Groundwater: The Great Lakes region’s second-class citizen

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Gary Wilson

Gary Wilson


Did you ever want to be ahead of the curve when it comes to a Great Lakes issue? Put a spotlight on a potential problem before it becomes a crisis and the media is all over it? Here’s your chance.

Start championing groundwater conservation. And tell elected officials to do the same.

Groundwater in the region is in the early stages of stress from an ever-increasing demand for water to support agriculture and fracking.

No, it’s not a crisis yet similar to the record low level of Lakes Huron and Michigan, which now receive national attention. But the early warning signs are present.

The Echo recently illustrated the issue of declining groundwater and the most troubling aspect of the report is that “much of the region remains below the 1948-2009 average.”

Why is this important? You’ve repeatedly heard that the Great Lakes provide drinking water to 30 million people in the U.S.

That’s a notable claim but not quite true. Eight million of those people get their drinking water from groundwater, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Almost all irrigation that supports farming comes from groundwater.

Those are important and overlooked statistics.

Give groundwater respect chicagoview

It’s James Clift’s job to be on top of the groundwater issue in Michigan and he’s starting to be concerned, less so about today but the future.

“The overall trend of declining lake levels should wake people up to the importance of water conservation including groundwater” says Clift, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council.

Michigan has reasonable withdrawal limits in place, but “it’s just as important to use water efficiently,” Clift says. “We should treat groundwater with more respect.”

Robert Glennon, a University of Arizona law professor, is concerned about the groundwater pumped in Michigan today. He also makes the connection between groundwater and the Great Lakes.

Writing in the Detroit Free Press, Glennon notes that “in the last three years, Michigan has registered 1,167 new high-capacity groundwater wells, each capable of pumping more than 100,000 gallons per day.”

Glennon calls on Michigan to implement tighter pumping limits.

Toss in emerging fracking operations which could use “up to 5,000,000 gallons or more,” according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and you can see why groundwater is starting to be stressed.

Water taken for fracking is exempt from Michigan’s water withdrawal law.

Slow to react

We have a history in the Great Lakes region of waiting to deal with problems until there’s a crisis.

Asian carp were introduced in this country in 1975 and ten years later began a steady advance toward the Great Lakes with little attention paid to them until 2009. That’s when scientific evidence said they had breached an electrical barrier designed to keep them at bay. By then they were at the doorstep of Lake Michigan.

Closer to the groundwater issue, when the Great Lakes Compact was debated many people worried  that it included a one-industry diversion exemption. That was for bottled water.

A typical argument to justify the exemption was that bottled water used so little groundwater compared to overall withdrawals that it wasn’t worth dealing with. That’s a standard compare a little number to the biggest possible number to make your point tactic — incorporating faulty but effective logic. Plus it isn’t forward looking.

That was nine years ago when there was no drought, threats from climate change were less known and accepted and massive water for fracking was barely on anyone’s radar.

Things have changed and we need to change when it comes to how we look at groundwater.

Michigan is reinstating its previously abandoned Water Use Advisory Council , so that’s a step in the right direction.

But if the council doesn’t have a mandate for precaution in its mission it’s likely to be more about appearances.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is hosting a summit of Great Lakes governors later this year on Mackinac Island. The meeting’s purpose is to develop a plan to combat aquatic invasive species, a worthy topic but with limited opportunities to make an impact. The genie is out of that bottle.

At this point any recommendation by the governors on aquatic invasives is just a reaction to a decades-old problem. But the governors can get out in front on groundwater management.

Here’s an idea and I can’t be the first person in the region to have thought of it:

Why not form a Great Lakes Groundwater Coalition that has a mission of emphasizing precautionary use and conservation? Climate change issues and demand for water from agriculture and fracking interests aren’t likely to subside any time soon.

To do less would be to continue to relegate groundwater to its current status as a second-class citizen.

That means problems will be dealt with when there’s a crisis, just like we handled the Asian carp advance.

You can see where that got us.


7 thoughts on “Groundwater: The Great Lakes region’s second-class citizen

  1. Only a BAN ON FRACKING will protect our groundwater, our environment, and our health because drilling for oil and natural gas is exempted from critical environmental regulations. The Committee to Ban Fracking in MIchigan, a statewide grassroots group based in Charlevoix, has received state permission to circulate a legislative ballot initiative petition that would ban fracking in Michigan and ban the storage of waste produced by fracking done anywhere. You can read the legislative proposal at Petitions will be circulated from April 12, 2013 to October 1, 2013. This petition cannot be signed online. You can volunteer, donate, and/or endorse the Committee to Ban Fracking in Michigan at the website. A total of 320,000 valid signatures must be collected by October 2013 to place this legislative proposal on the ballot in November 2014. All concerned citizens must act now to protect Michigan’s watersheds and the Great Lakes from being poisoned by toxic chemicals used in fracking.

  2. Pingback: Lake Ontario Waterkeeper

  3. I call the pollution of now reported of as much as 21 million gallons of water by civilized knowledgeable people to Frack one well and unconscionable act. The process should be stopped.
    Who can and will issue the “moratorium” the Governor, the DEQ someone needs to step up to the plate on this.
    I am a National Director of the League living in Rockford MI and call for moratorium to Fracking process. The League calls for a moratorium as dose another group CRRM (Criticize for Responsible Resource Management) I am active with. There are many others calling for a moratorium or a ban.

  4. Give groundwater respect, except former Michigan governor John Engler never had any respect nor did he ever have respect for any natural resources. Engler and his Republican cohorts brought Nestle Ice Mountain bottled water company to Michigan to specifically to rape Michigan groundwater and sell it outside the Great Lakes basin to Arizona, China, wherever. Republicans in later years then helped to make sure all the water containers were exempt from bottle deposits.

  5. Mr. Wilson, thank you for this. I might point out, though, that the DEQ’s website is currently not completely accurate when describing the amount of water used for fracking. You may be familiar with the website,, used by some natural gas and oil industry players to share some information with the public. Water quantities and fracking chemicals are some of the items listed, though since not all companies participate, we’re still not getting the whole picture (far from it, I’m afraid.) But – upon looking at the website last week, I found several wells that are using 4 and 5 times as much water than we’ve previously been led to believe. One well was reported to use 21,000,000, and another on the same well pad, 16,000,000. Several others used similar amounts of water. So the “up to 5,000,000 gallons” claimed by DEQ is actually far from the truth. I also saw in the new drilling permit applications released to the public this week, that there are several new wells proposed for 15,000 up to 20,000 feet deep, up to twice as deep as we’ve been seeing the past couple of years. Those wells will require a lot more water to frack. We need to fix this situation. That water, once used to frack a well, is never to be returned to the water cycle again, because it’s not possible to remove the pollutants. It’s the Tragedy of the Commons, and the commons we’re talking about now is our fresh clean drinkable groundwater, being used, polluted, then thrown away, just like a disposable paper cup.

  6. Groundwater usage needs to be put in terms of NET groundwater usage. There is a difference between how much groundwater is used but returned to the ground (as the vast majority is at my place where we have a well and a drain field), and water that is not returned to the ground, not very directly at least, through evaporation, stream flow, water-containing products that leave the area, etc.
    What I feel is needed is good quantified data on net groundwater losses and the QUALITY of water that is returned to the ground. Without that, we are doing too much speculation.
    A while back I found it interesting, and a bit disconcerting, that there appeared to be no coordinated effort to monitor changes in water levels in existing water wells with time….

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