Mar 13, 2023
Water access essential to Michigan’s fruit industry

The letter said the irrigation well permit application was denied because water wasn’t available. 

I shook my head and looked at my Fitbit. Yep, it was 2023. I was in Michigan and not in western Kansas anymore, where 20 years ago growers started switching from corn to crops with lower water needs when an irrigation well’s capacity declined.

Michigan isn’t in an extended drought, the streams are still flowing, and farmers with wells around this one aren’t experiencing any reduction in well capacity or the ability to irrigate their crops. What is going on?

A few conversations with growers and water experts pointed to the tools and processes the state government uses to implement the law, which are creating artificial water scarcity for Michigan agriculture. This is despite the fact that when the Legislature passed the water withdrawal law in 2006, those advocating for the legislation said it was necessary to protect the Great Lakes from future efforts to export large volumes of water out of the basin. Instead, it’s like thinking you have $500 in your savings account so you put off truck maintenance,  shortening its useful life, when in fact you had $5,000 in the account and could have gotten timely service.  

Michigan’s implementation of the high-capacity water well permitting law relies on water modeling originally created as a screening tool, is now used to make permitting decisions rather than using actual data. The state government has also built systems that pit farmers against one another and push them into negotiating with each other to reduce water use for everyone.

We all know water is critical for maintaining and growing our farms, ensuring processing capacity for fruit, and creating jobs in our communities. Water availability is what sets us apart from other growing regions and will help maintain our long-term competitiveness. While fruit growers face a plethora of existential threats, they cannot afford to ignore this one. The high-capacity water well permitting process is fundamentally flawed and has existed this way over several gubernatorial administrations. Those with permits need to be as concerned as those who may need them in the future.

So what can growers do to ensure future access to the water agriculture needs to grow crops and sustain their farms and communities?  We need to work together to push for data-driven decision making. Be an active member of your commodity organizations or consider joining Midwest Water Stewards – a group of farmers and agribusinesses who are driven to protect and preserve the water resources that make Michigan one of the most valuable and viable regions for agriculture in the world. The group focuses on collecting water monitoring data, promotes water stewardship and works to protect water resources and water rights.  

Currently, growers who are members of Midwest Water Stewards have 250 monitoring wells that produce data that can be used in the permitting system. However, to get to critical mass, the voluntary network needs to grow to 400-500 monitoring wells across the state.

Data collected in an optimized network can be used to protect individual farmers — like insurance — and can be used to build a more accurate model of our state’s water resources.  

Doing this will require farmer investment. Just because you have an irrigation permit does not mean you are safe, if the scarcity model predicts an impact on a stream caused by existing wells. Data will be critical to protecting your ability to use your water. For more information on Midwest Water Stewards, visit their website at www.midwestwaterstewards.com.

— Jamie Clover Adams, former director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development




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