Water Shortage Spurs Lawsuits
By Alexandra R. Moses
LAKEFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. - Wes Williams and Susan Rodriquez
have water shortages for different reasons. Rodriquez
says she loses water in the summer because nearby farmers
use too much water, dropping the water table below the
level of her well. Williams says he's always had a year-round
problem getting water from his well, something others
say is worsened by nearby quarries.
``There's not a lot of water around here,'' Williams
says. ``People should not have to put up with that.''
When Rodriquez washes her dishes, she saves the water
to mop the floor. When she's done there, she uses the
same water to flush the toilet.
Showers and baths don't happen every day for Rodriquez,
her husband and their six children, because they have
to carry in much of their water. In the summer, no water
comes from the Saginaw County family's well.
Like Rodriquez, Williams also knows what it's like to
live with limited water. The 65-year-old has to take fast
showers, and if he wants to spray the crops on his southeastern
Washtenaw County farm, he has to fill a tank at the fire
It might seem unlikely that the Great Lakes state could
see water shortages. But in at least three Michigan counties,
limited water supplies have led to finger-pointing and
lawsuits between families and businesses. Some predict
that as demand increases, it's only going to get worse
unless the state makes sure the water supply is protected.
``If there are not limits, we're going to see more and
more communities run dry,'' says Cheryl Mendoza of the
environmental group Lake Michigan Federation. ``It's a
different time, there's millions more people and what
we do impacts our neighbor.''
According to the state Department of Environmental Quality,
more than 1.1 million Michigan households use private
wells, more than any other state. The amount of groundwater
available in each area depends on geology, how it's being
used and how fast it's being restored.
Portions of Saginaw and Monroe counties - the main areas
for groundwater conflicts - have less plentiful aquifers,
DEQ officials say. Washtenaw County doesn't suffer as
much, but there are pockets of trouble, especially near
the Monroe County line.
``I don't think there's any doubt that there's a problem,''
says Elgar Brown, with the DEQ. ``When you get a large
user extracting to the point where you impact smaller
wells off property ... common sense kind of tells you
that someone should get some relief.''
Brown says well problems also exist in Lenawee County,
and in spots around the state. But in most places, groundwater
is plentiful, he says.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which
runs one of the Saginaw County farms, has offered financial
help to many of the neighbors whose water levels have
dropped, says David Rogers, a local Mormon church leader
``We don't violate good judgment,'' Rogers says. ``We
have tried very hard to be good neighbors.''
Brown says whether the big water user is a farmer or
a quarry, proving a link between one person's use and
another's shortage can be complicated and depends on a
number of factors - something residents who live without
water don't like to hear.
``One would think the basic thing that government should
provide would be drinking water,'' says Steven Garrett,
50, whose well for the Washtenaw County home he built
himself 22 years ago failed last year.
Garrett now must get water from the Augusta Township
fire station to fill his 4,000-gallon underground storage
He blames his water loss on a local quarry, which has
since shut down, and a reluctance by local officials to
run municipal water lines to everyone in the township.
He worries that the lack of water has left him with a
house nobody wants.
``Am I going to sell my house for nothing?'' Garrett
The state is trying to help. Gov. Jennifer Granholm in
August signed two new groundwater laws designed to resolve
disputes and determine where, and in what quantities,
Michigan's groundwater exists.
The first law asks the DEQ and Department of Agriculture
to investigate disputes, such as those in Saginaw County,
and help negotiate an agreement. One remedy for homeowners
could be replacement of their wells.
Under the other law, the state will create a list of
major water users and map the state's aquifers, the underground
water sources reached by wells. The maps will help officials
figure out where groundwater is less plentiful to avoid
future water conflicts.
For many living without water, the laws are a step in
the right direction.
``It finally shows that we do have a voice and it is
a very serious problem that needed legislation,'' says
Susan Skuczas, 57, a Lakefield Township resident who has
lost water each of the past four summers.
Environmentalists and others say the state should go
further and establish a water-use law that would encourage
conservation and restoration. Such a law might require
big users to make sure water isn't being removed from
an aquifer faster than it's being replenished, and to
certify that, by taking the water, they aren't damaging
the aquifer or the environment, Mendoza says.
``We can't go on using water thinking that our actions
aren't having an impact on neighboring wells and wetlands
and people,'' she says.
Gov. Granholm also would like to see a comprehensive
water management program, which would require major water
users to obtain state permits, something that could help
avoid conflicts, says Granholm spokesman Liz Boyd.
``We're only addressing half of the issue with the laws
we have on the books,'' Boyd says.
Doug Roberts Jr., director of environmental and regulatory
affairs with the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, points
out that limiting water use has potential economic effects.
He wants the Legislature to wait for the map of the state's
aquifers - which won't be ready for two years - before
acting on the issue.
``Water helps attract a lot of businesses to Michigan.
It's one of our greatest assets,'' Roberts says. ``Where
is the balance when it comes to allowing a company to
use water to make a product? That's where the issues become
a little bit sticky.''