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Great Lakes Article:

Shrinking Water Supply

January 8, 2002
(Editor's note: The shrinking of water resources - once considered an unthinkable problem - is becoming a real concern locally, nationally and globally. Today, The Oakland Press introduces a two-part series with a look at potential water problems locally and statewide.) It doesn't look like much - just a 10-foot-deep hole with 2 inches of water in the bottom. But the dry pond in Amy Amthor's Groveland Township back yard is in some ways representative of shrinking global water resources.

For one thing, says Amthor, the dry pond didn't have to be. She and her neighbors believe that their dry ponds and depleted drinking water wells were caused by what they consider a spectacular waste of water.

Using a study they paid for, residents contend that a gravel mining operation lowered the water table by pumping 2.6 million gallons of water a day out of the aquifer that feeds their ponds and wells, draining it into a local creek. Throwing that much water away is almost unthinkable, Amthor said.

"I think it's terrible, because water is going to be globally a major issue," she said.

But Michigan, blessed with abundant surface and underground water sources, appears to be woefully unprepared to deal with that issue. Amthor and her husband, Mark Shaffer, discovered during research into their water problems that once the permits are issued, there are no practical limits on how a well owner uses the water.

"The only way the state will get involved is if it's contaminated," Shaffer said.

Amthor added that "Michigan and one other state, I think it's New Jersey, are the only states that don't have water laws (governing how much water can be taken from an aquifer).

"Because we've always had such a large water supply, we've been very arrogant here in Michigan with our water."

David Dempsey, a policy adviser for the Michigan Environmental Council in Lansing, echoes their concerns.

"Michigan legislatively has been living in a fantasy land for the past 15 years," he said. "We're the only state in the region that doesn't have legislation limiting water withdrawals.

"You can basically take water from Michigan and do anything you want with it."

A shrinking aquifer was the least of Amthor's worries when she and Shaffer moved to the property on Widgeon Way 12 years ago. The builders of their home actually struck water when they were excavating the building's basement.

The pond, which once contained bluegill and perch, had both an inlet and an outlet.

In 1997, however, the couple noticed the pond was no longer flowing. The water level, Amthor said, has dropped continuously since, despite a second well dug specifically to keep the pond full. She said the local ecosystem also is suffering.

"We really educated ourselves on dewatering and what it does to the environment," she said. "All the wetlands around here dried up."

In December, Groveland Township trustees voted to require that Midway Sand and Gravel, the operator of the gravel mining operation, start restoring the water table, a project that is under way. The township had one big stick in its dealings with Midway: Either restore the water table or risk not getting a renewed mining permit for 2002.

Robert DePalma, Groveland supervisor, said the township received little help from the state.

"We went to the (Department of Environmental Quality) early on on this and asked if they would get involved, and they told me point blank that there is no law on the ground water," he said.

He stressed the state needs to have a role.

"A small township like ours is not in a position to have a staff available to work on something like this," DePalma said.

"The state is in a much better position to determine what are the impacts on an aquifer and who should be able to take the water from it and, I guess, how much, which is the real issue."

The Groveland situation, in some respects, mirrors a much more controversial case involving ground water in rural Mecosta County near Big Rapids. There, the state has OK'd a plan by Perrier to pump up to 720,000 gallons per day from an underground aquifer to be bottled and shipped under the Ice Mountain brand.

While most environmental groups have focused on surface water diversions from the Great Lakes to thirsty regions in the Sun Belt, underground aquifers also need protection, said Brad Wilson of Clean Water Action in Clinton Township.

"That Perrier will not stay in Michigan but will be shipped out to other parts of the country and perhaps to other countries," he said. "That's a back door if you will.

"The state of Michigan has to stand up to say this is not a good thing."

Perrier is going ahead with its plans to build a bottling plant, despite lawsuits filed by residents, said the MEC's Dempsey, who calls the proposal "a great threat to our water resources."

But he also worries that the state's other water resources, specifically the Great Lakes, could be affected negatively by the thirst of surrounding areas.

"Every trend suggests that water is the issue of the 21st century and our water is going to be coveted not just by Sun Belt states and other countries, but by the Great Lakes states themselves," he said.

He said while billboards around Michigan portray Sun Belt stereotypes sucking up Great Lakes water through straws, "I'm much more worried about the short-term prospects of Cheeseheads from Wisconsin or Buckeyes from Ohio sucking our water dry."

Michigan's geography makes it vulnerable - it is the only one of the eight Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces that is entirely within the Great Lakes Basin. States such as Minnesota and Wisconsin, for example, are mainly in the Mississippi River Basin.

Dempsey and others worry that there will be increased pressure on Michigan to allow water transfers within the Great Lakes states, but outside of the basin. The concern is that the water after it is used will not be returned to the basin, but will instead be treated and then released into a different basin - such as the Mississippi or the Ohio River.

"In the next 10 years, I think the real threats are going to be from our Great Lakes' neighbors as well as ourselves," Dempsey said.

A report by the International Joint Commission, a body representing both the United States and Canada on issues involving the Great Lakes, bears out his worries.

"We did not believe in the short run, over 25 years, that there would be a big demand for Great Lakes water (from outside the basin)," said Tom Baldini of Marquette, chairman of the U.S. section of the IJC.

"We thought, however, that there would be an increased demand from nearby communities.

"You have other states like Indiana, Pennsylvania that are in the basin but just a little corner of them," he said. "That's where we see the biggest demand for Great Lakes water in the short term."

The commission also is concerned about ground water, said Baldini, because aquifer depletion can affect surface water and ultimately the Great Lakes.

Currently, any single Great Lakes state can veto any proposed diversion of surface water from the Great Lakes to another state - including another Great Lakes state. Baldini, Dempsey and others, however, are concerned that the veto power might not stand up in court.

"We thought governments could prohibit the export of water if they don't discriminate," said Baldini.

Currently, there are no standards for when a diversion of water would be allowed or not allowed. The IJC, he said, is working toward a set of standards acceptable to all the states and provinces and the two federal governments.

Those standards, if adopted, would be applied to the Great Lakes states and provinces as well, Dempsey said.

Ultimately, he said, the state will have to change how it uses water if it wants to keep others from taking it. He said it will take a "revolution" in how Michigan manages its surface and underground water resources.

"For legal reasons as well as simple fairness, if Michigan wants to stop exports of water we're going to have to demonstrate a conservation ethic," he said. "We're going to have to show a disinterested jury that we're doing the best we can to conserve and manage our water resources.

"We can't do that today."

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