Water law in Michigan is principally derived from English common law, the culmination of centuries of judicial decisions. From its inception as a state, Michigan has recognized the rights of landowners to the “reasonable” use of groundwater and surface waters adjacent to their property. These “riparian” rights (from the Latin “ripa,” meaning the bank of a watercourse) are not absolute; water use cannot excessively diminish the quality or quantity of water to adjacent landowners, nor may the water be used on non-riparian lands.

Water quality also is protected under the state’s Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act. The statute prohibits water discharges that could harm:

  • Public health, safety or welfare;

  • Domestic, commercial, industrial, agricultural, recreational or other water uses;

  • The value or utility of riparian lands;

  • Livestock, wildlife, or plants.

Additionally, a state permit is required to discharge waste or waste effluent into surface water or groundwater.

As required by the state’s Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, annual reports on withdrawals are submitted by water users with a capacity to withdraw more than 100,000 gallons of water per day over any 30-day period — even if actual withdrawals are less. The graphic below lists the number of facilities currently reporting withdrawals and the aggregate volume of water withdrawn.

Graphic 4: Water Withdrawals Currently Registered in Michigan

Type

No. of Facilities

Withdrawals*

Agriculture

2,334

243.24

Industrial

410

632.98

Public Water Works

1,474

1,191.36

Utilities

42

8,564.94

*Millions of gallons/day

Source: Michigan Department of Environmental Quality

Proponents of stricter regulation claim that Michigan lacks statutory authority to protect groundwater supplies. In fact, the Michigan Legislature in 2003 enacted safeguards for sustaining Michigan aquifers.

The Aquifer Protection and Dispute Resolution Act (PA 177) empowers the DEQ to investigate whether high-capacity wells are depleting groundwater supplies and, if so, to order remedies. (Construction-project dewatering wells and some municipal water wells are exempt. Cases involving agricultural wells are handled by the Michigan Department of Agriculture.)

State action is instigated under PA 177 when a well owner reports a drop in water supply or change in water quality. The complainant must have reason to believe that their water supply is being diminished or compromised by a higher-capacity well in the region.

The agency is required to determine if there is indeed a causal connection between the high-capacity withdrawals and the reported impairment. If the high-capacity well is found to be the cause, the state proposes a remedy.

In the event that DEQ officials are unable to negotiate a resolution with the owner of the high-capacity well, they may designate the case a “groundwater dispute” and order the offending party to supply water to the complainant, reduce withdrawals and/or compensate the complainant for costs incurred up to 30 days before the complaint was filed.

A well owner to whom a dispute order is issued must reimburse the state for the costs of the investigation and resolution of the complaint. Failure to abide by a groundwater-dispute order also carries a maximum fine of $1,000 for each day of violation.

To date, the DEQ has investigated 16 complaints. No groundwater-dispute orders have been issued, indicating that all remedial actions deemed necessary were undertaken voluntarily. Given the success of the program, the governor’s proposed withdrawal of funding for the program appears unjustified.