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