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Michigan governor poised to ink water withdrawal bill

LANSING, Mich. — A bill designed to cut down on red tape related to large water withdrawals in Michigan has passed out of the state Senate and been sent to the governor’s desk for his signature.

House Bill 5638 passed the Senate earlier this month on a vote of 30-7. The legislation, introduced in February by Rep. Aaron Miller (R-Sturgis), had already left the state House in May. Miller’s district includes areas in Cass and St. Joseph counties, where complaints about the state’s water withdrawal process have been the loudest.

“Michigan farmers must be able to efficiently irrigate the crops they grow to feed families across the state,” Miller said. “Instead, local farmers are caught up in bureaucratic red tape due to flaws in the water withdrawal assessment tool.

“Some farm families have reported waiting as long as two years before finally getting the go-ahead to withdraw water and irrigate. If a grower can submit science-backed information that shows their proposal won’t have an adverse impact on the environment, the approval should be issued in a timely manner.”

The state’s water withdrawal system is for farmers and other businesses using large quantities of water. The system includes a computer program called the Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool (WWAT). When an applicant queries the program to get permission to build a well, if the program indicates no adverse impact to the environment, the applicant can go ahead and make the withdrawal.

In some circumstances, however, water users have to undergo a Site Specific Review (SSR), under which their application to withdraw is examined more closely. Farmers and others have complained it takes too long for state regulators to review their application, and that the system can seem arbitrary and unfair.

H.B. 5638 adds language affirming that state regulators have 20 working days to review data submitted through the SSR process. If officials don’t respond within this timeframe, the user can move forward with their withdrawal, which usually means a new well. The bill clarifies that withdrawals from bedrock formations with limited hydrologic connection to surface tributaries will be approved under the process.

The legislation also requires the state to provide written reasons why a proposed withdrawal can’t move forward, if it believes the withdrawal will cause an adverse impact on the environment. Under the bill, requests for large water withdrawals will remain exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

Also under the bill, if the state classifies an application as a Zone C withdrawal, the property owner must submit documentation from a certified geologist or hydrogeologist stating he or she is implementing sound and economically feasible water conservation measures. The applicant would then be allowed to register and proceed with the withdrawal.

If officials classify an application as a Zone D withdrawal, the property owner would not be allowed to make withdrawals unless they obtain a special permit. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality would be required to provide justification for denying the withdrawal.

The state’s water withdrawal system was developed so Michigan would be in compliance with the Great Lakes Water Compact, an eight-state and Canadian agreement that went into effect in 2008; however, the campaign to complete a Compact began in 2001. Michigan’s current water withdrawal assessment process, including the WWAT, became effective in 2006.