- Groundwater quality and access is an issue facing many communities.
- Ottawa County’s population is growing and its water consumption rates are creating concerns about the quality and quantity of the groundwater.
- Ottawa County officials are planning to create the state’s first county groundwater commission to form a coherent plan and address infrastructure issues.
Ottawa County, the fastest-growing county in the state, plans to create the first county groundwater commission in Michigan. This process is in the beginning stages and the commission, along with a groundwater technical advisory board made up of industry experts and technical professionals, should be finalized over the next few months.
The commission will be comprised of individuals with diverse backgrounds representing multiple sectors. It will be empowered to do many things related to groundwater sustainability efforts, including promoting continued outreach and education and recommending county policies moving forward.
Ottawa County’s need for a groundwater commission
Ottawa County residents get their drinking water from one of two sources: Lake Michigan via city systems or groundwater pumped from private wells in more rural areas. So why does a lakeshore community like Ottawa County need a groundwater commission?
Because its groundwater has been problematic. The county was first alerted to groundwater issues in the mid-2000s when residents of an Allendale Township subdivision complained of dry faucets, and farmers were irrigating their crops with salty water. Studies found that water levels in the deep bedrock aquifer system had declined about 40 feet since the 1970s, and heightened levels of sodium chloride in the water were found in some areas.
Groundwater issues occur because of problems with recharge of the aquifer – when rain and snow soaks down into the earth, replenishing aquifers. However, areas of Ottawa County have a clay layer that limits fresh water from soaking down into the earth and properly recharging the aquifer. This leads to decreased water levels and/or dry wells.
Insufficient recharge of the aquifer causes sodium chloride, which exists naturally in the bedrock aquifer, to become more concentrated in the groundwater. The problem is intensified as demand increases with population growth and sprawl, and the use of road salt in winter. This leads to salty-tasting water, crop damage, corroded plumbing, and increased health problems (e.g., high blood pressure).
Previous steps taken to address groundwater issues
An in-depth study by Michigan State University, commissioned by the county, provides abundant information related to groundwater, aquifers, and sodium chloride in Michigan. This data is helping the county address problems with groundwater quality and quantity in this fast-growing region.
County officials have already created a protective strategies index with four major focuses: education, behavioral change, mitigation, and coordination. This was created to offer residents and local leaders techniques to combat water shortage. Some local governments have used planning and zoning regulations to lessen the dependency on deep bedrock formations and groundwater in general: Allendale and Olive Townships have both placed moratoriums on well water developments and Allendale Township requires all platted developments to connect to municipal water, pumped from Lake Michigan.
Moving forward with the commission, the county is focusing on these four areas, with the goal of being a better steward of its groundwater.
Is Ottawa County the “canary in the coal mine”?
The MSU study found groundwater problems in multiple regions across the state, identifying 36 counties in low-lying areas of southern Michigan as potentially at-risk for groundwater quality and access issues. The concerns in Ottawa County are present statewide.
This is important because 45 percent of Michigan residents are served by groundwater through private or public wells. Michigan has more household or private wells drilled than any other state, as well as the highest state share of the nation’s public groundwater supply systems. Michigan’s total groundwater use is about 700 million gallons per day.
In a state with aging infrastructure that is also dealing with increased consumption and usage of water, unaddressed groundwater issues can be costly. They may increase the need for city water and wastewater infrastructure expansion. They may also impact land use and planning as local governments will need to be careful of the amount of impervious surface they allow; concrete, rooftops and even lawns inhibit recharge of the aquifer.
Unless addressed, these problems will continue to grow. Ottawa County officials hope its new commission will enable them to be proactive with this resource. While the state and county can do things to improve the quality of groundwater (e.g., invest in infrastructure, monitor wells, better land use and planning), effective groundwater management plans may have to include water conservation strategies being adopted by residents as well as governments.
Changing residents’ water use behavior may be difficult; however, like most infrastructure issues, it may come to a head if Ottawa County and other parts of the state continue to experience dry faucets and other issues with our water quality.