Michigan Land Use Institute

MLUI / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / Wisconsin’s Road to Water Wisdom

Wisconsin’s Road to Water Wisdom

Michigan can learn from a reform-minded neighbor

January 19, 2005 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Andy Guy

In Wisconsin, the rapid growth of suburbs such as Waukesha means that the state is pumping groundwater faster than nature can replenish it.

As a state-sanctioned policy group concludes two days of frank discussions about how Michigan might protect itself from large and potentially damaging water withdrawals, one hopes that its members have Wisconsin on their minds. The so called Water Policy Work Group could garner some important lessons from the parallels between Michigan’s and Wisconsin’s water politics and problems, as well as the steps Wisconsin is now taking to deal with both.

In Michigan, as in Wisconsin, a clear majority of residents view protecting the state’s streams and aquifers — and the Great Lakes that they feed — from harmful water withdrawals as utterly important. But in Michigan, unlike Wisconsin, precious little has happened on the issue, despite repeated attempts by top state leaders in recent years to update water policy. In fact, Michigan’s biggest step has been establishing work groups. It now has two of them treading on similar tracks.

The original Groundwater Conservation Advisory Council, established in 2003 by a Republican-sponsored state law, is a group of representatives from agriculture, academia, industry, and other sectors charged with deciding whether the state should regulate groundwater withdrawals. That group has met regularly since January 2004 and is conducting some remarkable and groundbreaking work on the concept of sustainability.

Michigan Governor Jennifer M. Granholm’s Department of Environmental Quality established in 2004 the second, less formal committee — which met yesterday and is meeting again today at Camp Michigania, near Walloon Lake in northern Lower Michigan. This group of farmers, environmentalists, speculators, public officials, paid lobbyists, and industrialists is focused more specifically on negotiating the details of a new water withdrawal law. But its members are struggling to find common ground.

Been There, Done That
Wisconsin state Senator Neal Kedzie remembers that a similar impasse occurred in the Badger State four years ago. He says that what broke the gridlock in Wisconsin was a highly unusual alliance of farmers and environmentalists, traditionally dogged adversaries who formed to advance a smarter water withdrawal policy in Wisconsin.

“[That alliance] was enough to move me," said the rough-riding Republican from Elkhorn, who chairs Wisconsin’s Natural Resources and Transportation Committee. “It showed us that there was a willingness between diverse interests to have a serious dialogue on this issue.”

The alliance did not happen overnight. It began in 2000 when people across the state, galvanized by the Perrier company’s plan to bottle and sell water from the Mecan River, one of Wisconsin’s hallowed trout streams, began asking tough questions about Great Lakes sustainability.

As in Michigan, the search for answers led to dusty stacks of white papers and conference proceedings. In Wisconsin the research confirmed plummeting groundwater levels beneath major metropolitan centers, startling human health issues, and escalating municipal costs linked to heavy pumping. One report bluntly stated: “Groundwater that once flowed toward Lake Michigan is now intercepted by pumping.”

By that time the tradition-shattering farmer-enviro alliance had built up considerable trust and momentum and Senator Kedzie decided the Wisconsin Legislature needed to act.

A Snail’s Pace
Today, Michigan stands at a place in its own epic story of water reform that is very similar to the one Wisconsin occupied just before officials like Senator Kedzie took decisive action. The debate here has yet to unite a committed, strategic, and broad-based coalition able to motivate the state Legislature to act on a meaningful policy proposal. The snail’s pace has persisted for years because the state’s biggest water users revolt whenever some brave state politician — Republican Senator Ken Sikkema in 2002, Republican Senator Patty Birkholz in 2003, Democratic Senator Liz Brater in 2004 — sides with public opinion and tackles the issue head-on with an innovative policy proposal. The heavy water users’ revolt succeeds and little, if anything, happens to modernize Michigan water law.

The pattern is repeating itself this year. On January 11 Governor Granholm, a Democrat, called yet again for state lawmakers to take up her proposed Water Legacy Act, which she introduced nearly a year ago. The governor’s proposal has yet to receive even a perfunctory hearing. This year’s state House and Senate, like last year’s Legislature, again is led by Republicans and seems intent to stay on the same track to nowhere.

But some people following this very slow process refuse to sound discouraged and look to the current work group meeting as another chance for progress.

“This is a key opportunity for a diverse group of stakeholders to talk about the issue,” said Noah Hall, an attorney with the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Natural Resource Center in Ann Arbor. “Our hope is to walk away with the general understanding that more modern water use standards, in the long run, will be good for both the economy and the environment.”

Generally, industry groups argue for business as usual and portray modern water use standards as an expensive intrusion into the private sector, rather than a business-friendly opportunity to build a sustainable future. They insist that new standards will sap the region’s attractiveness to business, which will hinder job creation and reduce profits as well as Michigan’s economic competitiveness. They argue that the state has much to lose, and little to gain, from regulating water withdrawals.

A Potent Partnership
In Wisconsin, that anti-regulatory argument began unraveling in 2000, when the River Alliance of Wisconsin joined the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association to kick off the search for a solution to the state’s sharply declining groundwater levels. The partnership came partly in response to growing awareness that major economic centers like Green Bay, growing suburbs such as Waukesha, and inland communities like Madison pump groundwater faster than nature can replenish it.

“Our message was simple,” recalled Todd Ambs, then executive director of the River Alliance, now head of the state Department of Natural Resources’ Water Division. “This is Wisconsin. It’s not Arizona, or New Mexico, or California. We are blessed with plenty of water. We don’t have to pit one water user against another. But we do have to figure out a strategy for sustaining this resource for future generations before the crisis hits.”

“We had a choice to make,” added Mike Carter, executive director of the Potato and Vegetable Growers Association. “We identified groundwater quantity as the next environmental issue coming down the legislative tracks. So we could either get on the train, take some control of our destiny, and help steer the process. Or we could just stand on the tracks and get run over. We chose to be part of the process.”

The debate in Wisconsin about new guidelines for managing water wells and withdrawals changed dramatically when the powerhouse agricultural industry and the state’s highly popular environmental movement united. It sparked more constructive and public dialogue, led to greater understanding of the complex issues, and united broad political support, even in Wisconsin’s intensely partisan state Legislature. Finally, in March 2004, lawmakers overwhelmingly passed legislation to guide the placement of new wells and prevent large withdrawals from draining nearby surface waters. For the first time in its history, Wisconsin required certain users to apply and pay for a permit to withdraw large amounts of groundwater.

“Nothing would have happened in the legislature without the River Alliance and the Potato and Vegetable Growers Association getting together,” said Dr. George Kraft, a professor of water resources at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and one of the state’s leading experts on groundwater use.

Many observers, including the bill’s sponsors, define Wisconsin’s new law as a modest first step. Indeed, some with close ties to agriculture say the policy fails to reach far enough. The new law requires that high capacity wells be set back from quality streams and springs in rural areas, but merely established a committee to study the problem of plunging groundwater levels in cities like Green Bay.

“The real problem apparently is too big to tackle,” said Ron Kuehn, the influential lobbyist for the Wisconsin Pork Association and the State Cranberry Growers Association. “So they put it off.”

“The problems are not necessarily in the rural areas, where we grow potatoes and other crops,” added Mike Carter. “The problem is evident in the more populated cities. But we felt it was important to take a proactive approach and manage the resource so we can avoid those problems in the rural areas in the future.”

Turning Losses into Gains
What is clear is that the water-use debate in Wisconsin increasingly turns on what the state stands to gain with the right policy and the right attitude. Top ranking public officials in the state now publicly contend that forward-looking water withdrawal regulations based on affordability, sound science, and long-term planning can actually help secure investments and strengthen the economy.

"We're dealing with 800,000 private wells in the state and 16,000 new residential wells every year,” said Senator Neal Kedzie, a sponsor of the bill. “We have approximately 300 new high capacity wells that come online every year and we estimate about 11,000 out there right now. Figuring out how all these competing wells can coexist is a top priority for our economy, our environment, and our quality of life.”

"We're not precluding those who depend on the water resource,” Sen. Kedzie added. “We're actually enhancing their ability to coexist.”

In Michigan, the movement for modern water policy has yet to reach the level of understanding and cooperation evident in Wisconsin. The Water Policy Work Group generally agrees that the state needs tougher standards to make responsible water use decisions, protect the environment, and secure the economy.

Publicly, however, the debate about comprehensive water use rules remains focused on what the state stands to lose with new regulations, not what it will gain now and in the future.

Andy Guy, who writes extensively about securing the Great Lakes in the global economy, is a journalist who directs the Great Lakes Water Project and manages the Michigan Land Use Institute’s regional office in Grand Rapids. Reach him at aguy@mlui.org.

Michigan Land Use Institute

148 E. Front Street, Suite 301
Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
p (231) 941-6584 
e comments@mlui.org