Groveland faces water issues
Residents looking for answers to
December 17, 2001
BY HUGH MCDIARMID JR.
Detroit Free Press
A rural neighborhood in Groveland Township is fighting
an environmental battle that's echoing from Oakland County
across the state and country.
Groundwater, once taken for granted, has been taken
from them. They believe it has been sucked away by a nearby
gravel mining operation, leaving dry wells and empty ponds.
So for the first time, Mark Shaffer, a 43-year-old sales
manager, has become a community activist -- badgering
township officials and learning the arcane language of
hydrology in an effort to restore his pond. In little
more than two years it has devolved from a fish-laden,
10-foot-deep swimming hole for his teenagers, to a mucky
ditch punctuated by a dock leading to nothing.
Several other ponds have been emptied, most of them
in a precipitous drop of about seven feet this year. At
least four neighbors have drilled replacement wells after
theirs ran dry.
Distant battles over groundwater now resonate with Shaffer
and his neighbors: Perrier's controversial tapping of
springwater near Big Rapids; a Macomb County lawsuit pitting
a township against its allegedly water-hogging neighbor;
and wrangling throughout Great Plains states because of
the massive -- and dwindling -- Ogallala aquifer.
People in Groveland -- like anti-Perrier activists,
state legislators and environmentalists before them --
were dismayed to learn the state has no authority over
"We wrote the DEQ," said Robert DePalma, supervisor
of Groveland Township's 6,200 residents, more accustomed
to complaining about bad roads than environmental catastrophes.
"They haven't been much help at all."
Unlike other states in the country, particularly out
west -- Michigan has no authority to regulate underground
water unless it's a health threat to drinking water supplies.
Texas has been regulating its underground water for
more than a decade, said Steven Walthour, permitting enforcement
manager for the Edwards Aquifer Authority in San Antonio.
Occasional drought-like conditions fueled the decision
to regulate in Texas, a similar reason other Western states
have done the same, Walthour said.
"Everyone in the west generally doesn't have the surface
water resources that Michigan does," Walthour said. "You
haven't had those problems in the past."
Next year, the Michigan Legislature will take up the
issue -- motivated in large part by the Perrier bottling
plant. Though the amount of water Perrier will bottle
is scientifically insignificant, the public debate exposed
the lack of state rules for groundwater.
"It's been first-come, first-served," said Elgar Brown,
chief of the groundwater section of the Department of
Environmental Quality. "If it's your land, you can pump
In Groveland Township, Midway Sand and Gravel didn't
need permission to make changes to the site after it bought
the gravel pit near Dixie Highway in the late 1990s.
The changes -- which eliminated a retention pond and
intensified pumping of water from the site -- drastically
lowered the water table, according to an analysis done
for residents by Malcolm Pirnie, an environmental engineering
The gravel pit's owner, Homer Tolliver, has agreed to
restore part of one retention pond and create another
to help solve the problem, DePalma said.
Tolliver did not return phone calls.
"I truly did not think it was the cause," said DePalma,
who initially blamed near-drought conditions and historically
low Great Lakes water levels. "Then the October rains
came, and I'd drive down and see Mark's pond wasn't filling
The Malcolm Pirnie study helped convince him the problems
weren't quirks of nature.
"By next summer, we'll know for sure whether it's the
mining pit that caused it," he said.
Both Shaffer and DePalma believe the gravel pit owner
had no idea his changes would create problems. But he
might have been alerted, they say, if he'd been required
to have experts do an environmental analysis beforehand.
That's why Shaffer and DePalma say the state needs rules
for underground water diversions -- perhaps including
environmental impact statements showing how it might affect
Similar battles are being fought in Saginaw County,
where residents have blamed farmland irrigation for depleting
groundwater; and in Monroe County where gravel mining
has been targeted for dry wells.
In Macomb County, settlement conferences are planned
for January in a lawsuit filed against the City of Richmond
by Lenox Township, which blames the city wells for sucking
some home owners' wells dry.
Such battles are new to Michigan, where dry weather
during the past decade has combined with burgeoning development
to put tremendous pressure on groundwater supplies.
But in Western states, strict regulation of water supplies
and angst over dwindling reserves is old hat.
The 175,000-square-mile Ogallala aquifer covering parts
of eight states has been depleted by farming. Parts of
it could dry out in as few as 15 years, say experts.
In Texas, oilman T. Boone Pickens has proposed a $1-billion
deal to pump water from the Ogallala below his Mesa Vista
Ranch, and others are trying to buy water rights from
ranchers. Such a scramble for the wet resource is still
a curiosity in water-rich Michigan. But recent hassles
over the state's aquifer may be a warning shot, said James
Clift, policy director of the Michigan Environmental Council.
"As the population of the Great Lakes basin grows and
becomes more spread out, there will be more conflicts,"
he said. "That's when the states have to step in."