While the water-blessed Great Lakes region hasn't encountered Western-style conflicts over water yet, legal scholars expect that to change with the Earth's population rising and its climate warming.
Increased demands for food, energy, and manufactured goods this century are expected to drive up the value of water everywhere - not just that found at the surface of major lakes, rivers, and streams.
Such long-range forecasts haven't been lost on officials in Bryan, a small northwest Ohio city that's 12 miles east of Indiana, 15 miles south of Michigan, and 60 miles west of Toledo.
Officials there have formed the hub of a regional effort to protect the Michindoh Glacial Aquifer, a relatively unspoiled underground aquifer that didn't even have a name until 2003.
The hidden pool of groundwater is one of the region's most valuable, serving as the primary source of drinking water for thousands of people who live in Hillsdale, Lenawee, and Branch counties in Michigan, in Allen, DeKalb, and Steuben counties in Indiana, and in Williams, Fulton, and Defiance counties in Ohio.
The aquifer gets its name from the three states in which it lies.
The city of Bryan, with help from a nonprofit called the Michindoh Sole Source Aquifer Group, formally petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in October, 2007, to designate the aquifer as the only source of water viable for drinking within the defined area.
The federal agency has scheduled a public meeting on the matter for 7 to 9 p.m. tomorrow in the Hudson High School cafeteria, 771 North Maple Grove Ave., Hudson, Mich.
It will be followed by a second meeting from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in New Era Auditorium, 520 West Mulberry St., Bryan. After that meeting, the agency will have a formal hearing on Bryan's petition from 8 to 9:30 p.m., also at the Bryan site.
People who can't attend either meeting or the hearing can still submit comments in writing to the U.S. EPA through Jan. 29.
Having the U.S. EPA designate the aquifer as the region's sole source of drinking water is largely a symbolic gesture, albeit with some implied power.
For starters, it would attach new strings to any project using funds from or being subsidized by the federal government.
Those could include highway construction projects. Or, perhaps, lagoons that large feedlots known as concentrated animal feeding operations might build with the help of a U.S. Department of Agriculture subsidy.
"We know we have a very precious resource in our water. We have plenty of clean drinking water, but it's a finite source," Steve Casebere, Bryan Municipal Utilities director, said.
Unlike many communities within the Great Lakes drainage basin, though, this is one which is solely dependent on groundwater.
"We know we have this enormous responsibility," Mr. Casebere said. "If we don't take care of it, it's going to be a real burden on this area to afford clean water. We know the importance of taking care of it for the future."
Lou Pendleton, public relations director for Bryan Municipal Utilities and chairman of the aquifer group, said the petition is not directly related to the proliferation of factory-scale animal feedlots, although poorly managed animal waste and agricultural chemicals are among the biggest threats to groundwater.
But so are failed septic systems, leaking underground storage tanks at gas stations, chemical leachate that escapes from landfills, mercury and other chemicals from electronic trash, factory industrial solvents, and paint from automotive shops.
Mining operations can stress groundwater quality and quantity, and there are myriad other risks for groundwater, officials said.
"Because we're sitting on an aquifer that produces up to 1,000 gallons a minute, anyone can drop a well and be producing water. We take it for granted," Ms. Pendleton said.
So, in a way, officials believe the overreaching goal of the designation is to draw attention to the value of the aquifer and stop letting people take it for granted. After all, what is out of sight is often out of mind.
"It will point out clearly it is the only source of drinking water, that we don't have another one to fall back on," Ms. Pendleton said.
How much that translates into a planning tool is yet to be seen.
Lynn Henning, a Hudson farmer and Sierra Club member who has tracked dozens of Michigan Department of Environmental Quality citations against Vreba Hoff mega-dairy farms, said she hopes the declaration will help the region do a better job of managing development.
Vreba-Hoff has a development firm in Wauseon that has played a key role in the growth of concentrated animal feeding-sized dairy facilities across Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio. It has established numerous large dairy farms for European immigrants, mainly from the Netherlands.
Ms. Henning, who also is with a group called Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan, said that having the federal government lay out the parameters of a major aquifer and declare it as essential for the public should help settle future siting controversies.
But Bill Spaulding, the sole source aquifer coordinator for the U.S. EPA's Midwest regional office in Chicago, cautioned against reading too much into the proposed action.
"It does not control local land-use decisions," he said.
But it "ensures that any federally funded projects would not pollute the groundwater," Mr. Spaulding said.
The agency gets its authority to make such declarations under the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act, he said.
The last time the agency designated a Midwestern aquifer as the sole source of drinking water for a multicounty region was in 1992, when such a declaration was made for portions of Allen, Auglaize, and Putnam counties, Mr. Spaulding said.
Half of the water consumed in the Midwest comes from groundwater, he said.
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