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Ottawa County's ground water crisis

Water faucet photo
Public domain image

Lake Michigan, it’s one of the planet’s largest freshwater bodies. And yet, the people who live within view of it - or farm Ottawa County’s fertile lands within a few miles of its shores - are in jeopardy of running out of drinkable groundwater.

"You look at where we are situated Ottawa County of 30-plus miles of shoreline next to Lake Michigan waters ubiquitous here we have a water problem we thought it was isolated until we started to get the results back from the study."

Ottawa County is located in West Michigan more than 290,000 residents live here and they're wrestling with an expanding ground water shortage. It was first revealed here at Highland Trails.

"The subdivision is the epicenter of the issue in central Ottawa County that triggered the need for us to better understand what's happening underneath our feet with ground water."

WGVU asked when was that? When did that happening?

"It was in 2008 when we were notified of residents in this location at the subdivision who are running out of water. They woke up in the morning turn on their faucets and had no water coming out of the pipes."

Paul Sachs is Ottawa County's Planning and Performance Improvement Director. He explains the groundwater wells had run dry. Allendale Township took emergency measures connecting Highland Trails to municipal lines drawn from Lake Michigan.

It triggered a study conducted by Michigan State University and Michigan Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering exploring the county's geology and it's two primary aquifers; the shallow and sandy Glacial Drift aquifer and the deeper Marshall Bedrock aquifer.

From the study, "Look closely at the central parts of Ottawa County, these areas exhibit the most significant declines."

Nearly 11,000 residential industrial and agricultural wells are depleting the aquifers.

"They were drilled into the Marshall formation and the Marshall formation then was depleted because of all the people drawing from it. So, if we have 40 houses doing 20 gallons a minute, what do we have, 40 times 20 we have 800 gallons a minute that is being drawn. That's a lot of water in an area that is only a couple acres."

That's 24/7 year round compared with periodic farm irrigation spread over large swaths of land three months out of the year.

John Yellich is the director of the Michigan Geological Survey at Western Michigan University.

"The geology here is very complex because it doesn't have an area where you can recharge rain water coming in and recharging the aquifers. It's very limited. And that's what restricts how much water we really have whereas or other parts of the state where we have enough rainfall it recharges the aquifer and people are satisfied."

But in parts of Ottawa County the aquifer can't refill fast enough to meet the demand. There are too many areas of clay preventing snow melt and rain from soaking back in. The scientific findings were presented to Allendale Township at the epicenter of the challenges.

"And at the very end of that presentation I asked the commission, do have any questions? There was silence in the room. There were jaws that were dropped."

We asked what was the big finding that caused that reaction?

"Our water levels are declining. They've declined 40 feet over the last 50 years and it's not replenishing. Allendale Township is the fastest growing township in Ottawa County. It's also one of the fastest growing communities in the entire state of Michigan. When you are growing as a community and the economic development and vibrancy as dependent on that growth and you find out that there's a water issue that's going to make you stop and think, what are we going to do moving forward?"

Allendale Township now requires every new developments connect to municipal water. And nearby in Olive Township, its declared a moratorium on new housing developments using well water.

The farming community is also under the gun. Ottawa County is a state leader in agriculture production and back in 2008, not far from Highland Trails, former Merle Langland had no shortage of well water for irrigating but he was noticing his crops wilting and turning yellow.

"We had a underneath the pivot the soybeans looked the worst and it should have been the opposite. Where we irrigated should have been the best. So, we got investigating and there was chloride in the water."

"We're a unique area, it's called the Michigan Basin and it's essentially a bowl that essentially was sea water since 600 million years ago and it all forms salty formations and they all have salt water in them."

As ground water levels dropped irrigation wells were drilled deeper drawing briney water damaging crops. The study revealed some of the more densely populated areas are experiencing a double whammy; declining ground water levels and elevated ground water salinity.

So, how to address the issue? There are municipal water lines pumping water from Lake Michigan but with limited capacity.

"And there's two; there's Grand Rapids and there's Wyoming and Holland also has a small pipeline that's coming in from the lake. But remember the water needs to be appropriated from the Compact and that of course includes Canada plus all the Great Lakes states. So, in order to draw water out of it you have to get approval from all those and then, then there's a cost. The cost estimate is over a $100 million to put another pipeline in."

WGVU asked, what would the sources be to pay for that?

"I wouldn't even venture a guess. I can't."

And it's not just Ottawa County dealing with the problem. Armed with study results, Yellich and Sachs are on a mission to reshape water use habits before it's too late. With the help of community and business leaders they're formulating a ground water mitigation plan. It begins with an education campaign followed by initiating change.

"Water conservation, landscaping and irrigation. How we handle those things Traditionally, with green grass and abundant irrigation, those practices need to change."

Christina Knizner and her family moved into Highland Trails nearly six years ago.

"I think there's probably some things that the residents could do in terms of coming together and brainstorming and thinking about ways that we can help contribute to helping the problem."

"What we're looking at is that we have landscape, that's not really taken advantage of zero scape, put things in that use less water."

What is zero scape?

"Zero scape means substituting some of these grasses for rocks and other things that do not require any kind of water."

"Traditional development patterns can't continue. To have high density residential developments with small lots and areas that don't have municipal water but need or are dependent on groundwater shouldn't occur. We're also looking at overlays zones for land pattern development, there are areas of the county where there is recharge to that deep formation. We need to know where those areas are and we need to protect those areas for recharge, we just can't develop our land blindly knowing that there is a water resource concern." And the county is partnering with farmers, too.

"Working with the Drain Commission here in the county, as an example of how we can pump the water out of the ditches, put it into ponds so that they can be effectively used for agriculture in local areas, but also how can that be put on to the fields as well."

"A number of years ago we dug this pond and this catches all that water. The irrigator back there in the distance that's what we use to apply it to the field and in the summertime when we need it."

How much water is here?

"Boy, I don't know. I'm I'm guessing this is a good 10 million gallons."

It's not for drinking, but it does the trick. A similar tactic can be applied in urban settings using what's known as grey water. Water from your dishwasher, washing machine, sink and shower for watering the lawn.

If things don't change what's the outcome?

"We could have places that are not going to have ground water for drinking water supplies. That's bad."

People won't be able to sell their homes.

"That's the worst thing. You find out that you don't have it, they may have gotten a loan on that the value of the house has just gone down, that's right."

So it's going to take really a punch in the gut for people to get this.

"And what we hope is that we don't have to do that. We're providing enough information and enough background after this six, seven-year study and the things that we're showing right now is that if we conserve and we do it, we can survive and everybody can be happy."

Patrick joined WGVU Public Media in December, 2008 after eight years of investigative reporting at Grand Rapids' WOOD-TV8 and three years at WYTV News Channel 33 in Youngstown, Ohio. As News and Public Affairs Director, Patrick manages our daily radio news operation and public interest television programming. An award-winning reporter, Patrick has won multiple Michigan Associated Press Best Reporter/Anchor awards and is a three-time Academy of Television Arts & Sciences EMMY Award winner with 14 nominations.