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Great Lakes Article:

Mich. Water Shortage Spurs Lawsuits
By Alexandra R. Moses
Associated Press
12/08/03

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 station.

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 from Midland.

``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 tank.

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 asks.

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.''


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