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New law: A major step forward in protecting Michigan’s water

New protection for Michigan’s water, including legislation authorizing Michigan’s entry into the Great Lakes–St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact (the Compact), was signed into law by Gov. Jennifer Granholm in July. The Compact, which must be approved by Congress and signed by the President, is an agreement among the eight U.S. Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces to prevent diversions and regulate withdrawals that would harm the waters of the Great Lakes.

The signing marks another milestone for the Great Lakes, Great Michigan coalition that has been working for almost five years to secure stronger protection for the Great Lakes. The Michigan Environmental Council is one of six members of the coalition steering committee. The others are Clean Water Action, Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, Sierra Club–Michigan Chapter, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation and Michigan League of Conservation Voters.
The new legislation is important, especially because Michigan is the only state entirely within the Great Lakes watershed, which contains almost 20% of the planet’s fresh surface water. Increasing demand for fresh water is expected to ratchet up pressure to divert water from the watershed, where it would be lost forever to the Great Lakes system.
The past year has seen notables, including a Democratic presidential candidate and Ohio’s lieutenant governor, suggest that water might be siphoned from the lakes.
Included in the package are the following major steps forward:

Long-term protection. The law reserves between 75% and 95% of the summer low flow of rivers and streams to protect aquatic health depending on the stream type. Riparian law protections then govern the remainder of the stream flow, allowing only “reasonable use” of the remainder, subject to challenge by the other riparian right holders in the area.

Greater state oversight. All users above 100,000 gallons a day must continue to register with the state. They also are required to review new best practices for water conservation to see how their facility compares with others in their sector. Lastly, permitting thresholds have been lowered. A significant new provision will require withdrawals subject to permitting from inland sources to demonstrate that their withdrawals are “reasonable” uses of water, taking into consideration other users and uses for water in the community.

Public participation.
Organizations and coalitions working on local water quality issues will be notified and given the opportunity to be involved in the assessment and education process. During that process, current use and capacity will be analyzed, along with an assessment of water conservation measures currently practiced in the area.

Efforts to promote conservation. For the past two years, different water user sectors have been developing environmentally sound and economically feasible water conservation practices. New language is included in the new legislation that requires water users to certify that they have reviewed these water conservation practices. In sensitive areas, users must certify that they have considered implementing them, and all new permit applicants must show they are implementing those they found to be cost effective.

Bottled water. The permit process requires meeting all the standards required for any other water use, including public notices and an opportunity for a hearing. Included in those standards is a requirement that the use of water for water bottling is a “reasonable use” as defined by Michigan riparian law. In addition, a water bottler is required to undertake activities “to address hydrologic impacts commensurate with the nature and extent of the withdrawal.” These activities may include those related to the stream flow regime, water quality and aquifer protection. Permitting for water bottling is now required for any facility which withdraws more than 200,000 gallons a day.

Water assessment tool. This process calls for the state to monitor and register large quantity withdrawals and to control reduction in the flow of streams and rivers in order to protect aquatic health. A new “Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool” will provide an Internet tool to register and monitor water use in your community.
The tool will assign the withdrawal to a sub-watershed of a river or stream, estimate the low summer flow of that stream, the probable impact of the well on the flow, and the resulting impact on aquatic health (using estimated abundance of fish species as the indicator). The stream flow factors mentioned above will determine if a withdrawal is acceptable.

Fines and penalties. Civil fines for most “knowing” violations of water withdrawal or permitting requirements or causing an adverse resource impact would increase from $5,000 to $10,000. Other violations are subject to a $1,000 fine.

Reservation of rights. Opponents of the compact have argued that the document can impact private property rights. In order to clarify the reservation of rights to protect common law water rights, language was added to reserve the rights of any person to go to court to protect their rights to water.

While the Compact and the Michigan-specific laws are a big step forward, the coalition will continue its vigilance to protect Michigan’s water from unwise or excessive uses. The Coalition expects to continue a push for stronger “public trust” language that affirms groundwater is a public resource; and to monitor and modify the implementation of the new laws and the assessment tool as real-world data is collected.
To learn more about the new laws and their protections, contact James Clift at (517) 487-9539 or at james@environmentalcouncil.org.
-James Clift, Michigan Environmental Council
RELATED TOPICS: Great Lakes
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