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Editorial: Don't water down well protections

7:45 PM, Jun. 12, 2013  |  Comments
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Water may well be the most valuable natural resource. We need it to survive. Therefore, limiting the ability to protest those who tap great amounts of our ground- and surface waters makes no sense.

But that's what the Joint Finance Committee is proposing in the 2013-15 budget it forwarded to the Legislature last week.

The measure deals with the ability to contest permits and applications for high-capacity wells. The motion was approved in May and it states that "a person may not challenge an application, or a permit for, a high-capacity well based on the lack of consideration of the cumulative environmental impacts of the proposed high capacity well together with existing wells when approving the high capacity well permit."

Basically, it means that if a company or municipality wants to drill a high-capacity well near you and you're concerned about it drawing down the groundwater too much and affecting lake or stream levels, you can't hold up the process by saying the state Department of Natural Resources didn't consider that cumulative impact.

The DNR says it evaluates permits well by well and not by how a well might affect other wells or surface water outside of that property.

The measure and the DNR's stance ignore the fact that water flows and is rarely confined to a single property. Therefore, something done to water at Point A can have effects downstream at Point B.

In a democracy where other people and properties might be affected by a high-capacity well, they should have the ability to air their concerns and protect their access to water as well as protect the environment.

The public trust doctrine holds that some resources are conserved for public use and that the government must maintain these shared resources for reasonable use.

It is a principle worth upholding. But some in the Joint Finance Committee seem intent on shutting down all forms of dissent for the sake of businesses and municipalities. If the budget is approved as is, any current opposition based on the cumulative effect of a high-capacity well could not be considered.

The measure also runs counter to a state Supreme Court decision in 2011 that said the DNR could consider the environmental impact of removing large quantities of groundwater.

In the 7-0 decision, Justice Patrick Crooks wrote, "the DNR must consider the environmental impact of a proposed high-capacity well when presented with sufficient concrete, scientific evidence of potential harm to waters of the state."

So why is the Joint Finance Committee pursuing this? And why is this policy item in the budget?

We welcome businesses that would use the fresh water here, but residents must have the ability to object to potential adverse impacts, and we must have the ability to reject permit applications when that potential is proved.

Water is a precious resource. Living along a freshwater bay and within 30 minutes of a Great Lake, we see the effects that climate can have on water levels. There's little we can do about that. But we can do something about pumping vast amounts of groundwater that could affect surrounding properties, people, businesses and surface water.

The Assembly and Senate should remove this provision from the biennial budget.

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