Future of Michigan automated water permit tool in doubt

An online water permitting tool helps protect streams like this one in Mason, Mich. Photo: Cherice Montgomery via flickr

By Jeff Kart

An online tool that helps decide if Michigan water withdrawals are harmful is in danger of drying up because its largest group of users don’t help pay for it, state officials say.

The tool allows people to find out quickly if a proposed water withdrawal will harm fish in the state’s streams and rivers. It was created in response to Michigan’s 2008 passage of the Great Lakes Compact, which regulates large water withdrawals.

The tool issues permits on the spot for requests that aren’t considered harmful, based on data from stream and river flows. Potentially harmful withdrawals are flagged and require a visit from state regulators.

Michigan’s agricultural exemption

It works well and has won national awards, state and agricultural officials say. But there’s a funding problem: More than 80 percent of the requests processed come from farmers. And agriculture is exempt from paying the annual water reporting fees that help fund the program.

What does that mean for the future of the tool, the first of its kind in the nation?

“We can’t sustain the level we’re at,” says David Hamilton, chief of the Water Management Section of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment in Lansing.

A total of 216 withdrawals were processed in the first year, according to state figures. Of those, 80 percent were automatically authorized.  The remaining 20 percent were subjected to further review.  Only three were rejected for potentially harming streams.

When the water withdrawal assessment program began in 2008, it was funded with $900,000 from the state’s general fund, Hamilton said. This fiscal year, that figure has been cut to $100,000. Staff has been cut from six employees to three.

The water reporting fees – $200 a year for each permit holder – generate about $200,000 from 1,000 non-farm facilities.

With $100,000 from the general fund and $200,000 from reporting fees, the state is borrowing from its fund balance, or savings account, to keep the program afloat this year, Hamilton said. He estimates the assessments can only continue for two years at current funding levels, but didn’t have exact figures available.

Farmers say they do their part

So why the special treatment for farmers?

Scott Piggott, with Michigan Farm Bureau, doesn’t believe the funding system is unfair.

“It was part of the legislative intent that agriculture wasn’t included,” said Piggott, manager of the bureau’s Agricultural Ecology Department.

Piggott says farms already report their water use to the state Department of Agriculture, and are required to create water conservation plans.

“We as an organization didn’t support a fee,” he said. “We thought farmers were doing their part of the job by effectively using the water resources.”

Farmers also are contributing to economic development when they receive a water withdrawal permit that prompts them to make a large investment, Piggott said. “That dwarfs any fee that would be paid,” he said.

Piggott believes his organization is largely responsible for the program’s success, through educational efforts to familiarize farmers with it.

The tool assesses water withdrawals of more than 100,000 gallons per day – about 70 gallons per minute, said Marc Smith, senior policy manager for the National Wildlife Federation in Ann Arbor. It uses GPS coordinates to assess requests.

“It’s a screening tool,” Smith said. “It allows the state agency folks to only focus in on ones that are red-flagged.”

Similar tool in Ohio to receive agricultural support

Ohio hopes to launch a similar tool sometime in 2011, said Kristy Meyer, director of agricultural and clean water programs for the Ohio Environmental Council.

“Michigan paved the way” for other states in developing withdrawal assessment programs, said Meyer, a member of Ohio’s Great Lakes Compact Advisory Board.

In Ohio, all users, including agriculture, will pay to help fund the system, she said. “Don’t let that catch on here,” she said of Michigan’s agriculture exemption.

Smith, from the wildlife federation, agrees that the assessment tool works well, but also thinks farmers should have to pay.

“There’s got to be a commitment of the Legislature to fund it, and figure out how to get all users to pay,” he said. “We have to have that discussion. We have to keep this tool.”

  • Anonymous

    I have no scientific basis to judge the veracity of the “tool,” but let’s not become over-reliant on technology that hasn’t stood the test of time.

    Here’s what I mean.

    The Chesapeake Bay’s $6bn/20 year restoration program has essentially failed for a number of reasons – primarily because special interests
    like agriculture were accommodated and the lack of enforcement.

    A contributor to the failure was over-reliance on computer generated predictive modeling that painted an optimistic picture of the Chesapeake’s future health that wasn’t going to be achievable.

    Here’s how the Washington Post described the outcome. “It was clear that the model’s version of the Chesapeake was healthier than the real one.”

    So let’s use technology to help us but also understand that it isn’t a silver bullet. It can assist but should never be a substitute for our own expertise and common sense.

    Thanks Jeff for your report.

    Gary

  • Don

    Agriculture should help support the system by paying the fee as others do. Ag is tremendously dependent on water withdrawal, being perhaps the largest water user in the nation. The water is essentially free except for the energy and infrastructure required to pipe it. This “free” water is very significant to the profitability of agriculture. Paying the modest fee would be a small but worthwhile contribution to assuring the integrity of the ground water and surface water resource.