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Michigan farms presumed innocent of poor water use
Michigan Correspondent

LANSING, Mich. — Michigan farmers will be presumed innocent of adverse water use as long as they are reporting their usage under legislation recently signed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

A series of bills – Senate Bills 850-852, 854 and 857 – that were recently signed into law include provisions to protect farmers who are making large scale water withdrawals for irrigation by continuing voluntary reporting or requiring permits in some cases.

The legislation also has put in place a protection mechanism for the state’s trout streams, calls for stopping diversions of Great Lakes water outside the watershed and recognizes the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP) as an effective method for water stewardship.

Scott Piggott, manager of Michigan Farm Bureau’s Agricultural Ecology Department, said the legislation did not change the voluntary water reporting requirements for farmers, but it did set an April 1 reporting deadline.

“Farmers still have to report if they’re using more than 100,000 gallons per day. That has not changed,” he said of the requirement, which took effect in 2003.

Piggott explained that “in many cases (farmers) will be grandfathered” if they continue to voluntarily report their usage. Any farmers who missed the April 1 deadline should still submit their report. The location of each well is required, but also is protected due to language in the legislation that does not allow the information to be disclosed, even under the Freedom of Information Act.

“Registration is important and farmers should take advantage of that,” Piggott said.

One of the primary points of the legislation, Piggott said, is that new wells or expanded wells fall within a permitting requirement if they are able to pump more than 2 million gallons of water per day.

In Montcalm County, Michigan’s largest potato-producing county, Piggott said most of the irrigation wells have the capacity to pump 700-1,200 gallons per minute, or 1-1.5 million gallons per day, which means growers do not fall under the permit specifications.

Norman Crooks, owner of Crooks Farms Inc., Stanton, which grows primarily potatoes on its approximately 6,000 acres, said the farm is voluntarily reporting its water use, but he has no concerns that water tables have been adversely impacted by irrigation in the area.

“This area is fortunate. We have lots of water,” he said. “I figured up by estimating the number of wells in the total area here in the county, and we get more water when we get an inch of rain than all the wells pump for irrigation all summer long.”

Crooks said that he understands the safeguards included in the legislation are meant to help protect large-scale water users such as his farm. “We’ve never had any complaints,” he said.

Piggott said that with increasing development pressures on farming operations, the legislation also calls for creation of a model to help determine the feasibility of drilling a new well. The proposed model would allow anyone considering drilling a new well to go to a website and enter their proposed well location, pumping capacity, depth and other information to find out if the well would adversely affect the aquifer or neighboring water wells.

“It would allow farmers to self-certify,” Piggott said.

He also explained that through the model the legislation includes language to protect trout streams, and would eventually protect creeks, rivers and lakes from the potential of adverse impacts of new wells.

“The legislation states that a new well that can pump 100,000 gallons or more of water per day that is within a quarter mile of a trout stream must be at least 150 feet deep or greater,” he said.

If the model determined that a farmer was at risk of adversely affecting the aquifer or neighboring wells and continued to put the well in, Piggott said the farmer would be “drilling at their own risk. It doesn’t mean they can’t do it, but they’re open to what the state rules.”

According to the legislation, “A person who knowingly makes a large quantity withdrawal causing an adverse resource impact or fails to obtain a permit for certain large quantity withdrawals would be responsible for a civil fine of not more than $5,000 per day of violation.”

The legislation also increased the filing fee from $100-$200, which must accompany the voluntary water use report. However, farmers will not be charged a filing fee if they submit their report through the Michigan Department of Agriculture.

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This farm news was published in the April 12, 2006 issue of Farm World.