By Sam Tucker
With the Great Lakes, the world’s largest freshwater system, surrounding Michiganders, the idea of running out of groundwater seems impossible but it may be a reality for parts of the Mitten State.
Groundwater is used for drinking water, farming, and production- as well as being an essential part of both the water cycle and how water comes out of the tap when we want it. Groundwater is held in underground aquifers, which are large collections of sand, gravel, or fissures and cracks in rocks that are “loose” enough or permeable, so that water can flow and be stored in them.
A truly vital factor to the future of our groundwater is the rate of recharge. Just like a gas tank or battery, aquifers need to be filled up or recharged as they are depleted. Groundwater recharge is a natural process that typically involves rain water trickling through layers of permeable rock until it settles in an aquifer.
This is where Michigan’s problem lies: too much depletion and not enough recharging.
In Ottawa County and areas on the east side of the state that contain intense agricultural practices, aquifers have been depleted, and wells need to be drilled deeper and deeper. This makes it harder to maintain both the steady quantity and good quality of the water.
“In the middle of the county, Blendon Township and Allendale township, we’ve seen the static water level, which is simply the water table when you’re not applying any pressure, drop 40 to 50 feet in the last 50 years in parts of Ottawa County,” said Alan Steinman, the Allen and Helen Hunting Director and a professor at Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute (AWRI). “That’s a lot of water that’s been withdrawn and that has not been able to recharge and keep up with the withdrawal rate.”
This causes more issues for agriculture and households alike since depleted aquifers are now pumping water of lesser quality.
Groundwater quantity issues result in turning your faucet on and no water coming out. Whereas quality issues are more in line with harmful chemicals being found in tap water.
So we know how these aquifers are being depleted and how it is negatively affecting Michiganders, but how can we protect Michigan’s groundwater?
“One of the first things from a technical perspective, is you start putting out a grid of monitoring wells, so that you start having a baseline of information of what your water tables are around the state,” Steinman said.
At this point in time, Michigan lacks a reliable and robust monitoring system. Currently, the one that’s in use relies on the data collected from independent well drilling companies. In Steinman’s view, the network proves unsatisfactory, since it relies on only collecting data where people want wells, along with minimal oversight on the accuracy of the data.
In the Michigan Water Use Council 2020 Report, recommendations were given to the state government on how to better protect and preserve Michigan’s freshwater resources. The Water Use Advisory Council suggests implementing new hydrological monitoring systems to collect the data that’s lacking at this point.
Steinman further agrees with the need for these groundwater monitoring systems as a step forward in sustainable groundwater usage.
“How do you manage any resource, how do you manage a business; whether it’s an ice cream shop or your water supply, how can you manage it if you don’t know what your stocks and flows are,” Steinman questioned.
As far as tackling Michigan’s groundwater issue, Steinman explained that we’re still in the education and planning phase. If people and governments knew the implications of unsustainable groundwater consumption they might second guess overlooking these important water issues.
“This problem is pervasive,” Steinman said. “There’s a lot of attention in the scientific and natural resource literature about it, whether it extends to getting into people’s hearts and minds, that’s a whole other story.”
Changing human behavior around water use and consumption is easier said than done, and Steinman is quick to remind that, “the technical solutions are the easy ones, it’s changing human behavior that’s tough.”
So whether it’s putting limits on large water consumers like Nestle, implementing water conservation practices, or just changing how people consume water, the solutions are there, it just takes people to start implementing them. Ottawa County has been leading the fight for groundwater conservation and is in development of their own Groundwater Sustainability Initiative. Step by step, Michigan will get closer to sustaining and preserving it’s natural resources.
“We flush our toilets with perfectly good drinking water,” Steinman said “We sprinkle our lawns with potable water only to cut them next week. In 50 years, if not sooner, people will look at how we’re using water right now and go ‘what the hell were they thinking?’”