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