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Environmental groups: water extraction bill would weaken public oversight

Republican Governor Rick Snyder and the Republican leadership in the State House and Senate outlined progress and sticking points.
Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
The state Capitol in Lansing.

Environmental groups are crying foul over a new bill (H.B. 5638) they say would make it easier for agribusiness to get approval for large scale groundwater extraction proposals.

"This bill really guts the science-based way of assessing how much water someone can take out," said Marc Smith, senior policy manager of the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes Office. "And so the National Wildlife Federation and a lot of conservation organizations across the state are opposed to this because we think it removes science from the decision making process. It removes the balance of trying to manage water in a way that provides for agriculture, provides for municipalities, and in a way that sustains it for all of us to enjoy in the long term."

"This bill basically puts the fox guarding the hen house when it comes to managing our water resources," said Smith.

Under the bill, farms and businesses could get approval of their large quantity water extraction proposals based on their own experts' analyses that the proposed water withdrawals would not harm water resources.  If the state disagrees, the burden of proof would shift to the state to show that the project would hurt water resources. But in the meantime, the water extraction could proceed, and the well operator would have two years to submit the results of five pump tests upon which a determination would be made of whether the extraction had had an adverse effect.

The bill also would exempt information  submitted to the state for agricultural withdrawals from the Freedom of Information Act unless the state had determined that the withdrawal was causing an adverse impact.

"It's almost guaranteeing massive loss of water in Michigan with very little public oversight or review," said Jim Olson, founder and president of  For Love of Water, a non-profit committed to protecting the Great Lakes Water Basin.

According to the bill's sponsor, State Rep. Aaron Miller, R-Sturgis, the bill is needed because current approval processes are not using the best scientific standards, lack clarity, and can be too slow and costly for farmers.  Miller said he is trying to help farmers in his southwest Michigan district.