starts considering ground water a scarce resource Edward
LANSING -- For most
of history, water has been no issue at all in Michigan.
After all, we're surrounded by the stuff, and there's
so much of it underground that you can pretty much sink
a well anywhere and pump it up.
But that's beginning
to change as people realize that the million wells drilled
in the state sometimes pull water away from one another.
And there are no laws
saying how much each well can withdraw.
Now, farmers, homeowners,
local governments, businesses and even trout fishermen
are lining up to make sure they get their share as the
Legislature considers rules to govern withdrawal of water
from underground aquifers.
The House of Representatives
on Thursday approved a bill to resolve conflicts over
irrigation pumps that have been blamed for drying up some
The bill, which passed
69-39, would continue the current practice of letting
anyone withdraw an unlimited amount of water from a well,
at least until that withdrawal caused a problem on a neighbor's
property. Even then, penalties would kick in only if the
state was unable to mediate a solution.
The Michigan Farm Bureau
likes that approach. But environmentalists say it doesn't
do enough to protect underground aquifers. Ultimately,
they say, Michigan will have to consider a system of permits
to ensure that large new wells don't pump out too much
"The fact that these
conflicts are even showing up in Michigan, where we have
so much water, points to the fact that we need something
that works toward avoiding this problem in the future,"
said Andy Guy, water program manager for the Michigan
Land Use Institute, an environmental group based in Benzonia.
"We're beginning to
understand that the cumulative withdrawal -- all the water
we use for homes, farms and businesses -- it takes a toll."
He said restrictions
could be tailored so they don't hurt farmers or others
who use ground water.
"Obviously we don't
want a permit system that puts farmers out of business,"
Guy said. "While water is most important, food is right
up there too."
Michigan has an estimated
1 million water wells, the most of any state, according
to John Schmitt, executive director of the Michigan Ground
Water Association, which represents the well-drilling
Each year, 27,000 to
30,000 new wells are put in, mostly to serve individual
residences, Schmitt said.
He believes restrictions
on water pumping are unnecessary in most of the state,
since problems so far have shown up in only a few spots.
"You can drill pretty much anywhere and get water," he
Most of the water used
by businesses, homes, farms and power plants in Michigan
comes directly out of the Great Lakes, according to statistics
complied by the state Department of Environmental Quality.
Of the total use, 88 percent comes from the Great Lakes,
6 percent from other surface waters and 6 percent from
ground water, according to Ron Van Til, a DEQ water analyst.
Ground water use was
still a significant amount, averaging some 580 million
gallons a day in 2001, according to DEQ estimates.
Van Til said 620 golf
courses and an estimated 1,700 farms have the capacity
to each pump at least 100,000 gallons a day, the level
considered a "high-capacity user" by the state.
The House bill, sponsored
by Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Midland, sets procedures for
the state to investigate and resolve complaints against
high-capacity wells. In some cases, the DEQ could order
the owner of a large well to reduce the amount of pumping
and compensate a homeowner whose well was damaged.
It's not clear when
it will come up for a vote in the Senate.
Sen. Patricia Birkholz,
R-Saugatuck, who chairs the Senate Committee on Natural
Resources and Environmental Affairs, expects to hold hearings
on ground water issues beginning this week or next.
She said the hearings
would help her decide how to address the issue.
"I think there is a
lot of concern about ground water and aquifer protection,
and a lot of people want us to do something," she said.
"...I'm keeping an open mind about what we need to do."
The major water use
conflicts have been in Saginaw County, where residents
blame farm irrigators for drying up residential wells,
and Monroe County, where the problem is attributed to
pumping water out of quarry pits.
Moolenaar said the Legislature
could pass his bill to address those problems now, and
take more time if necessary to consider the larger issues.
"The broader issues
involved in aquifers, those are bigger questions that
we'll be dealing with for years to come," he said. "This
bill shouldn't be held up by that process."
Ground water isn't an
issue only for humans and field crops. The cold water
that flows from natural springs is a major source for
streams that support trout and other species of fish that
need cold water to survive.
Trout Unlimited spokesman
Rich Bowman testified during a hearing on the House bill
that ground water flowing into streams during hot summer
months is the main source of water cool enough to support
trout. He worried that overpumping of aquifers in some
areas could degrade streams and warm them so much that
they would no longer support trout.
"It's not just the amount
of water," he said. "It's when you take it and how much
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