Michigan DNR poised to allow fracking along Au Sable's 'Holy Waters'

The Michigan Environmental Council and our allies are deeply concerned about pending mineral leases that would allow oil and gas drilling along a section of the Au Sable River so pristine and revered by trout anglers that it's known as the Holy Waters.

The parcels were among those up for bid in an October auction of mineral leases on state land. The winning bidder on the leases was Encana, a Canadian company with plans to drill some 500 wells across northern Michigan using the controversial method called fracking.

You can see a map of the parcels in question here.

Leading the opposition to the leases are the Anglers of the Au Sable, an MEC member group. Here's a brief video from the Anglers that provides a fuller understanding of the special place we're talking about.

MEC has joined the Anglers, Grayling Township, local Realtors, business owners and fellow environmental groups in signing a letter to Department of Natural Resources Director Keith Creagh asking him not to authorize the leases. He will announce his decision at Thursday's meeting of the Natural Resources Commission. You can read the letter here.

"What we're really asking for is two things," said Tom Baird, vice president of the Anglers. "Don't lease those properties. And in the future, let's have a process where we can say there are some areas in the state's ownership that just aren't appropriate for oil and gas development because there are competing and incompatible uses."

The sights, sounds and smells of oil and gas activity near the Holy Waters would ruin a recreational destination few places in the country can rival. Allowing the leases also would constitute a significant policy change for the DNR. Indeed, the agency's own website notes the unique glacial geology, prolific insect hatches and prodigious trout populations that make the Au Sable a world-renowned fly-fishing stream.

"My dad always said that God created the Au Sable River for fly fishing with its fabulous trout populations, its cold clear waters, its stable flows and stream depths and bottom ideal for wading," said the late Rusty Gates--2009 winner of MEC's Petoskey Prize for Grassroots Leadership--in a quote on the DNR website.

Nowhere on the Au Sable is that truer than in the Holy Waters, with "its wadable water, dependable insect hatches and quality trout fishing," the site says.

Beyond the aesthetic or emotional objections to new development along the Holy Waters, the letter to Creagh highlights important scientific and economic reasons why he should void the leases.

For example:

  • Local property values are dependent upon the area's natural beauty, which oil and gas activity threatens. Riverfront property owners in Crawford County contributed $3.3 million to county tax rolls in 2012. That's nearly a quarter of all property tax revenue in the county.
  • In contrast, the state received an average of $31 per acre from its last three auctions. If that remains the case for the new leases, the state will receive less than $100,000 in property taxes for the entire 2,800 acres in question. That's less than the value of a single waterfront cabin.
  • As of September 20, Encana's actual and proposed groundwater withdrawals for fracking in and near the neighboring Manistee River watershed in Kalkaska County total 483 million gallons. That's equal to 131 days of total water consumption by all domestic, industrial and agricultural users in Kalkaska County.
Sucking up such huge quantities of groundwater is a serious threat to the Au Sable's lifeblood. To again quote the DNR website, "The Au Sable River is unique among all rivers in the United States in one important aspect: it has the most stable flow of any stream in the country."

When water is used for fracking, the withdrawal is permanent. It becomes laced with chemicals and cannot be returned to the watershed. And that's the best-case scenario; should a spill or leak allow tainted waste water back into the sponge-like aquifer beneath the Au Sable, the pollution would move quickly through the sand and gravel and be extremely difficult to remove.

To stay up to date on proposed drilling in the Au Sable watershed, check in regularly with the Anglers of the Au Sable's website and keep an eye on MEC's Facebook and Twitter pages.


Editor's note: An earlier version of this post had a broken link to the coalition letter to DNR Director Creagh. Our apologies--the link has been fixed.

Au Sable River photo courtesy George Thomas via Flickr.

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