House Panel Discussing Water Withdrawal Changes

There was general agreement at Wednesday's House Natural Resources Committee meeting that changes are due to the state's large water withdrawal process, but environmental groups and the Department of Environmental Quality said some elements of legislation to make those changes are still untenable.

Rep. Aaron Miller (R-Sturgis) said the process for approving large water withdrawals, which includes agricultural irrigation, is unsustainable.

The bill (HB 5638) includes some new data that permit applicants can be required to provide and it gives the department some flexibility on the models it can use to determine the effects of a proposed well, Mr. Miller said. It also limits the time the department has to review an application and restricts the reasons for denying it, he said.

"Half the problem that is currently going on is time," Mr. Miller said. DEQ officials acknowledged the average permit takes 35 days to process if the online water withdrawal tool rejects it. But they and others said the 10 days provided in the bill is too short, at least with current staff. "By mandating 10 working days' turnaround for site-specific reviews, the substitute is setting up the department to fail," David Lush with the Water Use Advisory Council said. He said 30 days is a standard time to review a permit request.

Amy Epke, DEQ deputy director, said the time limit would mean about 100 permits annually would be approved with essentially no review. "The bill requires complex data sets to be reviewed within 10 days," Teresa Seidel, chief of the Water Resources Division, said. "The data set that's in here we anticipate would take 30 to 60 days to get through."

Mr. Miller said he would support more funding for the DEQ, but said he was no longer on the subcommittee for that budget. "I think they're strapped right now," he said.

Ms. Epke said the department needs up to four more staff and $1 million to conduct the reviews in the time allowed in the bill and to upgrade the online tool to better review some of the applications.

Rep. Curt Vanderwall (R-Ludington) said there needed to be some limit on the time to review permits. "We've got the livelihoods of people on the line," he said. "I think that's not what we originally had planned as a goal," Mr. VanderWall said of the current 35-day average processing time. He also questioned the staff request. "I always get nervous when we start saying it's going to take four extra bodies because four turns into six," he said.

Rep. Gary Howell (R-North Branch) had no illusions about funding the added positions with the tipping fee increase Governor Rick Snyder had proposed. "Which is not going to pass," he said when Ms. Epke mentioned it as a revenue source.

Ms. Seidel said the deadline also simplifies the process of reviewing an application. "Staff try to work very closely with applicants to try to get them the water they want," she said.

Among the concerns raised by the bill is that the automatic approval of permits could put the state out of compliance with the Great Lakes Compact, Brian Burroughs, executive director of Trout Unlimited, said. The compact requires participating states to ensure that water resources are protected, he said, which would not happen with an automatically approved permit.

James Clift, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council, said the bill provides a deadline for the department to respond to an application, but it provides no deadlines for an applicant to notify the department of changes implemented as the well was actually being drilled. He said any environmental effects from a new well that was given automatic approval would be transmitted out to all wells in the region. Because the well was legally permitted, it would not be the only one to have to cut back if there is too much water being taken from an aquifer, he said.

Several witnesses also raised concerns about the language that would provide automatic approval for wells drilled into bedrock. Mr. Burroughs said the state has five bedrock formations and water withdrawals from two of those have shown to affect surface waters.

David Hamilton with the Nature Conservancy said all wells that affected transitional coldwater trout streams should continue to have site-specific reviews. He and others said those streams can be easily affected by changes in groundwater flow.

MINING BILLS: The committee reported a package of bills that would make changes to some of the permitting processes for mines in the state. The committee adopted an amendment to SB 839 by Rep. Sara Cambensy (D-Marquette) to include changes to tunnels and shafts in the activities that would not necessarily require a full change to the mine permit that earned her vote and moved the three bills (SB 839, SB 840 and SB 888) on 7-2 votes.

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