Michigan Senate approves bill managing water withdrawals from lakes, waterways
by David Eggert | The Associated Press
Friday May 16, 2008, 8:30 AM
LANSING -- The state Senate voted Thursday to change how Michigan manages large-scale withdrawals from the state's lakes and inland waterways, over objections that the legislation would not do enough to protect trout streams and other resources.
The 24-14 vote in the Republican-controlled Senate capped more than two years of work, but more talks remain to resolve differences. The Democratic-led House may vote soon on a competing plan.
Until new water rules are approved, Michigan will not give final approval to a regional compact preventing Great Lakes water from being sent to dry regions.
Sen. Patricia Birkholz, a top negotiator on the legislation, said the key component would be a new point-and-click computer tool measuring the ecological effects of water withdrawals. Golf courses, wineries, ski resorts, dairy farmers and others could use the technology to find out if their water usage would have an "adverse resource impact."
"This is truly landmark. It's never been done in any other state," said Birkholz, R-Saugatuck, arguing it makes sense to use science as the yardstick to determine if a withdrawal is harmful or not.
Democrats, though, said the bill would set too-lenient thresholds on when the approval of state environmental regulators would be required to use large amounts of water. They also questioned whether withdrawals could affect thriving trout populations and water flow in streams.
"What percent of the fish population are we willing to write off?" asked Sen. Michael Prusi, D-Ishpeming. "Our cold-water streams and small rivers are world-class resources, the jewels of northern Michigan."
Republicans favor allowing withdrawals reducing certain fish populations no more than 3 percent. Democrats want a 1 percent limit.
The legislation would require the Department of Environmental Quality to implement the assessment tool one year after the law takes effect.
Democrats warned the delay could cause a rush of new water withdrawals before revised rules kick in, but Birkholz said it would take time to start the system. She said new or expanded water bottling plants already have to get state permits for withdrawing more than 250,000 gallons a day.
That threshold would drop to 200,000 gallons a day under legislation preliminarily approved by the House and Senate earlier in the week.
The Michigan Farm Bureau and business groups backed the Senate plan for water withdrawals. Environmental and conservation groups opposed it, expecting Democrats who control the House to pass stricter standards. It looks increasingly likely the rules will have to be resolved in a House-Senate conference committee.
"Both sides should move to move bridge that gap," said Sen. Michael Switalski, D-Roseville, one of three Democrats to join all 21 Republicans in supporting the bill. "I'm embarrassed we call ourselves the Great Lakes state but we're practically the last state to sign the compact."
Wisconsin soon will be the fifth of eight states in the region to sign the 2005 agreement.
Michigan law now requires permits if a company wants to use more than 2 million gallons a day from inland waters and 5 millions gallons daily from the Great Lakes. The Senate bill would make it 2 million gallons for both inland waters and the Great Lakes.
Environmental groups prefer a threshold of 1 million gallons in House legislation but might be willing to bend if lawmakers approve more protections for sensitive headwater regions.
They complained that under the measure, up to 25 percent of parts of rivers and streams could be pumped out without needing a permit. Republicans responded that the bill would protect vital areas while letting the business community quickly get clearance for withdrawals where water is plentiful without going through a drawn-out permitting process.
The two other Democrats to vote for the bill were Sens. James Barcia of Bay City and John Gleason of Flushing.