The Fight for Water Rights
For example, a homeowner about seven miles from a Michigan aggregates operation claimed that facility caused failure of the home’s well. However, the cone of depression was nowhere near that part of the aggregates operation. The quarry owners didn’t feel the complaint was legitimate, but the homeowner still believed the aggregates operation was responsible for the problem. In the past, the only recourse would be for the homeowner to litigate the situation if the aggregates operation didn’t believe it was responsible for the problem.
Now, there is a plan in place that presents a fair way to resolve the issue for both parties. “If the well was 200 yards from the quarry, it is very possible that the failure of the well was due to that operation,” Newman says. “But seven miles away…I would say there isn’t a legitimate complaint.”
Now, the homeowner can still file a complaint, but an electrical inspection first must be conducted to ensure that no circuits or pumps failed. A well inspection also must be performed. The findings from both inspections must be submitted to the state and reviewed by a hydrologist before a complaint can be filed. “Most of the time, problems can be resolved without going through the courts,” Newman says. “Usually, you just settle if it was determined that the claim was reasonable.”
Nearly 50 claims have been filed in the last three years — many against aggregate operations — and all but one has been resolved amicably, Newman notes. “This is a good process for both community relations, and it also weeds out a lot of inaccurate claims where people would just try to get a new well by putting pressure on a quarry, even thought it had no impact on it. The system works well, and everyone seems to be pleased with it. There is still a system of litigation in place, but this intermediate process has been very helpful.”
Who’s water is it, anyway?
IAAP’s Henriksen notes that the industry should seize any opportunity that is presented to work collaboratively with interest groups that are concerned about water issues — whether they are traditional allies or historical foes. “We must be prepared to educate policymakers and the public at large regarding the aggregates industry’s impact on the hydrogeologic regime of our region,” Henriksen points out.
Looking at Illinois as a case study, the state was looking at a top-down control model for water withdrawal legislation. In 2004, a bill was filed in the Illinois Senate that would have required the Department of Natural Resources to develop a program to issue permits for “high-capacity” wells and community water supply systems. A high-capacity well was define as a well that withdraws 70 gallons per minute; 100,000 gallons per day, or 3 million gallons per month; or a well with a casing diameter of 6 inches or more. The permit applicant would be required to demonstrate that the water to be withdrawn would not be detrimental to the aquifer, environment, or existing wells.
The problem was that some ready-mixed concrete plants use wells that fit the water withdrawal characteristics of a high-capacity well, Henriksen explains. “There was also come concern expressed that some of our [IAAP] members may have wells with a casing diameter of 6 inches or greater,” he says. “ So we looked for allies to stop the bill.”
The IAAP enlisted the support of farmers, homebuilders, realtors, and other miners. These interest groups all have a stake in land-use issues, Henriksen says, making them a natural coalition to fight the bill. Coalition lobbying efforts stopped the bill and ensured that the revised bill filed in 2005 “essentially exempted farmers and miners,” he says. “Coalition members also gained experience working with the local government groups pushing this legislation, experience that is helpful in future settings.” The outcome of their work resulted in the failure to pass strict water withdrawal legislation, leading to the issuance of a 2006 executive order that mandated a statewide study of water-supply issues.
The members of a non-profit group filed a petition seeking the creation of an area water authority, in accordance with the Illinois Water Authorities Act. The water authority authorized by this Illinois law is created by a referendum on which citizens of the proposed authority area vote. If the voters within the boundaries of the proposed authority area approved the referendum, a three-trustee volunteer panel would have controlled future water use within the borders. They would have had the following power:
Levy taxes on property within the boundaries of the authority at the rate of .08 percent of the value as equalized or assessed by the Department of Revenue.
Regulate the permitting of any new wells for high-capacity residential, municipal, industrial, and commercial users.
Monitor and conserve groundwater and protect important groundwater recharge areas within the authority by exercising broad condemnation, police, and zoning powers.
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