Water Wars

Reader Contribution by Lois Hoffman
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There is a war going on in Michigan and other parts of the Midwest, much like the old range wars when settlers disputed over land rights in the old west. Except this time the war is over water. Part of the problem is that the ground water table has dropped up to 40 feet in some areas of Michigan, most noticeably in the thumb area. But the war itself is between large farming operations who irrigate and homeowners who live next to them.

There is no easy solution to this problem. In the last 10 years Michigan has seen a dramatic increase in farmers who irrigate and also in people moving to rural areas who don’t understand farming. The one clear fact is that there is only so much water to go around. Forty percent who rely on well water have been impacted by drought to some degree.

We’re not talking the “Mom and Pop” farms. Instead, most present farming operations are large and work hundreds, if not thousands, of acres. The prices of their seed, fertilizer and other expenses have increased just like they have for other businesses. The only way to increase profit is to maximize the amount of crop they harvest per acre and supplying extra water is a good way to achieve this goal.

However, irrigation systems and maintenance on them is anything but cheap. Thus, the old adage that you have to spend money to make money rings true so the installation of irrigation equipment is justified and on the rise.

On the other side of the coin many people are discovering the joys of country living and moving to rural areas from the cities. What many of them don’t realize is that if they choose to locate in the country near a large farm it is like locating next to an industry. Agricultural wells may be drilled up to 100 feet deeper than most residential wells and they have extreme pumping capacity. Some systems can pump 1,500 gallons of water out of the ground per minute for many hours a day.

Many people, including well drillers and health department officials, are blaming crop irrigation by large farms for depleting the water supply. Michigan’s water supply itself is a problem. There can be plenty of water on one side of a road and scarce on the opposite side. Well drilling is by no means a science either. There are groundwater surveyor companies who research geology water tables and well logs to make recommendations where to drill, but there are never any guarantees of finding water.

Sometimes it seems no more scientific than dowsing or water witching where individuals attempt to locate ground water by holding a willow or peach branch and walking over the ground. It is said the branch will point down to the ground over the spot where there is water. When they drilled our well the only place the drillers could find enough water to sustain our home was 750 feet away from our house. We are just thankful they found water!

Last year wells began drying up in certain areas where large farms were constantly irrigating. Homeowners in Elmwood Township in Michigan talked of having dry wells while puddles of water were lying in irrigated fields nearby.

Thus, lawsuits began popping up. The last thing farmers need is legal issues and fees when all they are doing is trying to make a living. Some farmers, out of good faith, started paying costs for property owners to have their wells dug deeper. Others pointed to Michigan’s Right To Farm Bill for protection. The bill prevents farms from being harassed by lawsuits when they follow generally recognized agricultural practices and irrigation is considered a normal farming practice.

On the flip side, Michigan Senator John Moolenaar is sponsoring bill SB-1008, which if passed will allow the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to intervene in groundwater disputes instead of small well owners having to go to court and sue large well operators. The department could order the owner of a large capacity well to compensate the owner of a small well if it believes the large owner was the cause for the small well to go dry.

There is no easy solution to this problem. Everyone needs to re-think the concept that water beneath our property belongs solely to us. Maybe those considering building in the country can put a little more forethought into exactly where they purchase property in regards to having an ample water supply. There are some prime building sites located on the edge of wooded lots or on lower ground instead of choosing to build on an acre or two of prime farm ground. Large farmers can be a little more choosey where they locate their large capacity wells. If the prospect for finding water is the same, instead of drilling where it is the most accessible, they may consider their homeowner neighbors and what is best for their wells.

There needs to be give and take on both sides between farmers and homeowners. Indeed, water is the common denominator and becoming our most precious commodity. We all need to conserve and use it wisely. 

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