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Building Consensus for Prioritizing Groundwater Protections in the Great Lakes

Dave Dempsey
groundwater gushes flow

Water flows through a single cycle from air to surface water and groundwater, or from land to lakes and streams, evaporating and beginning its journey all over again. But environmental law and policy often overlook an entire arc of the cycle, regulating groundwater separately and increasing the potential for risks to public health and ecosystem degradation. 

The 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement is beginning to change that. One important step forward is the inclusion of an annex devoted to groundwater. Annex 8 commits the Canadian and United States governments to coordinating groundwater science and management actions. The goal is to build the base of knowledge about the impact of groundwater on the Great Lakes, leading to specific policy and science actions.

This commitment has already borne fruit. In a 2016 report prepared for the Great Lakes Executive Committee by scientists on both sides of the border, Annex 8 authors note that the volume of fresh groundwater in the basin is about equal to that of Lake Huron.

They estimate direct and indirect discharges of groundwater to the surface waters of the Great Lakes to be as much as 2.7 percent and 42 percent, respectively, of inflows to the Great Lakes. The importance of groundwater quality to the water quality of the lakes is clear.

That’s why FLOW (For Love of Water), a Michigan nonprofit, is pressing for action at the state level. In a recent report and accompanying groundwater StoryMap, scientists and representatives of key constituencies call for change by making groundwater a state priority for protection and conservation.

The recent report, “Building Consensus: Securing Protection of Michigan’s Groundwater,” reflects the work of 22 knowledgeable and influential participants from local government, academia and regulatory agencies who participated in the Michigan Groundwater Table convened by FLOW. 

Groundwater Table members met remotely over a year, coming to general agreement on findings regarding the state of Michigan’s groundwater, while discussing potential policy solutions. In a series of earlier reports dating back to 2018, FLOW has called attention to the gap between the importance of groundwater to Michigan’s health and welfare and the state’s historical absence of coherent groundwater policies.

In the recent report, Groundwater Table members agreed that Michigan’s groundwater is a “critical and often overlooked resource,” vital to the state’s public health, agriculture and other businesses, cold water fisheries, stream ecology, and wetlands.” They also found that Michigan has underinvested in monitoring, mapping and reporting groundwater quantity and quality. Further, Michigan’s groundwater quality has deteriorated over the last century, leading to more than 15,000 contamination sites and thousands of contaminated private wells.

Action in other states and Ontario

The report is part of a recent flurry of action on groundwater in the Great Lakes region. A 2021 summit convened by Michigan’s Grand Valley State University developed consensus recommendations on improving research and monitoring. Minnesota’s Freshwater Society is leading an analysis of groundwater governance in the Great Lakes region. Recent analysis of Wisconsin’s groundwater policy found gaps to close.

In February, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks released guidance on the protection of water supplies, including those that depend on groundwater, that are not included in a source protection plan or aren’t regulated by the province’s Clean Water Act.

And in May, the International Joint Commission Great Lakes Science Advisory Board-Research Coordination Committee published a report calling for water managers around the Great Lakes to collaborate through Annex 8 and develop a basinwide integrated groundwater-surface water numerical model.

The authors of the Annex 8 2016 report note that groundwater, “being out of sight, remains an enigma to many people, including those who rely on it for their water supplies.” In Michigan, this is true even for some of the 45 percent of the state’s residents who rely on groundwater as their source of drinking water.

Dave Dempsey

Dave Dempsey is senior policy adviser at FLOW (For Love of Water), a Great Lakes law and policy center in Traverse City, Michigan.

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