Food Service & Agriculture, Government, and Sustainability

Ottawa County feeling the water pressure

Michigan agriculture is making a dent in the subterranean water supply.

April 17, 2015
| By Pete Daly |
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Ottawa County water
Al Steinman of the Annis Water Resources Institute holds a device that measures the concentration of nutrients in Michigan streams and lakes. Courtesy Annis Water Resources Institute

When it comes to water use, all eyes are on California, struggling with a major drought now in its fourth year.

The largest user of water in the Golden State is its massive agriculture industry — and of all business sectors in Michigan, agricultural irrigation is the biggest user of the state’s subterranean groundwater supply.

In Ottawa County, there may be a hint of a future water shortage problem. Michigan enacted laws several years ago to prevent too much pumping of water from the aquifer, but the fact remains that in some parts of Ottawa County, the water table has already dropped.

Alan D. Steinman, director of Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute on the shore of Muskegon Lake, said the region near Allendale had static water level declines of 30 to 40 feet.

“The concerns are not only declines in water levels but also increases in chloride concentrations. As we go deeper with wells, we start to draw on more saline water that is non-potable,” he said.

Steinman also pointed out that the decline in Ottawa water levels was revealed in a basic study by MSU, but a much more in-depth study is underway “looking at the sustainability of groundwater in the county. When MSU finishes its study in a few years, we will have much better information.”

“Actually, we aren’t certain how much of the drop in water can be attributed to residential or agricultural uses. We only know at this point that it is dropping,” said Mark Knudsen, director of Planning and Performance Improvement in Ottawa County.

Knudsen said there is a thick, non-porous clay layer over much of Ottawa County that inhibits percolation and recharge of the aquifer.

“This geologic formation exacerbates the fact that more and more withdrawal is occurring in the aquifer from both agricultural and residential uses. In fact, we know that more water is being removed from certain areas of the aquifer than is being replenished. The Phase II Groundwater Study (presently underway by MSU) will tell us more about the aquifers and causes for the drop,” said Knudsen.

“By being proactive and thoroughly studying the aquifers before there is a crisis situation like the one in California, we are confident we can take the steps necessary to avert a California scenario,” he added.

Steinman noted since the state of Michigan developed its Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool, “it does provide some protection to make sure we don’t drain our aquifers to the point where we would be in the situation California is. California had no regulation and still has no regulation when it comes to agricultural use” of water.

The Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool, which is online at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, must be used by anyone proposing to use more than 100,000 gallons of water per day from the aquifer or from a lake or stream over a 30-day period. All factors are run through computer models that indicate what the impact of the proposed large water withdrawal would have on the aquifer and streams in that area, particularly any impact on fish populations.

Jim Milne of the Water Resources Division of the DEQ said the WWAT provides quick results and is a conservative screening tool. If it indicates no likely adverse impact, the well applicant is “good to go,” he said.

However, if there is a likely adverse impact on the aquifer, stream flows or fish populations, then a more involved review by the DEQ is required before a permit can be issued for the well.

Establishment of the WWAT was driven in part, at least, by the Nestlé Ice Mountain bottled-water plant setting up shop in Stanwood. According to Milne, in 2002, Nestlé reported pumping up almost 47 million gallons. Its highest reported water use was in 2013 at more than 250 million gallons.

Nestlé was sued years ago by concerned residents of the region, and terms of the court order limit its water withdrawals from the aquifer during summer months when stream levels are at their lowest. Much of the concern had to do with the blue ribbon trout streams fed by the aquifer.

“We found you can withdraw more water from these aquifers up north without impacting fish, simply because there is more water going in” to the northern aquifers, Steinman said.

Another user of groundwater is the oil and gas industry. Well water is mixed with chemicals and injected into wells in the hydraulic fracturing process, commonly called “fracking.”

Mark Snow, a supervisor in the DEQ’s Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals, said that since 2008, gas and oil well drillers in Michigan used 114 million gallons of water, an average of 4.6 million per well. The largest year yet for water withdrawals for fracking was 2012 with 55 million gallons, “which according to total water withdrawal data statewide was less than 0.03 percent of what was used by other sectors for that same year,” according to Snow.

Agriculture as an industry is “by far … our largest water user by sector in Michigan. Over 90 percent of our registrations (through the WWAT) are for agriculture,” said Milne.

He added that Michigan’s heaviest demands for water use are in southwest Michigan, largely because of agriculture. The thickest concentration of WWAT registrations, of a total 2,890 since 2009, are in Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties on the state line with Indiana. Those counties are home to several major seed corn companies, which require extensive irrigation.

But Steinman noted Michigan is “seeing agriculture migrating north.” One reason is that the growing zones for certain crops are gradually moving north. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, margins of the planting zones across the country shifted northward “ever so subtly” over the past few decades “in response to warming climate.”

The California drought will have some implications for Michigan, in Steinman’s view. Consumers across the nation may face higher food costs due to the California drought, and Steinman said it is possible there could be a shift in population from the Southwest to states like Michigan that can still support agriculture with abundant water.

“We are never going to export our water to those areas” where water is growing scarcer, said Steinman, because of the compact made by Great Lakes States to not export water and also because of the prohibitive economics of constructing the massive transcontinental pipelines it would require.

He suggested it would be more cost effective for Southern California to build desalination plants.

“Economics are never going to change,” added Steinman.

Michigan’s water must be managed in a wise and sustainable fashion, he said.

“We don’t want to go the way that the white pine forests did 150 years ago. Lumber barons said we had enough lumber here for a century, and then they wiped it out in nine years.”

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