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As a Thirsty World Watches, Michigan Considers New Water Security Law

Legislative plan would link land use and future water needs

April 23, 2002 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  As Perrier builds Michigan's largest groundwater bottling operation in Mecosta County, in central Michigan, residents raise questions about how significant reductions in subsurface water flow might affect local wells, as well as nearby wetlands, rivers, and lakes. More than 200 demonstrators gathered outside the plant earlier this month.

Lansing — Having spent months last year gaining a new appreciation for the havoc that spreading development can wreak on underground water sources and the people that depend on them, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers has introduced a new proposal to ensure that Michigan communities never run dry.

Perhaps the most important feature of the new legislation, which was principally authored by state Senator Ken Sikkema, a Republican from Grandville, would require companies and communities to confirm that an adequate supply of groundwater was available to meet future needs before anyone can withdraw large quantities. It is the first time the state has proposed to directly link a community’s plan for growth and its water supply, said authorities in the field, and represents a decided step forward in the state’s thinking about how to both expand the economy and conserve natural resources.

Michigan has more than 10,500 high-capacity wells pumping bulk quantities of water from the ground for farming and commercial use. State law, however, does not fully consider the potential effects that large water removals might have on existing wells or connected natural features such as wetlands, rivers, and lakes. The proposed legislation would require the Department of Environmental Quality to create a permit process for water withdrawals that exceed 100,000 gallons of water per day — enough to fill approximately 2,000 large bathtubs — to balance rising expectations for water, and make certain Michigan does not outgrow its vast but finite supply.

Ominous trends
"Michigan is the only Great Lakes state without a groundwater use statute," said Melissa Samuel, an aide to Sen. Sikkema. "We need to get a handle on our groundwater use. Right now, we don’t know the impact of our withdrawals and that has caused water use problems in some areas of the state."

Acute water shortages seem impossible in the Great Lakes state – a region defined by the largest system of fresh surface water on the planet. But several Michigan communities have experienced scarcity and turmoil as the cumulative withdrawals from unregulated suburban, agricultural, and industrial wells stress local aquifers, create new water infrastructure costs, and deprive future business and residential users of adequate water supplies.

"In Saginaw County, heavy agricultural groundwater use has disrupted residential service," said. Ms. Samuel. "Similar situations have occurred in Monroe County, where rock quarries withdraw large quantities of water."

The proposed legislation also responds to the growing global scarcity of clean, fresh water caused by unchecked development, pollution, changing climate cycles, population increases, and outdated management practices.

Across the United States, for example, more effective strategies to manage one of life’s essential natural resources has become increasingly necessary. Residents and businesses on the east coast continue to struggle through record drought and restricted water use. Frustration grows in the south among Texas farmers and Mexico over access to limited water in the border-defining Rio Grande River. And last March President George Bush, hoping to peacefully resolve western water disputes that escalated recently to gun fire, established a cabinet-level working group to recommend a plan that makes more water available for fish and farmers in Oregon’s Klamath River Basin.

Legislative ideas
In response to state and national trends, the Michigan Legislature established the Great Lakes Conservation Task Force last summer. The task force — a bipartisan panel of eight senators chaired by Sen. Sikkema — held public hearings across the state and found that careless diversions of Great Lakes water, limited understanding of the ecosystems’ natural dynamics, and the state’s weak water policies were top concerns.

The project’s final report, issued in January, made 66 recommendations to maintain the integrity of the region’s fresh water, including the enactment of comprehensive water withdrawal laws to protect underground aquifers from over use.

The task force’s recommendations also came in the wake of widespread public concern over the ease with which the Perrier Group, America’s leading purveyor of bottled water, was able last year to gain access to Michigan’s globally unique water source. As the company now builds the state’s largest groundwater bottling operation in Mecosta County in central Michigan, residents continue to question how significant reductions in subsurface water flow might affect local wells, as well as nearby wetlands, rivers, and lakes.

Sen. Sikkema’s proposed law requires answers to these and other important questions before companies or individuals remove large quantities of water from the ground. Applicants would show that their water withdrawal project is necessary, safe for existing users and the environment, and implements modern conservation practices before permits are granted.

This would obligate those proposing to take big gulps of groundwater to look before they drill and verify that a withdrawal will not interfere with any current or future water needs identified by a community’s local growth plan.
Ms. Samuel expects the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs to hear testimony on the legislation this spring.

Promising public response
Rob Anderson, legislative counsel for the Michigan Farm Bureau, looks forward to the debate. Mr. Anderson sees the need for a more sensible approach to water use in Michigan, but he fears the cost of the legislation currently proposed — which would require extensive environmental study, regular water use reporting, and potentially burdensome paperwork — could be prohibitive for farmers.

"A one-size-fits-all approach may be too broad," he said. "We certainly don’t disagree with the intent of the bill. But the agricultural community needs more workable standards. We can show that our water use improves both the quality and quantity of the resource. Farm fields, for instance, provide a tremendous benefit to groundwater recharge. Very few industries provide that type of direct benefit."

Andy Buchsbaum, senior manager of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Protection and Restoration Project, said any new laws must apply to everyone who withdraws water but that there can be more flexibility within the permit process to capture different types of users in different ways. Mr. Buchsbaum believes Sen. Sikkema’s proposal is an excellent vehicle for beginning the discussion of how to protect Great Lakes water.

"This is a great opportunity for water users and the public to become more informed about the issues," he said. "The bill contains some creative features, particularly in terms of protecting aquifers. But there are also a couple of key gaps. It doesn’t address surface water withdrawals from the Great Lakes, their tributaries, or inland lakes. And there’s no standard for improving the region’s water, something that would make the law consistent with what Governor John Engler has already agreed to do in Annex 2001."

Annex 2001 — an agreement between the eight American states and two provincial governments of Canada that border the Great Lakes — advances three key principles to safeguard the basin’s water: Conservation is good and should be promoted; future water withdrawals should not, either individually or cumulatively, harm the Great Lakes ecosystem; and those withdrawals should actually improve the ecosystem.

The legislation proposed by Sen. Sikkema, a prominent lawmaker who many expect to become the next Senate majority leader, incorporates each of these visionary principles. However, unlike the requirements to conserve water and do no harm to the ecosystem, the so-called improvement standard is not currently a condition of permit approval. If it was, Mr. Buchsbaum suggested, water users such as farmers could receive credit for the service they provide to the environment.

Designing a comprehensive water use system in Michigan that works for everyone will be difficult, say lawmakers and water users. Great Lakes water security — the promise of a robust, clean source of water for drinking, farming, manufacturing, playing, and the environment — depends, they said, not only on conservation, modern land use principles, and clear rules to guide water use, but also on changing the region’s 19th-century attitude that its water resources are inexhaustible.

"This is a very sensitive issue," said Ms. Samuel. "It will take a tremendous amount of work to get any legislation passed. This current package is just a starting point."

Andy Guy, a journalist covering Great Lakes issues and co-author of Liquid Gold Rush, a seminal 2001 report on groundwater use in Michigan, manages the Michigan Land Use Institute’s office in Grand Rapids. Reach him at andy@mlui.org

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