EVART — A Michigan House bill would soften regulations for large-volume water users in the state and add exemptions from Freedom of Information Act requests.
While most large-volume users are agricultural, Nestle Waters North America operations in the Evart area and the proposed Michigan Potash Company operation in Evart Township both fit this description.
A large-water user takes 100,000 gallons or more per day. Nestle, in four locations, withdraws about 1 million gallons per day, while the proposed potash facility would be allowed a maximum of 2 million per day. Earlier this week, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality granted Nestle’s request to increase its water extraction from 250 to 400 gallons per minute in Evart Township.
The largest water taker in the state, AK Steel Dearborn Works, takes 229.3 million gallons per day.
DEQ regulations currently require companies to report usage through an online assessment tool. If a company does not pass this process, they are subjected to a site-specific review.
Through the review, the DEQ is not required to visit the site but uses information provided by the company, and other available resources, to determine if the company is impacting the water source.
The bill, introduced by state Rep. Aaron Miller, R-Sturgis, and 24 other Republicans, would take the assessment process out of the hands of the DEQ, according to Jim Milne of the MDEQ Water Resources Division.
Instead of a DEQ official, an independent consultant hired by the company would complete the site-specific review and send that information to the DEQ.
In the eight years the program has existed, 3,678 large-volume withdrawals were authorized through the statue, as 2,631 passed the assessment tool and 1,047 required site-specific review.
The assessment tool uses streamflow data from 147 stream gauges in the state and at least 10 years of data. Companies will be denied withdrawals if they threaten to use more than half of the stream index flow of a given water source.
The assessment tool provides a conservative estimate of the potential for a problem, Milne said.
“If it passes the tool, withdrawal is going to have a low risk of creating large resource impact,” he said. “If it’s a higher risk, it won’t pass.”
Under the bill, agricultural users would be exempt from disclosing withdrawals under the Freedom of Information Act and would not be disclosed to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development or the Department of Natural Resources unless the department determines the withdrawal is causing an adverse impact.
The DEQ does not have an official stance on the bill but is working with bill sponsors and stakeholders.
‘Not a renewable resource’
For the Love of Water, a nonprofit organization advocating for the protection of Great Lakes water resources, calls the bill a failure on the part of legislators to listen to constituents.
“This legislation does not accurately allow for public engagement and scrutiny that is required by law,” said Liz Kirkwood, FLOW’s executive director. “We have not seen visionary legislation thinking about this in a holistic way.”
While Nestle isn’t the top water taker in the state, the company’s impact cannot be dismissed, Kirkwood said. The DEQ’s decision to issue a permit to increase Nestle’s water extraction is at odds with legal precedent showing the potential impact on the environment, she said. Water bottling is a consumptive practice, she said, meaning the water Nestle takes does not get returned to the source.
“This is not a renewable resource,” she said. “All the water we will ever have on the planet is right here, right now.”
The Michigan Environmental Council also opposes the legislation, saying it would give large water users a “free pass” with minimal oversight by “greenlighting large new water withdrawals by default.”
“This bill takes the decision-making away from the state and places it in the hands of the company that would profit off taking Michigan’s water,” MEC Policy Director James Clift said in a media release. “If this bill becomes law, Nestle or any other large water user has the authority to hire a consultant who makes a final decision on whether a proposed water withdrawal will harm a trout stream or other water resources in the state.”
Nestle Waters North America spokesperson Arlene Anderson-Vincent said the company has not taken a position on the bill.
“Since we came to Michigan more than 17 years ago, we have been a strong supporter of laws that protect the environment, and we continue to be committed to ensuring the sustainability of Michigan’s natural resources,” she said in a statement.
In Michigan, agricultural irrigation accounts for 44 percent of consumptive water use — water that is not returned locally due to evaporation, incorporated into products or transported out of the Great Lakes basin. However, electric power generation accounts for 73 percent of total water use, and irrigation accounts for 3 percent. Livestock accounts for less than 1 percent in either category.
The Michigan Farm Bureau supports the legislation.
“MFB member-developed policy specifically advocates for these improvements to the water withdrawal program,” Farm Bureau officials said in a statement. “The proposed bill will help all water users, including farmers, ensure water will not cause adverse resource impacts for streams, by working with professional hydrologists to submit data analysis to the DEQ.
“If that analysis of a proposed withdrawal shows it is likely to cause an adverse resource impact, the farmer can’t move forward with it.”