Water-Withdrawl Material Coming As Online Source

February 13, 2008
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LANSING — An online tool to help communities, businesses and homeowners assess the impact of drilling wells and other water-draining facilities could be available later this year.

The water-withdrawal assessment tool will be a free Internet database that includes information on stream flow and local wildlife and wetland use. It would allow people interested in a water source to self-assess a well’s potential impact on the surrounding area’s rivers and streams.

For example, it can be used to indicate whether a proposed well would harm fish populations, Groundwater Conservation Advisory Council member Jim Cleland of Lansing said. His group worked with two other groups and the Department of Natural Resources to develop the tool.

But some St. Joseph County officials worry that the tool’s estimates would be too drastic and could prevent storm drains from emptying properly. Because the tool places great emphasis on preserving the fish population, many drains that are only full during flooding seasons will be labeled as fish ponds and thus would force the county to change its watershed plan to keep those drains full year-round.

According to Michigan Environmental Council policy director James Clift, the tool would make it easy for well-drillers to estimate what locations would be the most environmentally friendly.

“We have to start thinking about if we’re using water efficiently,” Clift said. “This screening model tells us which water withdrawals communities should look closely at.”

St. Joseph County Drain Commissioner David Hassenger said the model is a good idea in theory, but would be detrimental to individual homeowners because there are too many flaws in the system.

“The water-withdrawal assessment tool can’t give you an accurate response,” Hassenger said. “It’s hard to figure out what additional water usage would be. There are so many problems; I don’t even know where to start.”

Groundwater Conservation Advisory Council member Jon Coleman, who worked on the water-withdrawal assessment tool, said the best quality of the database is that it’s accessible to the public. Coleman noted it could save property owners money because they could do their own investigation instead of paying for a private assessment.

Cleland emphasized the tool’s in-depth database, which he said will be “literally chock-full of information.” The council worked with Michigan State University, the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Michigan to gather data about water uses and withdrawals.

“It really becomes a handy tool and it’s very user-friendly,” Coleman said. “Once I know the estimated impact of my well, I could move it 100 yards in another direction, or make it not as deep, and it would not use so many important resources. It really helps people figure out what meets their community’s requirements.”

But Hassenger said his top concern is the tool’s negative effect on drainage.

Because the tool isn’t designed to take surface ponds into account, many drainage ditches are improperly labeled as fish habitats, he said. According to Hassenger, these ditches should be empty when water levels are low, but the tool’s new water assessments would require them to be full all the time.

“The Department of Environmental Quality’s model bases everything on what they believe the fish population and fish life requirements are,” Hassenger said. “They have now categorically waved the wand and decided that a lot of drainage ditches are trout streams and other fish habitats. They will be circumventing my ability to do my job, which is to drain storm water.”

According to Hasssenger, the database is not complete enough, and scientists have ignored key factors in water use in a hurry to get the tool approved.

“We’re pushing so hard to get the model out that we’re not necessarily saying it has to be good science,” Hassenger said. “It has to actually make sense.”

Larry Walton, a Michigan Farm Bureau representative from Sturgis, echoed Hassenger’s statements. He added that the tool is still not ready for public use because it can only be accessed through high-speed Internet, and people still have trouble entering the exact latitude and longitude of their well.

“It has some potential, but we certainly have to get the bugs out,” Walton said. “I don’t know if the legislature will let us have time to properly test it on outlying areas. Until we can see what this thing is gong to do, it’s hard to be absolutely gung-ho.” CQX

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