Current legislation puts our water at risk
Both the Michigan House and Senate are currently holding important legislative committee hearings around competing packages of water legislation. In short, the debate is centered on corporate versus public control of our water. There are House Bills 4343 and 5065-5073, and the companion Senate Bills 721-729. There are also a number of serious concerns with Senate Bills 212 and 860.
House Bill 4343 and Senate Bill 212 are the ratification of the Great Lakes Basin Compact. It is a multi-state and international agreement crafted to set specific statutory standards to protect our water from abusive withdrawals and diversions. The problem with the Senate version, Bill 212, is that it sets high permitting thresholds for the taking of water, which are difficult to trigger; it also requires minimal implementation of conservation standards; and it provides inadequate opportunities for community participation in decisions regarding large water withdrawals.
House Bills 5065-5073 and Senate Bills 721-729 are Michigan’s Water Withdrawal Legislation bills and provide the necessary mechanisms to secure public control of our water. However, Senate Bill 860, as introduced, could set aside anywhere from 22 to 40% of the water in stretches of the state’s rivers and streams for withdrawals, but the withdrawals would not require a permit. Therefore, the withdrawals would not be subject to public review.
These bills, House Bills 5065-5073 and Senate Bills 721-729, would clearly define, in statute, that all of the state’s waters are under public control by applying public trust standards to both groundwater and surface water. The public trust protections for groundwater would be implemented through a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) review. The review would use the following criteria: the withdrawal would not cause an adverse resource impact; the withdrawal would not adversely affect or interfere with the riparian rights or public trust in any groundwater; the withdrawal would not interfere with property rights of another person; and the withdrawal complies with all applicable laws.
Basically, public interest concerns must be considered by the MDEQ. For example: whether or not the withdrawn water will be used within the same watershed; the impact of the withdrawal on other uses of the groundwater or surface water, including use for recreation, fish and wildlife, aesthetic, local government, agriculture, navigation, commerce and industry. They must also consider the impact of the withdrawal on water quality; whether or not the proposed withdrawal is an efficient use of water; and whether or not the withdrawal would impair the physical character of a stream.
Using water withdrawal thresholds would trigger public oversight. First, all water users of 100,000 gallons or more per day must register their use and utilize the newly developed water withdrawal assessment tool to screen for potential resource harm (depending on results of the assessment tool review, water withdrawal permits could be required). Permits are required for withdrawals of 2 million gallons-per-day from the Great Lakes; 1 million gallons-per-day from inland water sources; withdrawals of 100,000 gallons-per-day for bottled-water; a 5 % reduction in the flow of the river or stream reach; and withdrawals occurring in sensitive areas. These bills also create a system for public input by increasing opportunities for public participation in community water planning and in the permitting process for proposed large water withdrawals.
By contrast, Senate Bill 860 relies solely on the newly developed “Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool” for decisions about new or expanded water withdrawals. Consequently, Senate Bill 860 would not require permits for large water withdrawals even if the proposed withdrawal is in an area with marginal water availability. Without permits, there is no opportunity for local input into water withdrawal decisions. Further, as written, Senate Bill 860 designates from 22-40 % of stretches of natural wonders like the Jordan and Au Sable Rivers as available for withdrawal; in stretches of other water waterways, withdrawals could allow for as much as 46% of the flow.