WEST OLIVE — It started with phone calls. It was the mid-2000s, and something was amiss with the water wells in Allendale Township’s Highland Trails subdivision. Homeowners were complaining of low water pressure or even dry faucets. Then, area farmers chimed in – soybean leaves had been ‘burned’ because their irrigation water was salty. These reports were concerning, especially since Ottawa County is the fastest growing county in the state and one of the most agriculturally diverse. As groundwater complaints mounted, the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners requested a water study be conducted to understand the long-term sustainability of the County’s aquifer system.
The County hired Michigan State University in 2012 to conduct a two-part groundwater study. Phase I, completed in 2013, validated the anecdotal reports: water levels in the deep bedrock aquifer system have been declining for 20 years, and in certain areas, sodium chloride (salt) levels are rising above recommended standards. The Phase II study, which assessed how the groundwater supply could be impacted in the future, was completed in March 2018. Phase II demonstrated parts of the aquifer will continue to decline, and sodium chloride levels will continue to increase if proactive steps are not deployed to manage withdrawal rates.
“Groundwater issues aren’t just an ‘out-west’ problem anymore” said Paul Sachs, Planning and Performance Improvement Department Director. “Based on seven years of scientific study, we’ve learned that drinking water in the deep bedrock aquifer below Ottawa County isn’t being replenished as quickly as it’s being removed.” The geologic findings contained in the study are also an indication that drinking water from groundwater sources in Michigan as a whole may not be as abundant as previously thought.
Armed with the data, the Department has spearheaded a partnership with local scientists, policymakers and stakeholders to develop a plan for practical solutions to protect this vital resource. The County is pleased to announce the release of the Proactive Strategies Index, a guidebook highlighting steps oriented toward alleviating the water crisis.
“With a dedicated group of partners working in conjunction with our department’s land planners, we’ve created an Index that outlines the many ways we can tackle this groundwater issue,” added Sachs. “This guidebook goes a long way to not only address the crisis with mitigation strategies, but also to offer common-sense solutions residents and businesses can implement.” One of the solutions identified in the Index that offers significant opportunity to improve the use of water resources is the conversion of turf-grass to more sustainable, native landscaping strategies.
Some of the other Index highlights include:
• Outreach campaign: In collaboration with the Department of Public Health and partners, educational materials and messaging are being developed for distribution across the County to the public and select stakeholder groups.
• Online resources: In 2018, the Ottawa County Groundwater website was launched as a place for visitors to access detailed information and data related to the County’s challenges.
• Youth education partnerships: Officials will work with local educators to introduce groundwater education into existing science classrooms, as well as other hands-on learning exercises with community partners.
• Stakeholder integration: Partnerships with homeowners, landscapers, realtors, developers, farmers and more will allow for conservation and awareness measures to be implemented.
• Model Zoning Guidelines and a Coordinated Future Land Use Plan: Thoughtful zoning practices will be developed with local units of government to reduce strain on our groundwater supply without stifling development.
• Groundwater Monitoring Network: The County is working to identify the best groundwater solutions by establishing a network of sensors to analyze long-term trends in the bedrock aquifer.
Index in hand, it is the County’s hope stakeholders, experts and the community can make water conservation a priority in West Michigan. For more information on Ottawa County’s groundwater issues, visit miottawa.org/groundwater.