When is a lake a bad idea? When it’s created by digging a 9 acre pit in the middle of a farm and filling it with 50 million gallons of groundwater from an already depleted and stressed aquifer. Sounds like a dumb idea? Well, that’s exactly what a small company in Monroe County, Michigan has proposed in a permit application to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
Monroe County is notorious for its declining groundwater levels and resulting well problems, as detailed in a recent USGS report. Many residents’ wells have already gone dry and they have to truck in water for their household needs. So when neighbors learned that a farmer in the area was proposing to excavate a 9 acre lake and fill it with 50 million gallons of water in the hopes of turning his farm into a campground, they were very concerned about the future of their groundwater supplies. They quickly organized a group called Citizens for Aquifer Protection and Preservation (“CAPP”) and asked the state DEQ to hold a public hearing on the proposal before issuing a permit.
Through the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, I’m representing CAPP in their fight to stop this ridiculous project. Fortunately the law is on our side. The Michigan Inland Lakes and Streams Act prohibits any person from creating an inland lake without a permit from the DEQ. To get a permit, the project may not unlawfully impair or destroy any of the waters or other natural resources of the state. The DEQ rules further require an environmental assessment to determine potential adverse environmental effects and that no feasible and prudent alternative to creating a lake is available.
The farm/campground that wants to build this lake hasn’t complied with any of these requirements. At a minimum, it needs to do a hydrogeological investigation to determine what impact filling a 50 million gallon lake will have on the area’s groundwater, wells, and natural resources. And it needs to explain why none of Michigan’s 11,000 plus lakes and ponds can meet the needs of a new campground, instead of building a new artificial lake by pumping a massive quantity of groundwater (the rights to which are shared by neighboring properties).
Pumping groundwater to fill lakes through “lake augmentation wells” is a tremendous problem in Michigan. In an internal DEQ memo on lake augmentation wells, the DEQ states that lake augmentation wells “rarely fulfill their intended purpose, and the DEQ does not advocate their installation and usage.” According to the DEQ, it takes roughly 27,150 gallons of water to raise the level of a one-acre lake one inch (and this doesn’t include any water loss from the system due to leakage through the lake bottom or evaporation from the lake surface). Trying to pump enough groundwater to fill and maintain a lake against evaporation and seepage is often an exercise in futility that ends up lowering the regional groundwater table and impacting nearby wells and natural lakes.
The DEQ held a hearing on the permit application last night, and over 100 local residents filled an auditorium to state their opposition to the project and try to get answers to their questions. I also filed a detailed comment letter on CAPP’s behalf opposing the project. Now it’s up to the DEQ to make the right decision under the law and deny the project.