Michigan’s groundwater tool: Oversold, overhyped and in question

Gary Wilson

Gary Wilson


In sports, coaches encourage their players to celebrate success but to keep it in perspective. Outcomes can change quickly. For proof we only have to look back a few days to the Chicago Blackhawks stunning last minute rally to win the Stanley Cup to see how quickly fortunes can reverse.

The Michigan water conservation community would do well to take note. Here’s what I mean.

Great Lakes watchers in Michigan may remember the heady days of 2008.

Big things were happening.

The landmark Great Lakes Compact was signed into law insuring (we think) that the region’s water wouldn’t be shipped to needy states or countries. The next step was for each state to implement its own conservation laws and Michigan was determined to lead the region.

It quickly enacted a water conservation law and announced the launch of an internet-based Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool. The tool was designed to simplify the process and minimize the tedium for permit-seekers, yet still protect groundwater levels as well as the integrity of rivers and streams. That’s a lofty goal for an untried mechanism.

The tool won an award for innovation and was widely praised by government officials, academics and environmental groups. It seemed as if in one fell swoop the keys to the water conservation kingdom had been found, if you believed the hype.

chicagoviewIt was literally hard to not stumble on a puff piece cranked out by the region’s PR machines touting the virtues of the tool.

But things change.

A scant two years after its implementation, funding for the tool was cut by 90 percent according to a Great Lakes Echo report in 2011. Plus, the tool eschews field measurements in favor of predictive modeling. Put in 2013 tech terms, it’s like having a phone app for measuring the state’s water supply.

That troubles the angler group Michigan Trout Unlimited. It’s concerned about the reliance on modeling to the point that they’ll do their own field assessments this summer.

And they have a right to be concerned.

In the Chesapeake Bay over-reliance on modeling was a cited as a reason for the lagging results in its $6 billion 25-year cleanup effort. Models indicated that the bay was cleaner than it actually was but they were accepted by managers as reality, according to a Washington Post investigation.

And there’s more ill-wind.

The tool was designed well before the fracking boom. Now there are questions about its ability to adequately assess its impact, according to Resilience, an information clearing-house and action network. Fracking can tap groundwater for tens of millions of gallons in a short timeframe.

The tool’s architects continue to defend it saying it was designed to err on the conservative side. But detractors — including “scientists, lawyers and Michigan courts” — are lining up to say that the tool’s estimates are “deeply flawed,” Jeff Alexander wrote in Bridge magazine this week.

Issues around the tool, Michigan’s groundwater and the hyper-use of water for fracking will play out over time.

In recent years adaptive management principles have been introduced to the mix of Great Lakes conservation practices.

In diplomatic language, adaptive management “is a systematic process by which.. parties can assess effectiveness of actions and adjust future actions to achieve the objectives… as outcomes and ecosystem processes become better understood.”

That’s how it’s described in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the U.S. and Canada.

For those of us who speak in simpler terms, it means recognize if what you’re doing isn’t working and have the courage to call a timeout and reassess the plan.

What would I do?

First, recognize that the Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool is just that, a tool.

Second, acknowledge that there is no substitute for having qualified people in the field measuring and monitoring the flow of Michigan’s rivers and streams. Yes, that will cost money but protecting those treasures of nature and liquid assets will provide dividends for centuries to come.

Michigan chose speed and opportunism over taking the time to get it right when it placed a big bet on the water assessment tool to preserve rivers and streams. That was a mistake.

I was among a number of people who raised questions in 2008 about the rush to jump on the bandwagon of a tool that had yet to prove itself over time. But those concerns were brushed away as the success celebrations continued.

Those heady days of celebration are long-past. It’s time to deal with reality.

Recognizing and taking ownership of a bad outcome like the water withdrawal assessment tool is understandably hard. A lot of expertise, energy and political capital were expended to develop and sell it.

And there will probably be a few bruised egos if it’s reassessed and relegated to a lesser role.

But that’s a small price to pay to protect the abundance of Michigan’s rivers and streams.


12 thoughts on “Michigan’s groundwater tool: Oversold, overhyped and in question

  1. The water withdrawal tool is a pretty idea, but applied to N. MI streams and rivers it is WORTHLESS! All the environmental organizations that hyped and sold it should be ashamed. No baseline studies, extrapolations of extrapolations of downstate streams, insufficient staff, insufficient data. Basically, the MI WWAT made it legal to compromise fish populations, stream flow and our water quality and quality. It was absolutely obvious from the start. Measure with a micrometer, mark with a pencil, cut with a chain saw. SHAME on the water pimps!

  2. Pingback: More eyes on Michigan groundwater withdrawals « Schrems West Michigan Trout Unlimited

  3. Truth Only,

    1. Do you have a basis for your comments? ie. “lying” and “ignorant?”

    2. When you make allegations such as you have it’s always best to use your name if you want to be taken seriously.

    Gary Wilson

  4. Gosh I wish people would get informed before making an opinion and stating it as fact… Just for the record- there is no better or quicker way to turn people AGAINST your “cause” than to spout off BS attempting to support some extremist viewpoint that turns out to be completely false. You do your opposition’s work for you, far better than they ever could.

    Thank you, Dave Smith- the only poster above who is actually informed and level-headed. The rest are all either lying, ignorant, misinformed, misguided, or just simply not interested in the truth if it happens to conflict with what they wish.

  5. Pingback: Mission Statement of Don’t Frack Michigan: | dontfrackmichigan.com

  6. The fact that water withdrawals that fail the WWAT are routinely permitted by DEQ should compel its demise. Encana’s State Excelsior 3, 4 & 5-12HD1 are only the most recent examples. Use of WWAT is OOGM instruction, not law. This is a gaping loophole.

  7. Our White River Watershed (WRWP) was paid a visit by the Nestle’ Ice Mountain team during the time they were trying to put their wells in our WR watershed. Nestle Co Mr. Fox, Deb Muchmore, and Bill Rustem were the rah rah rah with Bill Rustem doing most of the jumping up/down out of his seat as the biggest loudmouth lobbyist for Nestle. Even our Republican members of the WRWP board knew what scam artist they were to screw our WR watershed. Later the Michigan Republicans teamed up with Republican Senator Pattie Burkholtz to sell off the Great Lakes and screw Michigan out of millions of dollars with no deposit on their Republican water containers. Then Republican Burkholtz brags up her Republican water tool scam. The fact is today the totally corrupt Michigan Snyder Republicans don’t care a bit about Michigan’s ground waters selling in bottles or destroyed by Fracking.

  8. Gary,

    As the Past Chairman of Michigan Trout Unlimited, I agree completely with your assessment that Michigan’s Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool is a TOOL, however I disagree with the characterization that it is oversold, overhyped, and in question. From the beginning, we at MITU knew that the tool was innovative, but not perfect so we fought for and helped achieve a reasonable system that could be used to improve the tool over time and would address the technical issues of incorporating in actual stream flows, and address the surge usage of oil and gas drilling among other issues we had identified. Like any tool, it has to be sharpened, oiled, and polished to be kept in good working order.

    When former Governor Granholm abolished the Water Resource Conservation Advisory Council in a false cost-cutting move (the committee was primarily volunteers and cost the state very little to operate), progress on improving the tool was set back a couple of years. Since then, MITU and the water conservation community in Michigan have been constantly lobbying for its restoration and in December, 2012 a new Water Use Advisory Council was established.

    Michigan Trout Unlimited’s Stream Flow Monitoring Program was designed to improve the use of the Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool, not to invalidate it. The establishment of our program took a few years as we had to work through the development of a cost effective monitoring program that could be applied by our volunteers. We did not choose speed and opportunism in implementing Michigan’s Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool, we chose to implement a good program that provided reasonable protection in most cases and critically for us, it had a mechanism to improve it over time, as new data became available to fix the areas where it was less than perfect. As long as all parties (conservation, business, and government) are committed to improving Michigan’s Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool, Michigan Trout Unlimited will be a willing, but vigilant partner.

    Dave Smith
    Past Chair
    Michigan Trout Unlimited

  9. Thank you so much for bringing to light the fact that the WWAT is inadequate to judge intensive short term withdrawals. The assumption that the only indication of adverse impact to water resources should be the prediction of possible effect of water withdrawal on fish is flawed, as it does not take into account any site specific limitations of the actual groundwater being accessed. Actual groundwater mapping, actual flow and temperature data, and pump aquifer tests are indicated.

  10. Yes, it is time to deal with reality, and fast. Thank you for this critique of the WWAT. Any tool like it will just be a screen to hide behind for the frack industry, which requires fresh water and turns it into toxic, contaminated waste. What we need to do is protect our water from destroyed by fracking and extracting natural gas, in the first place.

    The Committee to Ban Fracking in Michigan’s ballot initiative will protect our state’s water from this industrializing, toxifying invasion of the frack industry.

    Don’t turn our water wonderland into Gasland.
    Donate to, volunteer for the Ballot initiative to ban fracking at: http://www.letsbanfracking.org
    Please do it today.

    Thank you,
    LuAnne Kozma
    Campaign Director
    Committee to Ban Fracking in Michigan

  11. Great article. I have been concerned with the use of the tool since the day it was released. We have to get agricultural irrigation regulated and under control. Farmers are taking water out of aquifers and surface waters at an alarming rate, especially in Southwest Michigan for growing of seed corn. This activity has turned many of our streams from permanent flowing water bodies to seasonal trickles. The use of the this tool has failed miserably. Now the legislature just passed wetland and stream regulations that will exempt all seasonal flowing streams from any regulations (SB 167). Its a perfect storm for environmental destruction.

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