Submitted by Paul J Sniadecki, ML&SA Board Director
On February 22, 2018, State Rep. Aaron Miller (R-Sturgis MI) introduced MI House Bill 5638 that would allow farms or businesses withdrawing large amounts of Michigan groundwater to bypass the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s (MDEQ) modeling tool currently used to evaluate such proposals. Use of the tool has been a requirement since 2009. Instead, applicants could gain approval by submitting their own expert analyses showing that inland lakes, streams, and fish would not be adversely impacted. Further, if the applicant is a farmer, all of their submitted data and analyses — even how much water they propose to withdraw — would be exempt from disclosure under the Michigan Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) .
There are 24 House Representatives joining Miller in sponsoring HB 5638. If passed, the changes to MCL 324.32706c would shift the MDEQ’s review process for large quantity groundwater withdrawals toward default approval, and further exempt certain data on agricultural water use from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
In Michigan, using water for agricultural irrigation is the largest type of “consumptive” water use. Large irrigation systems consume ground water via evaporation, plant absorption, and run-off, so some or all of the water used is not returned to the local ecosystem.
Some Michigan environmental groups say the legislation is an attempt to dismantle water resource protection. The legislation would, essentially, relegate the DEQ to merely monitoring water use rather than ensuring overuse doesn’t harm the environment. Some have noted the proposed changes include a “rebuttable presumption” that would, essentially, require the DEQ to automatically approve large water withdrawal applications if they come with a hydro-geological analysis. The DEQ would get 10 days to review the analysis and, if there were concerns, would still have to grant a provisional approval. The well owner would then have to measure water levels over two summers before a final approval is considered.
Miller says the goal is to help farmers in Southwest Michigan, where there’s increasing demand for corporate seed crops, to get approval for irrigation wells in areas where there’s already multiple wells. Miller says he only wants to help farmers in his district avoid costly delays in getting water for their crops and livestock, using the best science possible to ensure rivers and streams are protected. The bill was crafted with help from the Michigan Farm Bureau.
On February 28, 2018, the House Natural Resource Committee held the initial hearing for HB 5638. Citizen and industry attendance was high, and it appears as though another hearing will be scheduled. As of March 14, 2018, no further action was taken by Committee.
Riparians interested in large quantity water withdrawals can review the proposed bill posted on the state website, and can contact their Michigan House Representative with links at http://house.michigan.gov/mhrpublic/frmFindaRep.aspx .
(NOTE: Portions of this article were first reported by the DETROIT FREE PRESS and MLIVE-Michigan)