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Dry county

Alexander Sinn • Apr 16, 2019 at 12:00 PM

SPRING LAKE — Ottawa County may be surrounded by water, but its wells are running dry.

Ottawa County officials are exploring hundreds of ideas to solve a problem unique to the county, beginning with a campaign to encourage water conservation.

Paul Sachs, the county’s director of Planning and Performance Improvement, spoke at Spring Lake District Library recently about the geology underpinning a threat to water access, and the challenges of reaching solutions.

“It’s such a hard thing to comprehend that we would have a challenge like that in Ottawa County,” he told a handful of residents.

The issue has not drawn a large outpouring of concern, Sachs said, but he is hopeful that will change.

The problem was discovered around 2009, when farmers in a rural part of the county noticed that their crops were being burned by salty groundwater. A subdivision in Allendale Township saw a severe loss in water pressure, prompting the township to undertake a major expense of hooking the neighborhood up to municipal water.

How did this happen?

The root of the problem goes deep to the county’s unique geology, Sachs explained.

Groundwater wells either draw from the shallow glacial aquifer, or the deep bedrock aquifer of the Marshall Formation, a compressed rock formation that underlies much of Ottawa County. The problem is a layer of clay between the two, which is causing the Marshall Formation to not recharge with water quickly enough to fulfill the needs of water users who depend on the source.

Ottawa County is Michigan’s fastest-growing county, and that growth is occurring in rural regions not within reach of municipal water sources. As municipal water is located in the corners of the county, Sachs explained, it’s impossible to rely on these sources to supply the mostly rural, agrarian county.

“We cannot have municipal infrastructure that extends everywhere across the county,” Sachs said. “It’s not feasible. It’s impractical. We’ve got to find out a way to get people water in a different way.”

What can be done?

While the county aims to implement numerous strategies for organizations and businesses, the first step is to make residents aware of the small changes they can implement to conserve water.

Water can be saved by limiting showers to five minutes and making the most out of your laundry and dishwasher loads. Lawns should not be watered when it rains, and Sachs said rain sensors are an inexpensive option to help. New landscaping should feature natural grasses and plants; while porous materials, instead of solid concrete, can be used for footpaths.

County officials are hoping some area properties such as public libraries can serve as models for sustainable landscaping practices.

“We’re talking with every industry sector possible,” Sachs said. “Change the way you do business, because we have to for our own sustainability.”

The county is working on a strategic plan to combat the water shortage, which will entail new planning strategies and programs for developments, and create solutions to offset withdrawals from the deep aquifer.

New curriculum is being sought to be implemented through the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District, Sachs said.

Planning strategies will also play a role to conserve the county’s water. The state minimum standard for requiring a development to hook up to municipal water should be increased, Sachs said, to encourage more developers to connect to municipal systems, which in Ottawa County typically draw drinking water from Lake Michigan.

In February, Allendale Township became the first community in the county to prohibit new developments from using well water. Sachs called the action “incredibly commendable.” He said Allendale Township has the infrastructure to take such an action, while other rural communities do not have the existing connections to make this demand of developers.

“That’s going to adjust that needle a little bit for us,” Sachs said. “We’ve got to wrap our head around what we need to do.”

In the coming weeks, county officials will be meeting with a variety of stakeholders to send the message about water conservation. A long-term strategy is in the works, but Sachs said the efforts will require residents to be mindful of their use at the faucet. 

“We can do this,” he said. “We can make change.”

Visit miottawa.org/groundwater to learn strategies for conserving water in and around your home. 

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