When it was rolled out in 2008, the Michigan Water Withdrawal Assessment Program was designed as a tool.
No personal bias or agenda was involved because computer programs don’t have opinions. They provide unemotional facts and data, leaving scientists to analyze. But as any computer whiz will insist, outcomes are only as good as inputs.
The tool was used to streamline the Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) new “large use” well approval process, assure farmers and their neighbors that new wells wouldn’t turn their communities and rivers into deserts, and would allow farmers who had plenty of water at their disposal to keep using it for their crops and animals without excessive bureaucratic burdens or waiting times.
It was quite simple. Farmers who wanted to put in new 100,000-gallon per day wells would go through a two-step process. First, they’d go online and plug in all the information the tool required.
The tool, developed by the state legislature and a statewide Groundwater Conservation Advisory committee, quickly determined whether a proposed “large withdrawal” would have any long-term adverse effect on surface water and the local aquifer.
If there were any questions remaining after completing the online assessment, the DEQ would conduct a “site specific review,” (SSR) in which human beings would examine the data and make a determination. Again, it was supposed to be simple. Based on data, the only options were yes or no.
By statute, the SSR process was to take no longer than 10 days.
“When we look at the SSR process, I would say that when we first asked the question through the tool, there was rarely any kind of problem,” said St. Joseph County farmer Larry Walton when he testified Feb. 28 in support of House Bill House Bill 5638.
“But as operations have grown and specialty crops have increased; and the demand on resources is more, our own experience is that it’s into 35-40 days” before an answer comes, he said. Some farmers have reported that they’ve waited much longer, pushing into months or more than a year.
Understanding that the DEQ is overwhelmed by requests for new wells for irrigating crops, providing water for livestock, supplying greenhouses and food production sites and other uses around the state, House Bill 5638 would help streamline the process with better science and more data collected by the farmer in consultation with a registered hydrogeologist, said Laura Campbell, manager of Michigan Farm Bureau’s Agriculture Ecology department.
“Right now, DEQ does not have a clear path forward about how to make decisions,” she said. “So they ask for more and more data, more and more time and more and more expense, which leads to a delay for farmers.”
Opponents to the bill, however, may wonder why there is a problem with a little extra time if it shields against adverse effects.
In essence, especially with specialty crops, buyers want to be assured that their quality and volume demands are met, and will in some cases require their contracted farmer to have irrigation.
Knowing that, the system of approving or disproving new wells through the tool needs updating, and one group of farmers has begun its own pilot program that aims to help the DEQ gather more data, this time based on actual conditions under the ground.
The flaws in the tool, said Jon White, a Cass County swine producer, are multiple. But they aren’t so far gone that they can’t be fixed.
THE CHECKBOOK MODEL
Presently, White said, the system is set up like a checkbook.
“The DEQ has determined that there is a specific amount of water for every watershed,” he said. “When that water was allocated, (the watershed) is (presumably) out of water and any new use would cause an adverse impact. We didn’t feel that was an accurate representation of the area we live in.”
Seeking to clarify that, White, along with Walton, Doug Bloom, a Branch County farmer, and several others, entered into a pilot program with the DEQ – at their own expense ‑ to learn the facts for that area.
At this point, White said, the studies have shown that there is much more water available than the DEQ and the tool show. Such studies will, hopefully, help adjust the tool and make it more responsive to specific areas rather than taking one model and applying it to the entire state.
House bill 5638 would also streamline the process of well approvals or denials, which is why the Feb. 28 House committee hearing was overflowing with farmers.
“Currently, what we find fault with in the SSR is that the DEQ has unlimited authority to tell a producer what he has to do to report information that will assist in passage of the site-specific review,” White said. “This legislation narrows the DEQ’s focus and its ability to require unlimited resources. We’re not scrapping or eliminating the tool. We’re trying to improve it and improve the SSR process that’s already in place and intended to protect the state of Michigan.”
As proof of that intention, Campbell pointed out that under the bill, continuing data will be provided to the DEQ from test wells and other information, all gathered under the supervision of a professional hydrogeologist.
“For at least two years after approval, the farmer would continue to submit monitoring data five additional times during the growing season,” Campbell said. “They’ll submit drawdown and recovery data so that the DEQ can monitor the situation. If you create an adverse effect to the water, they’ll shut you down. If not, you can grow your crop.”
While some media reporting has reflected environmentalist-group opinions that farmers are trying to manipulate the system in order to demote the DEQ into a mere monitor of water use instead of a watchdog, the bill, Walton said, would add badly needed scientific data to the tool and reflect real-world conditions instead of using a static model that doesn’t always consider Michigan’s geological diversity.
“We by no means are trying to say we want an endless supply of water pumped. Not at all,” Walton told the House Natural Resources Committee. “Understand that agriculture as a whole is very capital intensive, and we have no time or desire to spend effort that’s potentially needless to get a well we needed to begin with.”
As the science improves, and it will if the bill is passed, said Matt Smego, manager of Michigan Farm Bureau’s Government Relations department, danger of adverse impacts to rivers and streams will lessen.
“Traditional Site Specific Review does not change, the permit process for the largest withdrawals does not change, and it does not remove or weaken DEQ’s ability to deny any water use causing an adverse resource impact,” he said. “It also does not lessen the registrant’s obligation to demonstrate the proposed use will not cause an adverse resource impact.
“This bill seeks to solve challenges farmers face when working through the Site Specific Review process,” he said. “It clarifies how to determine whether a withdrawal is likely to cause an adverse resource impact, it identifies new tools available to both DEQ and professionals in the field that provide a better and more accurate modeling of a withdrawal’s effect on nearby streams, and it ensures DEQ will have that data to exercise its authority for oversight and enforcement.”
After all is said and done, the Water Withdrawal Assessment process is still a tool. But when a tool doesn’t fit the bolt anymore, it needs to be upgraded.
“That’s what this legislation does,” Campbell said. “It will allow better data. It will improve water uses in Michigan, not detract from them. It will help the DEQ do its job, not hinder it. We need better data, which is why farmers support House Bill 5638.”