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Great Lakes Article:

Report urges state to protect groundwater
By Jeff Alexander
Muskegon Chronicle
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, natural resource.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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