One of the last places you would expect to encounter a challenge with ensuring a sustainable supply of fresh groundwater is Ottawa County. Situated along 24 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, with the Grand River traversing its landscape and Lake Macatawa and Spring Lake within its borders, Ottawa County is a popular destination for recreation, business, and living. Access to water is perceivably abundant. However, the water that is located underground and out of view, which is used by thousands of residents as their primary source of fresh drinking water as well as by farmers to irrigate their crops, is at risk.
Originally alerted to groundwater concerns nearly a decade ago, Ottawa County hired Michigan State University (MSU) in 2011 to conduct a comprehensive study of the quality and sustainability of the County’s groundwater system. MSU’s scientific findings released in Spring 2018 confirmed the anecdotal evidence—water levels in the deep bedrock aquifer are declining, and chloride concentrations in the water are increasing. Moreover, the findings of this study support what we’ve known all along—water conservation is critical, even in our Great Lakes State.
MSU’s groundwater study points to unique geological features located underneath several communities in the central areas of Ottawa County as a contributing factor to the groundwater challenge. These areas are seeing declining groundwater levels due to thick layers of clay deposits that prevent water from re-entering the bedrock aquifer locally. As groundwater is continually pumped out of the aquifer, the system is not being “recharged” fast enough to keep up with demand. Furthermore, as the water levels continue to decline, naturally occurring brines (salt) found in the bedrock aquifer are mixing with the groundwater at an increasing rate, resulting in a higher concentration of chloride in the water. Elevated levels of sodium chloride in water can corrode pipes, damage crops, and potentially exacerbate health concerns among individuals with high blood pressure. The Static Water Levels (SWLs), which is the level of water in a well when the pump is not operating, have actually been on the decline in this area since the 1960s. Extensive historical data shows that some areas of the County have seen a drop of as much as 40 feet over the last 50+ years. Estimates show that if water consumption continues on the current path without intervention, these areas will see another 10 to 15-foot decline in the next 20 years. A decline of this magnitude could result in wells that are inoperable due to reduced or minimally available water resources or unusable because of high chloride concentrations.
Effective water management and planning is key to reversing these issues. “The groundwater concern in Ottawa County is not unresolvable,” said John Yellich, Director of the Michigan Geological Survey. “Other areas of the country have faced similar challenges, and they’ve been able to develop successful strategies to ensure a sustainable water supply.” Another important factor in Ottawa County’s planning effort is to promote and reinforce the need for all residents and businesses to practice water conservation. Paul Sachs, Director of Ottawa County’s Planning and Performance Improvement Department, added, “As the County, West Michigan, and Michigan as a whole continue to prosper, the need for everyone to recognize and practice water conservation will become increasingly more important. Our fresh water supply is not unlimited.”
The County’s Plan for managing its groundwater resources into the future is a collaborative effort that involves multiple partners including, but not limited to, Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute, Michigan Geological Survey, Michigan Groundwater Association, the County Department of Public Health, and County Road Commission Public Utilities Department, among many other stakeholders, scientists, experts, and local decision-makers.
To learn more about how Ottawa County is proactively addressing this groundwater issue and what you can do to help, go to www.miOttawa.org/groundwater. Here you can watch a short video titled “Managing Our Groundwater,” read in-depth about the County’s Groundwater Study and the conceptual Groundwater Management Plan, utilize an interactive groundwater mapping tool, and learn ways to conserve water at your home or workplace.