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Lake Michigan Springs a Leak

Deep wells pump up water diversion debate

March 17, 2004 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  The Great Lakes contain 20 percent of the planet's freshwater.

LANSING — Using deep wells that reach further into the ground than Chicago’s tallest skyscrapers soar into the sky, communities hugging Lake Michigan’s west coast are pumping the aquifers beneath them so hard that they are pulling water in through the bottom of that Great Lake. According to scientists at the nation’s top natural science agency, the wells are reversing a flow as old as the lake and that for millennia used rivers, streams, wetlands, and the ground to gather, filter, and return water to the big lake.

Researchers for the United States Geological Survey say that, because water from Lake Michigan is now flowing the other way, communities in southeastern Wisconsin are actually withdrawing Great Lakes surface water, not just groundwater, when they pump. Scientists admit that they do not fully understand the effects of this on fish, wildlife, and other aquatic resources. But they maintain that, because the Great Lakes hold more than six quadrillion gallons of water, the 10 million gallon per day backflow they discovered is insignificant.

But Ken DeBeaussaert, director of Michigan’s Office of the Great Lakes, disagrees: “This is a significant amount of water leaving Lake Michigan, and it demonstrates that we don’t know a lot about the connection between our withdrawals and the effect on ground and surface waters. This is an issue that we in Michigan must be concerned about.”

Advocates for better protecting Great Lakes water say that the heavy pumping across Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha, and other Wisconsin counties studied by the researchers is actually a small snapshot of a larger picture — rapidly increasing rates of water extraction by communities throughout the Great Lakes Basin. It also represents a century-old pattern of regional water taking that can increase health risks, public costs, and conflict; threaten water resources; and perplex lawmakers charged with stewarding one of Earth’s most valuable fresh water reserves.

One scientist who worked on the project, the first to document the consequences of large groundwater removals on Lake Michigan, said he sees a warning in the data that he and his colleagues collected.“We project increased pumping, more draw-down, and more effect on surface waters,” said Daniel Feinstein, a hydrologist in the Wisconsin district of the USGS.

Twin Challenges

11 Hour Photography

Chicago withdraws water directly from Lake Michigan, but other coastal cities have so drained their aquifers that they are doing the same thing.
Others project a big effect on the region’s water politics. News of Lake Michigan’s leak comes as Michigan’s and Wisconsin’s governors introduce separate legislative initiatives aimed at regulating large water withdrawals and securing the Great Lakes supply. Michigan Governor Jennifer M. Granholm and Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle, both Democrats, are introducing proposals this spring that they want enacted this year.

“Let’s promise the people of Michigan that we will not let any other state or country dip its straw, let alone its pipeline, into our waters without our explicit approval,” Governor Granholm said in her 2004 State of the State address.

“In Wisconsin, we recognize that clean air and water are the cornerstones of a strong economy,” said Governor Doyle in his annual address. “Tonight, I’m calling on Democrats and Republicans to pass legislation to protect our groundwater against withdrawals that significantly damage our rivers, lakes, wetlands, and springs.”

Governors Granholm and Doyle face similar challenges as they push for better regulation of Great Lakes water use. The controversy over withdrawal has built steadily in both states for decades. State-mandated studies and schemes to ship Great Lakes water by pipeline to the American Southwest or by freighter to Asia have occasionally catapulted water to the top of each state’s political agenda.

The issue extends well inland: Late last year, for example, a circuit court judge in central Lower Michigan’s Mecosta County ordered a Nestle Waters plant there to stop pumping the local aquifer because it endangered wetlands, streams, and inland lakes. But an appellate court, supported by Governor Granholm’s appeal to keep the plant open, stayed the lower court order. The governor’s action drew heavy criticism from conservationists and environmentalists.

“It’s easy to simply say no Great Lakes diversions,” observed Michigan Senator Patty Birkholz, a Republican from Saugatuck who, like Governor Granholm, says she wants to protect Michigan’s water supply. “It’s an entirely different challenge to say that we must rethink our traditional water use. We’re at a point now where we have to make some big decisions about stewardship.”

Making the Case
Each governor must persuade a business community and a Republican-dominated legislature that new water regulations serve long-term economic interests. And each must rally vocal public support for preserving aquifers, lakes, rivers, and wetlands, even when it means more responsible water use at home.

Michigan and Wisconsin are the two largest American users of Great Lakes water, daily withdrawing more than 1.4 billion gallons of ground water for industrial, agricultural, and domestic use. The
unsupervised withdrawals have led to localized conflicts in the Michigan counties of Monroe, Saginaw, Kent, and Oakland, as well as in Milwaukee, Madison, and Wisconsin’s Lower Fox River Valley. In numerous cases, over-pumping has polluted or drained residential wells and damaged open bodies of water.

This happens because, while both states have laws to safeguard water quality, neither regulates quantity. Some leaders in both states, however, continue to try.
In 1987, officials in Michigan recommended establishing minimum flow levels for certain rivers. In 1992, the state published a report, Michigan’s Environment and Relative Risk, which recommended developing a water budget to guide future water use decisions. In 2002, the Michigan Senate’s bipartisan Great Lakes Conservation Task Force urged the Legislature to enact comprehensive water laws. Last year the Legislature created the Groundwater Conservation Council to study the issue.

Wisconsin state leaders formed the state Groundwater Coordinating Council in 1984 to coordinate activities and gather information. In 1989, leaders recommended a law to addresses the potential environmental consequences of large groundwater removals. As early as April 1997 a report, Status of Groundwater Quantity in Wisconsin, concluded that heavy subsurface pumping near Lake Michigan was a problem.

“Originally, groundwater flowed east and discharged into Lake Michigan,” it stated. “Now, Lake Michigan recharges groundwater in the Milwaukee area.”

Big Facts, Small Actions
Yet neither state has taken substantive action. Whether the USGS report on Lake Michigan’s leak will change that remains to be seen. Even as heavy withdrawals strain the region’s groundwater supply in ways far more visible than altering the underground water cycle, business leaders remain slow to support new regulations. They claim that documented groundwater conflicts are isolated incidents and that more stringent regulations could slow the region’s economic development.

“There is no question that this is a regional issue,” said Doug Roberts Jr., the director of environmental and regulatory affairs for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. “The question is, ‘How do we get our arms around it?’” 
Mr. Roberts said the Chamber supports the Council of Great Lakes Governors’ development of a regional agreement — the Great Lakes Charter Annex. The Annex is an attempt to outline the principles local governments need for evaluating new water withdrawals. A draft of the principles is expected for public review later this summer.

But some water resource experts believe the issue is a long way from the critical mass necessary to trigger meaningful action.

“Business leaders, farmers, and municipalities are weary of additional regulatory burden unless you can make a strong case that it’s necessary,” said George Kraft, a professor of water resources at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. “There is no constituency for rational groundwater use in the Great Lakes Basin.”

Image courtesy of Earth Sciences and Image Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center at http://eol.jsc.nasa.gov.

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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