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Waste Not, Want Not, Bond Not

Even when water’s plentiful, conserving it saves plenty of tax dollars

May 2, 2005 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Chuck Gustafson

Smart water use could nix the need for building a water pipline and pumping station in Michigan’s Saugatuck Dunes State Park.

Two golden miles of Lake Michigan beachfront. Many miles of wooded hiking and cross-country ski trails. Stunning sand dunes that are among the largest gracing any freshwater lake in the world: Saugatuck Dunes State Park is one place that makes Michigan a magical Water Wonderland.

But a proposal by the City of Holland and Laketown Township to build a water pumping station in the pristine public park is threatening Saugatuck’s calm beauty. Unfortunately, the plan also typifies the outdated, tradition-bound approach most officials across the entire Great Lakes Basin are using to govern water use.

Citizens were stunned when they heard about the Saguatuck proposal in 2002, even though local officials used very straightforward arguments: Their town’s existing Lake Michigan pipeline is nearing full capacity, area population is rising, and local aquifers are either too small or too polluted to do the job. So, they concluded, the best way to meet future water needs is to punch a new pipeline through the delicate Saugatuck Dunes into the mighty Great Lake.

“At some point in time this community will need additional water,” Holland Mayor Al McGeehan said at a December 15, 2003 community forum on the issue. “It could be five, 10, 20, or 100 years from now. But the reality is that at some point we’ll have to access additional Lake Michigan water.”

Ironically, Michigan residents have long feared that it would be the parched people of distant lands like Arizona, California, and Asia that would build gigantic pipelines and siphon off the Great Lakes. But, plainly, the most immediate challenge facing the region’s waters is much closer to home. Instead of scrutinizing and managing current demand, basin communities continually rely solely on finding new sources of water, adding more pumps, constructing ever-larger pipes and purification stations, and withdrawing ever more water.

But, across the country, tight budgets and, as the Saugatuck Dunes case illustrates, growing environmental concerns are driving citizens and public officials to think differently about water supply planning. As the costs of maintaining public water and sewer service escalate, astute leaders have begun to shift the focus away from an exclusive reliance on building more pumping plants and water mains and toward making existing systems more water-efficient.

The strategy helps smart municipalities reduce costs, support innovation, delay or even avoid capital projects, and maintain the vigor of natural water supplies. That new approach adds a new dimension — and opportunity for leadership — to the contentious debate about the proposed pipeline through Saugatuck Dunes.

“Ultimately, this is a water management issue,” said David Swan, a cofounder of Concerned Citizens for Saugatuck Dunes, a non-profit group formed to preserve and expand the park. “Seattle rolled back their water consumption to 1960 levels through water conservation, even as they added 400,000 people. It can be done.”

Conservation Always Wins
The experience of many cities consistently demonstrates that the thrifty use of water, scarce or not, will strengthen eco-nomies for homeowners, businesses, and governments alike. Some examples:

  • Beginning in the late 1980s, the Delaware River Basin Commission in New Jersey pursued an aggressive, comprehensive water conservation program. Based on water metering, leak detection and repair, and more efficient plumbing fixtures, the program lowered per capita water use by as much as 15 percent. The commission estimates that the water savings from low-flow toilets alone avoided $300-$500 million for new water supply and wastewater treatment facilities.
  • Santa Monica’s Baysaver Plumbing Fixture Rebate Program, started in 1989, reduced water use by 15 percent and cut sewage flows by 16 percent. The program saved the city $6 million in about ten years; local officials estimate a $2 return for every dollar invested in the program.
  • Leak repairs and water-saving fixtures installed at a 60-unit low-income housing development in Houston slashed water consumption by 72 percent. The $22,000 project cut the complex’s monthly water and wastewater bills by about 80 percent, paid for itself in little more than three months, and will permanently save the development $6,800 a month in water and sewage bills.

MLUI/Bruce Giffin
  Costs for building and operating water utilities are escalating.
From 1980 to the mid 1990s, the number of Seattle Water Department customers grew by 20 percent. But metro area water needs essentially remained unchanged. With a modern plumbing code, rates designed to encourage conservation, and other programs, Seattle saved approximately 14 million gallons of water per day through the 1990s, and will save 21 million gallons more per day this year.

There are similarly significant opportunities throughout the Great Lakes. For example, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department hemorrhages $23 million and 35 billion gallons of treated drinking water each year due to aging and leaking infrastructure, according to a July 22, 2002 report in The Detroit News.

Proportionally similar prospects for savings abound in communities like Holland. The challenge lies in motivating conventional water supply planners to think more creatively. But, because so much water surrounds Michigan, traditional leaders continue to view water conservation as unnecessary, ineffective, and costly.

When these leaders change their approach from waste to conservation, a growing number of business executives, citizen groups, and policy experts will surely support them. They know that conservation is essential to both growing the state economy and protecting the region’s biggest drawing card: its prized waterways.

Many legal experts will embrace those changes, too, because they say it is the best way to defend the basin’s waters against exports to arid regions. Great Lakes governments, they assert, can best protect local supplies and retain authority over future water use by promoting efficient water use and establishing clear standards for all water withdrawals. These policies basically do not exist in most Great Lakes states. Adopting them will establish more durable supplies and assure, for good, an intense competitive advantage over other, very thirsty areas of the country and the planet.

Our Own Worst Enemy

MLUI/Doug Rose
  Click here to enlarge map
Yet the reflex among officials of communities within or just outside the basin boundaries is to continue pumping more and more water from the Great Lakes ecosystem, mostly because they see it as the quickest, easiest way to satisfy their growing water needs. From tiny South Bass Island in Lake Erie to the booming suburbs of Milwaukee on the west coast of Lake Michigan, cities, townships, and villages are sticking more straws into the big lakes and digging deeper into aquifers to keep up with increasing demand. (See map next page.)

“We have seen the enemy and he is us,” said Ron Kuehn, an influential Madison-based lobbyist who represented Wisconsin farmers in the negotiation of a new state groundwater use law.
Some communities surrounding Saugatuck Dunes, along Lake Michigan’s eastern shore, offer prime examples:

  • Several White Lake-area governments banded together in 2003 and spent $10,000 to study whether pumping water from wells or from Lake Michigan would best supply future needs.
  • In Muskegon, city officials expect to complete approximately $20 million worth of repairs and upgrades to their municipal treatment facility this summer. The project expands plant capacity from 28 to 40 million gallons per day and extends the Lake Michigan-based water service into neighboring townships to stimulate new residential and industrial growth.
  • South Haven recently ran another intake pipe into Lake Michigan. One end is connected to a new, natural gas-fired power plant that will use the water as coolant; the other end is in Van Buren State Park.
  • The City of Wyoming, which uses Lake Michigan to serve some 200,000 customers, is executing a 15-year, $100 million plan that adds treatment capacity, more powerful pumps, and another intake pipe in the big lake. The city did not consider either conservation or demand management as part of the project.

These and other projects explain why planning expert Michael Gallis declared in 2001 that west Michigan was on track to become one big “L.A. on the Lake.” Public officials seem dead set on plumbing the entire region for a new megalopolis, while marketers hype the region as “Michigan’s West Coast.”

Such a freewheeling approach is lowering water tables, sparking small water wars, and running up municipal water costs in Michigan and parts of Ohio, Illinois, and Wisconsin. It also sends a dangerous signal that Great Lakes water is free for the taking. Until the prevailing attitude changes and communities adopt sustainable water practices, the state’s economy will not reach its full potential. Meanwhile, special places like Saugatuck Dunes State Park — and the health and security of the Great Lakes ecosystem — remain at risk.

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