A new report led by St. Paul-based Freshwater Society with collaborators at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, Water365, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs reveals how groundwater is governed and serves as a reference for water policy and resource professionals to build future policy work. The authors conclude that the current structures, cobbled together over decades in response to different kinds of stressors and crises, does not adequately provide for a sustainable and equitable groundwater management for the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes regions. This poses a risk to the region’s future water security and prosperity.
Groundwater is a crucially important but often overlooked resource in the Great Lakes region. As what is referred to as a common pool or shared resource, the region’s aquifers should have a well-structured set of governing principles to guide their sustainable and equitable use. The report asks, “But do they?”
The study focused on groundwater across the six Great Lakes states and numerous sovereign tribes in the Environmental Protection Agency’s administrative Region 5: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio and the 35 federally recognized tribal governments sharing geography.
“Minnesota leads the region in producing technical information about groundwater thanks to mapping and monitoring efforts supported by sustained state funding,” said Dr. Carrie Jennings of the Freshwater Society, one of the lead authors. However, technical knowledge is lacking in many states resulting in limited understanding of where and how much water there is, and how sustainable the current pumping rate is, according to Jennings.
There is little coordination around local, shared aquifers. This is especially problematic where aquifers span political boundaries like the Chicago to Milwaukee corridor or the tri-state Detroit-to-Toledo area.
“Merely ignoring the interdependence on cross-border aquifers doesn’t make it go away. It simply invites the courts to make decisions, which can take a long time,” Jennings noted.
Gaps in groundwater management risk prioritizing those with the loudest voices or the most resources and reproducing the marginalization of Native peoples and diverse ecosystems, with little attention to long-term sustainability.
The project team interviewed more than 67 individuals working in the state, federal and tribal governments focused on groundwater management. In preparation for these interviews, the team reviewed regional planning and scientific documents, groundwater-focused statutes, cases and administrative rules to provide the legal context.
This study was funded by the Chicago-based Joyce Family Foundation, and can be viewed at freshwater.org/reports/white-papers-groundwater-governance/
Freshwater is a Minnesota-based nonprofit organization that works to inspire and empower people to value and preserve freshwater. Since 1968 Freshwater has used science to engage communities on how to equitably improve water today and for future generations.
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