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Great Lakes Article:

Commercial use of aquifers could strain Great Lakes
By Gary Heinlein and Charlie Cain
The Detroit News

STANWOOD, Mich. -- A key battle over Great Lakes water is being fought in quiet, rural Mecosta County, 50 miles from Lake Michigan.

There, in the sandy interior of north-central Michigan, the biggest player in the $35 billion international bottled water industry is piping 130 gallons of water a minute, 24 hours a day, from spongy ground beneath a hunting preserve. Bottled as Ice Mountain, it sells for $1.25 retail, because it carries one of the industry's top designations: spring water.

The plant, owned by Nestle' Waters North America Inc., is a prime example of increasing water fights in Michigan, a state with aquifers so abundant that nobody questioned where their next drink was coming from. In fact, Michigan currently has the laxest water laws in the Great Lakes basin: It requires no permit for ground water pumping.

Now, from Metro Detroit to Mecosta County, there's concern that below-ground reservoirs -- intricately connected to the Great Lakes --will be drawn down to dangerously low levels. Pumping groundwater impacts the already low Great Lakes because the aquifers feed streams and they, in turn, feed the lakes.

State policy-makers will have to balance the prosperity linked to water bottling, urbanization and farm irrigation against the potential for environmental degradation and localized water shortages.

In the county Circuit Court in Big Rapids, neighbors of the Ice Mountain operation argue in their lawsuit that the bottling company will lower the nearby Dead Stream, a lake and the Muskegon River that flow into Lake Michigan.

Nestle' Waters, subsidiary of Swiss-based Nestlé SA, answers that it spent more than $1 million assuring that won't happen -- more of an effort than numerous other major commercial water users put forth before starting to pump.

Water use hasn't increased much in the Great Lakes basin for several years, but a University of Arizona expert warns that there's a voracious appetite for pristine waters like those flowing in Michigan's underground aquifers.

"There's a lot of money at stake and no limit to the number of water boondoggles," said Robert Glennon, author of a 2002 book about ground water pumping. His book details cases in which pumping too much water too fast from aquifers has hurt streams, lakes, plants and animals.

"It's like a giant milk shake that you drink with a straw," Glennon explains. "If you put an infinite number of straws in the same glass, that's a recipe for disaster."

One too many straws

Mark Shaffer, who lives in Holly in northwest Oakland County, sees evidence of at least one too many straws in the aquifer that supplies well water to his and neighbors' homes near the Renaissance Festival grounds.

Shaffer got embroiled in efforts to halt water pumping at a nearby gravel pit after his lawn pond dried up two years ago. Neighbors' ponds -- and wells -- also dried up. Shaffer estimates a nearby gravel pit operator, ordered to stop in April, pumped 25 billion gallons of water from the ground in the last four years.

Mining for gravel cuts through layers of earth and, often, aquifers. The least costly way to keep going is to prevent the pit from being flooded by sucking out the water with high-volume pumps.

"We have taken water for granted," said Shaffer, a newly minted water rights activist. "We need a law that says you cannot site a well and you cannot pump any water until you've had an environmental study, and it was done by a reputable company."

Another example of Michigan water troubles is seen in parts of Monroe County, where groundwater supplies have failed to meet residents' needs in recent years because of drought and significant undergroundwater use by rock mining operations.

There's also evidence of overuse in Saginaw County, according to health department environmental manager Kevin Datte. He says at least 140 residential wells have failed since 1994 and some townships are limiting development because of the problem.

Datte says the dry wells are at least partly linked to groundwater pumping to irrigate, a trend among Michigan farmers needing consistent moisture to grow seed crops and vegetables for the fast-food industry. Scientists say as much as 70 percent of the water sprayed by irrigating equipment is lost to evaporation.

"Some irrigation wells can draw 900 million gallons a season -- the same as is used in a year's time for all residential wells in five townships," Datte said. "I expect this problem to continue."

A Lansing lawyer representing Walther Farms, one of the county's large crop operations, disputes that irrigation causes the problem. Its attorney, Michael Brown, blames a combination of drought, out-of-date residential wells and seasonal fluctuations in water tables.

Brown said a hydrologist hired by farmers found the Saginaw aquifer stores 99 billion gallons of water -- so much that "you could drill an irrigation well every square mile and have enough to last 134 years."

Saginaw County residents Bill and Karen Hollingsworth, who have lived south of Merrill for 38 years, are frustrated that in this saturated region they've been without well water for about 1 1/2 months during the peak irrigation period each summer for four years. They blame a large farm with a contract to grow high-moisture spuds favored by potato chip makers.

"Something needs to be done, but we can't find anybody who can," says Bill Hollingsworth, a 63-year-old retired farm equipment mechanic. "If anybody complains, they just say there's no law that says they can't do it."

What is reasonable?

Michigan regulations follow an age-old concept: Anyone is entitled to drill into aquifers and withdraw a reasonable quantity of water. What's reasonable? Any amount, as long as it doesn't harm neighbors using the same aquifer -- and those neighbors must prove that in court.

"Any groundwater withdrawal is going to have some kind of effect; society decides what effect is acceptable," said Jim Nicholas, district chief for the U.S. Geological Survey in Michigan. "Maybe you didn't lower the water much in the affected stream, but trout populations have been reduced because there's not as much cold water going into it."

In some Southwestern states, groundwater pumping has depleted aquifers to the point that the streams they used to supply now are dry, except during rainy periods. That's evidence of the mounting paucity in parched areas whose farms and cities, some fear, one day will use their increasing political clout to come after Great Lakes water.

Water shortages also are part of what's driving the $35 billion international bottled water business, and has companies like Nestlé hurrying to build new plants in Michigan and other spots blessed with ample undergroundwater. U.S. residents consumed 21.2 gallons of bottled water per person in 2002, compared with 1.6 gallons each in 1976, according to the Beverage Marketing Corp. of New York.

When wells dry up, the water tastes bad or harmful chemicals invade, the last alternative for many people is to get their drinking water from store shelves.

The U.S. is a $7.7-billion marketplace for bottled water. There are 36 bottled water permit-holders in Michigan alone. Even if Great Lakes water never is pumped westward, experts say, it will end up there anyway, in millions of neatly labeled bottles on supermarket shelves.

A perfect illustration

Gov. Jennifer Granholm says the battle over the Mecosta County plant is a perfect illustration of the need to develop better laws by which to parcel out groundwater. As attorney general, she faulted Gov. John Engler for welcoming the Ice Mountain plant -- and granting it $10 million in tax breaks -- without first getting the green light from his counterparts in other Great Lakes states.

Granholm said other Great Lakes governors should have been consulted, since much of the firm's bottled water leaves the state and is, therefore, a diversion of water outside the Great Lakes basin. The federal Water Resources Development Act, governing Great Lakes water, requires such approval from other governors, she said in a letter Engler ignored.

But Republicans, who control the Legislature and have spent much of the last two months drafting two such statutes, don't agree with Granholm. They see little difference between water that's exported in bottles and water that leaves the state as part of melons, baby food, cans of paint and soft drinks.

In its current form, Republican-backed legislation would require Michigan to inventory its system of aquifers, many of which still are unmapped, and establish a more orderly way to resolve water disputes. Granholm says those are baby steps in the right direction.

"One bill only maps the aquifers and the other allows for resolution of conflicts, once a conflict exists," she said. "I was hopeful the Legislature would move toward a strong groundwater proposal. That's not happened yet."

Sen. Patricia Birkholz, a Republican from Saugatuck on the Lake Michigan shore, chaired hours of complicated Senate committee hearings while crafting one of the proposals. She said lawmakers must move cautiously.

"We decided we need to proceed in a scientific way, and our first step needed to be mapping," Birkholz said.

The Nestlé corporation supports efforts at new water withdrawal laws, at least in concept. It has a $100-million investment in Michigan at stake, and plans to expand.

Still, retired school librarian Terry Swier, who's in the thick of the court battle as head of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, is unconvinced any private firm can be induced to care much about the state's natural assets. Swier and her husband, Gary, have put on hold the quieter lifestyle they planned when they retired to a home on Mecosta County's Horseshoe Lake.

"For me, this is the future of Michigan's waters," says Swier, 59. "Diversion diminishes water levels in lakes, streams and wetlands. Are we going to end up like the western states?"

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