Worries voiced about Great Lakes water diversion
Capital News Service
Friday, March 5, 2004
LANSING -- Cities along the Wisconsin shore of Lake Michigan are pumping
so much groundwater that they’re actually reversing the lake’s
water flow, according to a new report by the U.S. Geological Survey.
Using deep wells, some of them deeper than the world’s tallest building – Taipei 101 in Taiwan – several Wisconsin communities are pumping underground aquifers so heavily that they draw surface water from Lake Michigan, the report stated.
By doing so, communities west of Milwaukee are effectively diverting water from the Great Lakes basin to the Mississippi River basin, never to return, according to the study.
“We’ve been pushing the importance of this issue,” said Jim Nicholas, the Michigan district chief at the Geological Survey. “Groundwater and surface water are interconnected. When you do something to one of them, it affects the other.”
Although the process drains Lake Michigan by 10 million gallons per day, this is “a relatively small amount,” said Nicholas. Lake Michigan holds 1.3 quadrillion gallons of water.
While some legislators express serious concerns, scientists are generally more cautious.
Last year, Michigan created the Groundwater Advisory Council, responsible for evaluating the state’s water concerns and suggesting solutions.
The sponsor, Sen. Patricia Birkholz, R-Saugatuck Township, said, “We are all very concerned that our decisions be scientifically based. We don’t want to jump out and do something too quickly that’s going to be counterproductive.
“We aren’t a Great Lakes state without our water resources. We have to use them wisely. That doesn’t mean we can’t use them, but we have to make sure that those resources are being recharged.”
Under natural conditions, some groundwater would discharge into streams and empty into Lake Michigan, evening out the lake’s water levels. However, the Geological Survey report indicates that wells in Wisconsin are intercepting this groundwater and diverting its flow away from Lake Michigan.
A federal effort, called Annex 2001, is also under way to devise a comprehensive policy concerning water diversion and consumption.
Todd Ames, the water division administration of the Wisconsin Natural Resources Department, said, “Nobody owns the Great Lakes – it’s held in trust for all of us. All of us have a stake in it and therefore should have input in what we do with it.
“We have 1,100 miles of Great Lakes shoreline in Wisconsin and on a number of levels, it is critically important to us that we protect it.”
Legislators and natural resources officials are drafting a proposal to be presented to the eight Great Lakes governors and the premiers of Ontario and Québec next January.
Meanwhile, Michigan lawmakers are introducing legislation that would lay the foundation for Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s proposed “water legacy” law. Under the bill, large withdrawals of Great Lakes water would require a permit.
Granholm said, “The Great Lakes are being eyed by other states as a potential source of free, fresh water. Unless the state takes steps to better protect and manage our water resources, we will see withdrawals and diversions of water that threaten ecosystems, our way of life, and most importantly, our economy.”
While the proposal would regulate only large water withdrawals within the state, “what’s happening in Wisconsin could happen in Michigan,” said Sen. Liz Brater, D-Ann Arbor, a primary sponsor with Rep. Chris Kolb, D-Ann Arbor. “We have an obligation to help protect this resource for current water users and for future generations.”
The bill faces serious concerns from some legislators, manufacturers and farmers.
And while scientists maintain that there is not yet enough information to say whether water diversion adversely affects wildlife, Brater, who says she’s studied the issue for a long time, said, “There are all sorts of environmental consequences.” For example, “water flow affects trout streams and therefore, the spawning of the trout.”
In the United States, Michigan and Wisconsin use more Great Lakes water than any other states, a combined one billion gallons of groundwater each day for domestic, manufacturing and agricultural purposes.
The Great Lakes Legislative Caucus, a group started by Birkholz that includes the eight Great Lakes states and two bordering Canadian provinces, considers water withdrawal and diversion a top priority. “This is an issue of concern, and we have to be very cautious about how we deal with it,” she said.
“This study will certainly hasten our work on this issue, but we want to base our decisions on scientific documentation instead of blindly throwing a dart on the wall.”
Copyright 2004, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism