frustrating day, ironically, was caused in large part by the DEQ’s own representatives who were poorly prepared, failed to clearly explain the governor’s proposal, and even publicly criticized certain aspects of the legislation. Senior DEQ officials later said they viewed the meeting as a setback.

A Surprising Breakdown
“We had a breakdown in communication,” said Skip Pruss, the department’s deputy director. “We wanted the council to take a hard look at the Legacy Act and give us an assessment. Ultimately, the goal is to have the council put their imprimatur on, if not the Legacy Act, the need for more effective management of ground and surface water withdrawals in Michigan.”

The breakdown comes as a surprise because Governor Granholm has proclaimed that passage of a new law to evaluate large water removals and avoid harmful projects is her administration’s chief environmental priority in 2004. Moreover, Governor Granholm has an impressive track record of patiently building coalitions, marshalling communications, galvanizing public attention, and achieving significant political breakthroughs including reducing the state’s budget deficit without raising taxes.

“The same way as land use was the number-one issue last year,” Governor Granholm said in a March interview with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service, “from the environmental side and quality-of-life side [the Water Legacy Act] is at the very, very top of the list.”

But unlike the administration’s other policy priorities such as establishing the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council to curb sprawl or the Cool Cities Initiative to revitalize downtowns, the Water Legacy Act seems hindered by the absence of effective strategic planning, policy focus, coalition-building with Republicans and business executives, and promotion by administration officials, including the governor herself.

The proposal also has been hurt by the governor’s unexpected decision late last year to abandon a citizens group that she once supported and side with Nestle Waters North America in a high profile legal case involving withdrawing hundreds of millions of gallons of Michigan’s groundwater for sale as bottled water. The governor’s decision enabled the world’s largest food company to continue pumping spring water in Mecosta County even though a state circuit court judge had ruled the company’s actions violated three state environmental laws and ordered the wells to be shut down.

As the controversial case now moves through the appeals process, the company retains the right to pump a monthly average of 250 gallons per minute from a spring that feeds the Muskegon River and, ultimately, Lake Michigan. Nestle is also actively exploring other water sources throughout the state to bottle its Ice Mountain brand.

Ms. Granholm’s decision to come to Nestle’s aid damaged her credibility on the issue in Michigan’s environmental community, which is one of her important constituencies. It also emboldened her critics in the Republican Legislative leadership and the state’s business community, who have no desire to regulate groundwater withdrawals. As a result, the Water Legacy Act has languished, failing to inspire consistent media coverage, revealing dissension in the ranks of the state’s lead environmental agency, and unable to rouse support even among likeminded state lawmakers. Indeed, the Water Legacy Act is at risk of becoming a political liability for the governor: the first major policy idea that the 17-month-old Granholm administration cannot move forward.

Making Some Progress
To her credit, Governor Granholm, a Democrat, has demonstrated an ability to work effectively with the Republican-controlled Legislature on complicated water resource issues. On April 22 she signed two bills that enable state authorities to more effectively address water pollution and contamination. The signings followed months of contentious wrangling with the Legislature over how the state supervises and pays for basic water quality programs. The governor won millions of dollars in new fees from industry to finance the state’s work on writing and overseeing water quality permits. The governor also settled a rancorous dispute over just who should write the enforcement rules — natural resource experts within state government or the Legislature. The rules will be written by the state without Legislative interference.

The governor also moved forward important pieces of her Great Lakes protection plan by signing two executive orders. One prohibits dumping contaminated materials directly into the Great Lakes; another boosts protections for small wetlands on state-owned lands. On April 19, she called on the Great Lakes Basin’s other governors to establish uniform water quality standards.

But the Water Legacy Act, which Democratic lawmakers introduced in both the state House and Senate on March 3, remains held up in committee in both chambers. The act would establish a permitting system for projects that use more than two million gallons of water a day or 100 million gallons a year and move Michigan closer toward implementation of the Great Lakes Charter. The charter, signed in 1985 by leaders of the region’s eight states and two provinces, established uniform standards for managing water withdrawals, use, and reporting in the basin and contained a pledge from each state and province to regulate large water withdrawals. But Michigan lawmakers never made good on that commitment.

As currently written, Governor Granholm’s proposed law would eventually make sharp cuts in the number of gallons necessary to trigger regulation of withdrawals to well below the charter’s two million gallon threshold. It also would eventually require major water users to prepare comprehensive conservation plans and obligate those proposing new or increased withdrawals to conduct thorough environmental assessments to determine how a given project might affect nearby human users, wetlands, or a stream’s ability to support fish.

The governor called her proposal “a fair and balanced approach to water withdrawal [that] will allow us to protect our water resources while also providing a predictable regulatory climate under which businesses and communities can thrive.”

Wide Support, Little Traction
A recent public opinion poll indicates that Michigan residents have already made up their minds that stricter regulation of large-scale water removals is necessary. The new survey, released on March 31 by the Lansing-based Marketing Resource Group, found that 79 percent of likely voters in Michigan support the proposed Water Legacy Act. It also revealed that support is strongest among likely Republican and independent voters, who, respectively, favor the act by 80 and 83 percent.

“The poll demonstrates that tough new laws to protect Michigan’s water is a unifying issue across the state,” said Noah Hall, an attorney with National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Natural Resource Center in Ann Arbor. “Every single category of voters overwhelmingly supports the Water Legacy Act.”

Questioning Numbers and Going Slow
Some lawmakers, media, and water resource professionals in Lansing view the governor’s rollout of the Water Legacy Act as an attempt to stem the environmental community’s heated criticism of her decision to rescue Nestle Waters.

Comments by one DEQ official made at the April 15 Groundwater Conservation Advisory Council meeting indicated that sensitivity to the public reaction to the governor’s decision in the Nestle Waters case heavily influenced how some of the numbers contained in the Water Legacy Act were developed.

“I heard that if we drafted the Legacy Act and somebody figured out that it wouldn’t apply to [Nestle] we’d be fried,” said Jim Cleland, assistant chief of the state DEQ Water Division.

Council members generally agreed that the Water Legacy Act’s proposal to require permits for projects that withdraw more than 100 million gallons of water per year is directed specifically at Nestle’s Mecosta County operation, which at its current rate could withdraw approximately 130 million gallons a year.

“Quite frankly, that’s a pretty crude instrument to get at an issue that’s on the table,” said Jon Allan, the director of environmental services for Consumers Energy, who was appointed to the council by Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema, a Republican from Grandville.

The advisory council, a panel of well drillers, irrigators, academics, environmentalists, and others was established by state legislation passed last year. The panel is charged with deciding whether the state needs new laws to manage new and increased water withdrawals. The council must report its findings to the state Legislature by January 2006. And even though the governor says the issue is an urgent one and state residents strongly favor decisive action on it, the lawmaker who sponsored the bill establishing the advisory council continues to favor a go-slow approach.

“The Groundwater Conservation Advisory Council was developed to review legislation that would manage water withdrawals in Michigan,” said Senator Patty Birkholz, a Republican from Saugatuck, who chairs the Senate’s Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee, where the Water Legacy Act is stalled. “I intend on maintaining my commitment to that process and hope the governor will as well. If we don’t wait for the recommendations of the advisory council before jumping into new regulations, we run the risk of over-regulation.”

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

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