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Water, water everywhere in Michigan – but is it enough?

Bernard and Phyllis Senske encountered many challenges over the years while operating a sheep farm in Kalkaska County, but water scarcity was not among them.

That changed earlier this year. Shortly after a Canadian firm attempted to hydraulically fracture a deep shale natural gas well nearby, the water table on the Senskes’ property went down by 11 feet and discolored water flowed from their well.

“The water coming out of the faucet started getting milky after the gas company started drilling,” Bernard Senske said.

The Senskes’ situation put them among a growing number of Michigan homeowners, farmers and businesses encountering water scarcity issues.

For a variety of reasons, access to groundwater — the primary source of drinking water for 44 percent of Michigan residents and nearly all irrigated farms — is becoming a critical issue in several areas of the state:

• In Ottawa County, groundwater withdrawals from a large freshwater aquifer sucked salty brine into dozens of drinking water and irrigation wells. The situation prompted some farmers to sink new wells and forced homeowners in three Allendale subdivisions to connect to a municipal water system, according to county officials.

• In the heavily irrigated agricultural region of southwest lower Michigan, farmers’ access to groundwater is being limited by a 2008 state law designed to keep water withdrawals from hurting nearby rivers or fish populations.

• In the Upper Peninsula, Marquette County officials are studying ways to replenish aquifers and lakes that have suffered significant water losses in recent years. Residents around Martin Lake recently told county officials that sinking water levels in the lake are hurting property values and disrupting recreational activities.

• Statewide, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has identified 12 counties where groundwater withdrawals have stressed at least one watershed.

A water shortage – right next to Lake Michigan

Officials in Ottawa County, which borders Lake Michigan, said they were stunned to learn that groundwater scarcity was an issue for some rural homeowners and farmers.

“It’s ironic that we live on Lake Michigan and we’re seeing a problem with our groundwater,” said Mark Knudsen, Ottawa County’s director of planning and performance. “We may be the proverbial canary in the mineshaft.”

Scientists at Michigan State University discovered that groundwater was being withdrawn from one of Ottawa County’s major aquifers faster than it could be replenished. That caused brine at the bottom of the aquifer to be drawn into drinking water and irrigation wells, said David Lusch, a geography professor and senior research specialist at MSU’s Institute of Water Research.

Lusch said there is plenty of groundwater beneath Ottawa County and much of Michigan, but not all of it is suitable for drinking or irrigation purposes. He said access to high-quality groundwater is becoming more of a challenge in several areas of the state.

“I think we’ve been on this slippery slope (of excessive groundwater withdrawals) for a long time but people haven’t been seeing the threat,” Lusch said. “It’s becoming obvious that we weren’t kidding when we said groundwater in Michigan is a finite resource.”

Early results of new water regulations

Since Michigan’s new water use regulations went into effect in 2008, 1,789 high-capacity wells capable of pumping more than 100,000 gallons daily have been drilled, according to state data. The vast majority of those wells irrigate farm fields, said Andrew LeBaron, a MDEQ environmental quality analyst.

The DEQ has prohibited 12 large water withdrawals since 2008.

The growing number of farmers irrigating crops is putting “localized pressure” on groundwater resources in several areas, said James Clift, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council and a member of the state’s Water Use Advisory Council.

“It’s not a statewide water scarcity issue, it’s a localized issue,” Clift said. “But we have dozens of watersheds that are coming up to this line where we have to be careful” to avoid water withdrawals that could harm fish populations and hurt tourism.

All water withdrawals over 100,000 gallons daily must pass a screening by the state’s Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool. The tool is a computer program designed to prevent large water withdrawals from draining nearby streams or harming fish populations.

The tool limits the volume of water that can be pumped out of the ground or surface waters in hundreds of watersheds across the state. That restriction establishes the amount of “legally available water,” LeBaron said.

Limiting the amount of “legally available water” is causing conflict between state regulators and farmers in southwest lower Michigan, where most of the state’s 450,000 acres of irrigated farmland are located.

“Southwest Michigan is a water-rich area and we don’t get complaints about wells going dry or rivers and lakes going down,” LeBaron said. “What we’re running up against is this concept of legally available water and the anticipated depletion of regulated stream flows.”

Lyndon Kelley, an irrigation educator for Michigan State University’s agricultural extension program, said the state’s water withdrawal assessment tool is based on flawed data that creates unnecessarily strict limits.

“We have a tremendous expansion in the use of the (water) resource and we might expect some challenges, but it looks like the state has greatly overestimated the impact of irrigation on stream flows,” Kelley said.

Stream flows in some southern Michigan rivers have increased in recent years, despite increased groundwater withdrawals for agricultural irrigation, Kelley said.

Farmers aren’t the only water users complaining about the state’s Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool. Environmental groups are concerned the tool is too lenient on large water withdrawals, such as those used for hydraulic fracturing of deep shale gas wells, while farmers contend the tool is too restrictive.

Gov. Rick Snyder recently reconvened the state’s Water Use Advisory Council and asked the panel to improve the Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool.

Just how much water is there – and how much do we use?

The Great Lakes contain 20 percent of all surface freshwater on the planet, which amounts to 6 quadrillion gallons. The single largest source of water loss from the Great Lakes is evaporation, according to government data, which far exceeds the amount of water diverted to Chicago or bottled and sold outside of the region.

Michigan uses the most surface water and groundwater among the eight Great Lakes states, and was second only to the province of Ontario’s water use 2011, the most recent year for which data was available.

Government data show that Michigan residents, businesses, power plants and cities collectively pumped 10.4 billion gallons of water daily out of the Great Lakes and groundwater sources in 2011, which was down slightly from a decade ago. Groundwater withdrawals totaled 492 million gallons daily in 2011.

Most of the water pumped out of the ground and the Great Lakes eventually returns, in the form of precipitation, runoff or treated wastewater.

Michigan’s consumptive uses of Great Lakes water, which resulted in a net loss of water from the lakes, totaled 596 million gallons daily in 2011, according to a Great Lakes Commission report. Irrigation practices consumed the most Great Lakes water in Michigan that year, 220 million gallons daily.

A 2012 study by the Alliance for Water Efficiency and Environmental Law Institute concluded that most Great Lakes states have weak laws and policies governing water efficiency and conservation measures, despite being parties to the Great Lakes Compact. The 2008 Compact is a federal law that prevents most diversions of Great Lakes water; it also called on the Great Lakes states to strengthen water efficiency and conservation programs.

The Alliance for Water Efficiency study gave Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania failing grades for having weak water conservation laws and policies. All three states were given a D.

Lusch said Michigan is doing a “barely passable” job of promoting water conservation measures.

Jon Allan, director of Michigan’s Office of the Great Lakes, said Gov. Snyder’s administration is drafting a comprehensive water use plan that will address efficiency and conservation measures.

“Just because the Great Lakes are here doesn’t mean we can put endless straws in them and waste the water,” Allan said. “We still need to be good stewards.”

Allan said conserving water has the dual benefit of reducing energy use, which saves consumers money and reduces air pollution. He said the state should promote the efficient use of water for business and farming purposes.

Energy use is tied to water withdrawals because all municipal water supplies and individual wells use pumps to deliver water to the tap; artesian wells are the only wells that naturally flow to the surface.

Lusch said water scarcity issues in Michigan underscore the need for all state residents to use water more efficiently:

“It’s a perverse thought that we need to conserve water when we sit in the middle of 20 percent of all surface freshwater on the planet, but it’s true nonetheless.”

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