Even in water-rich Michigan, no guarantee of enough for all

Dale Buist knew that operating a commercial greenhouse would be challenging. He just didn’t expect a water shortage to be among them. Not in Michigan, with its vast aquatic riches.

Yet a few irrigation wells produced only a trickle. And one quickly dried up.

He installed equipment to capture rainwater for the plants. Then a drinking water well failed. Finally, Buist spent $350,000 to connect to a pipeline that feeds nearby Grand Rapids.

“My greenhouse is 20 km from Lake Michigan, one of the largest sources of fresh water in the world,” said the Ottawa County grower. “And I didn’t have enough.”

His struggle, stemming from a geological oddity and high demand from farmers, developers and homeowners in a booming section of southwestern Michigan, is a cautionary tale for a state that relies on its reputation as a haven. to be a competitive economic advantage as climate change afflicts hotter, drier regions.

The shore of Lake Michigan in Ottawa County, Michigan is pictured February 1, 2022. Despite its proximity to the lake, the county has areas where household and business wells are running low on water. This is because the aquifer under the county has shrunk considerably over the past few decades and has no connection to the lake. Experts say Ottawa County is a cautionary tale for the state of Michigan, which is trying to leverage its abundance of water to build a ‘blue economy’ as climate change drives more drought and depleted aquifers across much of the United States.

John Flesher/AP

Some futurists describe Michigan and the Great Lakes as “weather havens” that will attract people and businesses tired of worsening droughts, wildfires, hurricanes and other disasters. Not so fast, say skeptics. Amid the images of abundance lie problems of pollution, overuse and deteriorating infrastructure.

Outsiders “see these five huge lakes and assume there’s more than enough water for everyone,” said David Dempsey, environmental analyst for government agencies and activist groups. “But we have tons of unresolved issues.”

The Blue Economy Blues

The Great Lakes region is working to shed its worn rustbelt image by developing a “blue economy” that takes advantage of its abundant fresh water. Around the lakes, many cities are promoting tourism and water technologies while converting urban shorelines from brownfields into parks and condominiums.

The strategy would seem particularly suited to Michigan. Surrounded on three sides by four of the Great Lakes, it also has 11,000 inland lakes and 76,000 miles of rivers and streams.

“We are a state geographically and culturally defined by our water,” Governor Gretchen Whitmer said at a conference last year.

But clean, affordable water is not as readily available as it seems.

Lead pollution has made the towns of Flint and Benton Harbor symbols of neglect that disproportionately harm poor, mostly minority communities. Water bills are skyrocketing in some areas as infrastructure deteriorates, according to a recent study from the University of Michigan.

Toxic chemicals known as PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are contaminating wells across the state. Industrial waste, agricultural runoff, and sewage trigger algal blooms and trigger occasional warnings about swimming in lakes or overeating their fish.

And while Michigan doesn’t share the growing crisis with depleted reservoirs and aquifers that haunts the West, that situation may be about to change — at least in high-demand areas.

The reason: Despite all that surface water, nearly half of Michigan residents get their water underground. The state has the most domestic wells in the United States

Collectively, the Great Lakes region would have enough groundwater to fill another Lake Huron. But it is not evenly distributed or accessible.

“This resource is vast but it’s limited and the public isn’t aware of it,” said David Lusch, professor emeritus of geography at Michigan State University. “We all grew up with this prejudice that we are a water wonderland and how could we have a shortage?”

Glaciers that scoured the landscape before melting to form the Great Lakes left a jumble of rock formations underground, some holding more water than others, said John Yellich, director of the Michigan Geological Survey. Where soils are rich in sand and gravel, rain seeps deep underground, replacing water drawn up for irrigation, industry or domestic uses.

But in places, thick clay prevents surface water from replenishing aquifers. Heavy pumping can send dangerously low levels – and suck up salty remnants from the oceans that covered the continent eons ago.

Michigan is behind on detailed mapping of its groundwater, so the extent of its vulnerability is unknown, Yellich said.

“For some parts of the state, it’s a dice game,” he said.

In at least one place, the danger is clear.

So close and yet so far

Ottawa is Michigan’s fastest growing county and the township of Allendale, its booming city – a dormitory community of Grand Rapids home to Grand Valley State University. The main thoroughfare is lined with chain restaurants and stores. The Grand River, the second longest in the entire state, meanders toward Lake Michigan past blueberries and cornfields intermingled with new subdivisions.

As Buist struggled with greenhouse sinks, local authorities juggled reports of salty irrigation water from farmers and erratic supplies in residential developments. Studies have found the clay-coated aquifer below has fallen 40 feet since the 1990s, said Paul Sachs, county director of strategic impact.

It’s a sore spot for Chip Rybicki, a fifth-grade teacher whose family was the first to occupy a new cul-de-sac in nearby Blendon Township five years ago.

“No one said, ‘Hey, do you realize there’s a lack of groundwater and you’re on a well?'” he lamented.

As his lawn sprinkler was running one summer day in 2019, “I heard this spitting and spitting…like when you go down to the bottom of a glass with a straw,” he said. “We lacked water”

He cut back on watering – “I’d rather have an eyesore than no water” – but many others didn’t.

“People say, ‘Hey, I don’t water that much,’ but adding up thousands of homes and that’s a lot,” said Kelly Rice, chair of the Ottawa Parks Board.

She has dismissed several citations alleging violation of rural ‘noxious weed’ ordinances and road vision after replacing waterlogged turf with native shrubs on her 5 acres.

A county plan warns of dire consequences unless things change: dried up wells; bad harvests; health problems related to the consumption of water containing excess sodium.

An advisory council is considering policies such as limiting well-dependent subdivisions, which could meet resistance in the densely Republican county where Donald Trump received 60% support in 2020.

But an Allendale ordinance already requires new residential projects to connect to city water. Residents will “enjoy when they turn on the tap,” township supervisor Adam Elenbaas said.

In the beginning?

Some other parts of Michigan have geology like that of Ottawa County and “the potential is there for similar issues,” said Jim Milne, water supervisor with the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Water. ‘State Energy.

Demand is increasing, especially where farms are intensifying irrigation.

“Groundwater is a natural resource at risk,” Michigan academics and regulators said in an October report arguing for greater protection from overuse and pollution.

Inland communities that lack resources cannot rely on a Great Lakes bailout. They supply nearly 300 public water supply systems across the state, but mostly in coastal areas. Pipeline projects are very expensive and must meet stringent environmental standards.

Instead, experts recommend persuading people to take conservation seriously.

“Commercializing the blue economy is a good idea,” said Alan Steinman, professor of water quality in Grand Valley State. “But we don’t want to follow the path of the lumber barons who said they saw a century’s worth of lumber in Michigan and wiped it out in 10 years.”

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