By LAUREN GIBBONS
Capital News Service
LANSING — Agricultural industries and well owners throughout Michigan both rely on the groundwater flowing deep beneath the earth.
In some cases, reservoir depletion can render smaller wells useless — unsurprisingly, disputes result.
The problem is not new, legislators and representatives of rural industries say, but as agriculture expands, conflicts are expected to become more prevalent.
Both sides say solutions can come from some kind of state-sponsored mediation program, but time is running out to reinstate such a program in place this year.
Budget constraints and a belief that existing legal solutions to the disputes are sufficient nixed an aquifer protection program that was in place from 2003 to 2009, said Maggie Datema, director of the office of legislative affairs at the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).
The program, put in place to assist property owners who believed their wells and groundwater levels were harmed by neighboring water use, ran through DEQ and resolved most cases brought before a civil suit was deemed necessary, Datema said.
The department has received about 107 complaints since the program ended, Datema said, and only 53 were resolved out of court.
Rep. Kurt Damrow, R-Elkton, told the House Natural Resources, Tourism and Outdoor Recreation Committee that the defunct program offered benefits for all involved in groundwater disputes and is necessary for agricultural industries.
“This is something that worked. It worked extremely well, and we need it,” he said.
Alternative mediation tactics are increasingly common throughout the country as viable options for dispute resolution, said Doug Van Epps, director of the Office of Dispute Resolution at the Michigan Supreme Court.
In Michigan, agricultural disputes generally come up most often in the west and northeastern areas of the Lower Peninsula, he said.
Particularly with land and natural resource disagreements, Van Epps said involving a mediator or implementing a specific program could help to make sure all interested parties — not just the landowners — are comfortable with the outcome.
“When you’re talking about groundwater, you’ve got people other than just the neighbors with an interest in this issue,” Van Epps said. “Local and state officials manage groundwater issues as well, and it’s key to involve them in the process.”
Sen. John Moolenaar, R-Midland, proposed legislation to reinstall the program earlier this year. The measure passed unanimously in the Senate in November, but has not passed the House and is in danger of falling through the cracks in the lame duck session.
The problem will continue to grow if an effective means of settling disputes is not implemented, said Department of Agriculture and Rural Development Director Clover Adams.
As the agriculture industry in Michigan continues to expand north, more farmers of crops such as potatoes will require water for irrigation, Adams said.
Other farmers are implementing irrigation as insurance in the wake of recent crop failures and damaging weather patterns, and Adams said residents with wells should have a means of communication with nearby farmers should their groundwater use cause disagreements.
“We have some concerns, but the agricultural community is going to be on the front line with support of this program,” she said. “We need to balance the needs of agriculture with the needs of rural citizens — protect our rural residents and protect what’s needed to feed the general population.”
By LAUREN GIBBONS