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Great Lakes Article:

State starts considering ground water a scarce resource
Edward Hoogterp
Booth Newspapers

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 residential wells.

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 water.

"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 industry.

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 said.

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 you take."

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