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Great Lakes Article:

Groveland faces water issues

Residents looking for answers to drying township

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 groundwater extraction.

"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 the water."

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 firm.

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 up."

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 nearby aquifers.

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."

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