urges state to protect groundwater
By Jeff Alexander
Published February 06, 2006
Current groundwater pumping in Michigan does not pose
an ecological crisis, but future problems could arise
unless more is done to protect an abundant, but unprotected,
That is one of the main conclusions in a new report to
the state Legislature, which is considering Michigan's
first water-use laws. The report by the Groundwater Conservation
Advisory Council said state agencies need to develop a
better understanding of groundwater supplies across Michigan
to prevent industries, municipalities or farmers from
squandering the resource.
Protecting groundwater is crucial because it is a primary
source of water for Michigan's lakes, streams and the
Great Lakes, said Alan Steinman, a member of the advisory
council and director of Grand Valley State University's
Water Resources Institute in Muskegon. Groundwater is
the source of drinking water for most Michigan residents,
and a wide range of industries and farms use large quantities
of groundwater on a daily basis.
"There's plenty of groundwater in this state,"
Steinman said. "If used wisely, water could be marketed
as an economic tool for the state. We just need to make
sure we use groundwater sustainably, and that the way
we use it doesn't cause ecological impacts."
A state House of Representatives committee is scheduled
to resume debate Tuesday on water-use legislation that
has already been approved by the Senate. Michigan is the
only state in the Great Lakes basin without a law regulating
how much water individuals or businesses may pump out
of the ground or surface waters.
Michigan's lack of rules governing groundwater withdrawals
became an issue in 2001, when Nestle Waters North America
built its Ice Mountain water bottling plant near Big Rapids.
The Ice Mountain controversy exposed Michigan's failure
to follow up on the 1985 Great Lakes Charter. The agreement
obligated the eight Great Lakes states and two Canadian
provinces to manage water use and restrict water diversions
to areas outside the Great Lakes basin.
Thousands of Michigan industries, farms and municipalities
pump significant quantities of groundwater each day, according
to state data.
Michigan industries, municipalities, farms and other
businesses pumped about 730 million gallons of groundwater
daily in 2000, or 266 billion gallons annually, according
to the most recent state data. That amount represented
about 2.6 percent of the estimated 27 billion gallons
of water that flows each day into underground aquifers
-- layers of buried, porous soils that store groundwater,
according to the report.
In other words, far more water flows into aquifers each
day -- from precipitation, lakes and streams -- than is
being pumped out of the ground. But the report cautioned
that all groundwater withdrawals have some effect because
they alter the natural, back-and-forth movement of water
between underground aquifers and surface waters.
A common misconception about groundwater withdrawals is
the "water myth budget," the report said. That
"myth" assumes that groundwater pumping will not
have ecological effects if the volume of water sucked out
of the ground is less than the amount of water flowing into
an underground aquifer.
"Development of groundwater or surface water affects
the other," the report said. The reason: Groundwater
and surface water are connected.
What is not known, the report said, is precisely how
much groundwater can be pumped before fish and other aquatic
life in nearby lakes and streams are affected.
The report said the state needs to invest in groundwater
research to increase scientific and public understanding,
improve government management of the resource and, hopefully,
prevent conflicts among competing water users.
"One of the strong themes of the report is the need
to have data about our existing groundwater resources,
and how and where they're being used," said Michael
Gregg, a member of the groundwater advisory council who
represented agricultural interests.
"This issue of groundwater use is significant to
agriculture because water is essential for farming, for
irrigating crops and raising livestock," said Gregg,
who is water resources program manager for the Michigan
Department of Agriculture.
The use of groundwater to irrigate farm crops has increased
dramatically over the past three decades, Gregg said,
as farmers have been forced to increase crop yields and
quality to stay competitive.
To date, Michigan has been lucky that there have been
only a few major conflicts over groundwater use, said
James Clift, a member of the advisory council and policy
director for the Michigan Environmental Council.
"It's not like groundwater use isn't a crisis and
we shouldn't panic," Clift said. "It's more
a situation where we've gotten away with this (absence
of laws) until now, and we need to step up to the plate
and put a regulatory system in place."
Clift said the Senate-approved water-use legislation
was a good start toward protecting groundwater and surface
waters. But he said the legislation needs to be more comprehensive
to protect all of the state's water resources.
One of environmentalists' harshest criticisms of the
Senate legislation was that it would protect only trout
streams from potentially harmful groundwater pumping.
Warm-water rivers, such as the Grand River, would not
be protected under the Senate bills, Clift said.
"We think there is a lot more to protecting our
natural resources than just trout streams and fish,"
Clift said. "We want to protect all streams that
provide fish and wildlife habitat."
Some industry and agriculture groups have expressed concern
that water-use legislation could limit access to groundwater
or surface waters used to produce a myriad of products,
from automobiles and baby food to beer and electricity.
"Some farmers feel threatened (by the water-use
legislation) because they think regulation means the state
saying 'No'," Gregg said.