By BROOKE KANSIER
Capital News Service
LANSING — In a state surrounded by 20 percent of the world’s fresh water, overuse and sustainability might not be the first thing on the minds of Michiganders.
And according to a study that graded states on their water policies and conservation, these concerns may not be very common in state government, either.
The Alliance for Water Efficiency’s most recent scorecard gave Michigan a mere 3 points out of the possible 40 for water efficiency and policy. Compare that to places such as fellow Great Lakes state Wisconsin with 15.5, Rhode Island’s 20, or California’s 29.
With a D grade and the lowest score among Great Lakes states, Michigan failed in categories such as state policies regarding toilet and shower head efficiency, water-efficient building or plumbing codes, or even guidelines for conservation among water utility companies — and was given a passing grade in only one category. In fact, Michigan has no guidelines that exceed federal standards when it comes to appliances, plumbing or water utility efficiency.
Michigan is joined by fellow Great Lakes states Ohio, Pennsylvania and Illinois, which also received scores below 5, despite membership the Great Lakes Compact, a collaboration among Michigan and other Great Lakes states to protect and sustain the Great Lakes water basin.
While some of these Great Lakes states have attempted to improve water use — an amendment will come into effect this year in Illinois requiring users of high-capacity wells, particularly farmers, to report usage data — Michigan legislation directly applying to water use and conservation has been minimal since the state received its failing grade in 2012.
Department of Environmental Quality Communications Director Brad Wurfel challenged both the report and the notion that Michigan has done little in the years since it was released.
“To compare our water use to, say, Arizona or California is unfair to the point of being disingenuous, because there is nothing similar about our hydrology,” Wurfel said by email. “The idea that states with dangerously limited supplies of fresh water are doing more than Michigan in the area of water conservation does not surprise me. …
“In Michigan, this conversation isn’t about low-flow toilets and ultra-green showerheads. It’s about agriculture and industry, land use and wetlands protection and aging sewer infrastructure at the community level.”
Wurfel said Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration is pursuing conservation initiatives through a statewide water use advisory council and a 30-year water strategy. While Snyder has signed into law multiple bills dealing with issues such as sewer infrastructure and pollution, issues such as conservation and limiting overuse have been largely left out of the conversation in recent years.
Michigan’s water use has decreased over time, but the state still uses more surface and groundwater from the Great Lakes basin than any other state — about 10.4 billion gallons daily in 2011, according to data by the Great Lakes Commission.
Fossil fuel energy production, such as the cooling processes used in power plants, are the largest users of this water, according to 2013 data from the Great Lakes Regional Water Use Database — almost six times more than the amounts withdrawn for public water supplies.
Michigan put a law into place in 2008 to limit large water withdrawals, specifically for irrigation and fossil fuel energy — which, according to Department of Natural Resources Director Keith Creagh, are some of the biggest uses of water in the state.
While fracking is still a growing operation in Michigan, the amounts of water involved in the process have raised attention and criticism. According to Jon Allan, director of the DEQ’s Office of the Great Lakes, however, what the withdrawn water is used for is not the issue.
“Whether you’re using it for fracking, or for industry, or for human use — you know, a city takes out a lot of water,” Allan said. “The stream doesn’t know what the water’s being used for. ”
Regardless of how Michigan’s water is used, it has begun to have an impact on some groundwater reserves throughout the state, according to Allan.
“We have seen an increased number of aquifers in some places that are getting stressed,” Allan said.
These stressed aquifers are not a new problem. In 2012, Michigan State University’s Institute for Water Research found that in Ottawa County, both glacial and bedrock aquifers had declined significantly, and claimed that the current number of withdrawals in that area would not be sustainable in the future. The same year, the DEQ identified 12 counties throughout the state that were experiencing similar troubles.
“These areas are a great reminder that, even in the Great Lakes state, our supply is finite and we need to manage it carefully to maintain the quality of life we all enjoy,” Wurfel said.
Creagh said that while Michigan resources are more significant than those in Western states, how water is managed can make all the difference.
“Our water resources are plentiful,” Creagh said. “But you just have to look to California.”
While the Great Lakes region won’t be drying up anytime soon, officials in nearby Great Lakes basin state Pennsylvania issued a “drought watch” for 27 of its counties late last month, and are calling for water conservation statewide. As of April 17, the watch was still in effect.
“What you have to make sure you’re doing is balancing your withdrawal against the ability to recharge, so you’re not sort of permanently and irreparably lowering that water table forever,” Allan said. “You have to live within the means that nature provides us.”
By BROOKE KANSIER