GVSU to partner with Ottawa County on groundwater management plan

A logo for the groundwater management plan that says "Managing our groundwater - Ottawa County" and shows a stock photo of splashing water.
Image Credit: Courtesy Ottawa County

Grand Valley's Annis Water Resources Institute will partner with Ottawa County's planning department and other groups to implement a new proactive groundwater management plan for the county, which includes Grand Valley's Allendale Campus. 

The new county groundwater management plan will address a number of groundwater management problems that are impacting communities in central Ottawa County. Alan Steinman, the Allen and Helen Hunting Director of the Annis Water Resources Institute, will serve on an executive committee that oversees the management plan.

With 24 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline and the Grand River crossing through it, Ottawa County is not a place where groundwater issues would generally be expected, but unique geology in the area is affecting supplies and conditions of groundwater. Water that is located underground, which is used by thousands of residents as their primary source of drinking water, as well as crop irrigation water, is at risk.

A recent comprehensive study of the county's groundwater system showed that water levels in the deep bedrock aquifer under the county are declining and chloride concentrations are increasing. The study's findings also confirm that water conservation and management is critically important, even in an area with abundant surface water.

The groundwater study revealed that several areas in central Ottawa County are seeing significant declines in groundwater levels due to thick layers of clay that prevent water from re-entering the bedrock aquifer locally. As groundwater is pumped from the aquifer, the system is not able to recharge as fast as it is being used. That also impacts water quality, as naturally occurring salt in the bedrock is mixing with the groundwater at an increasing rate, resulting in higher chloride concentrations in the water. That can result in corroded pipes and damage to crops, along with exacerbating health concerns among people with high blood pressure.

Historical data shows some areas of the county have seen a drop in the aquifer level of as much as 40 feet over the past 50 years. Estimates indicate that if water use continues on the same path without intervention, areas could see further declines of as much as 10-15 feet in the next 20 years. This decline could render wells unusable because of low water levels or water undrinkable because of high chloride concentrations.

“Groundwater is a very underappreciated resource in Michigan. Unless we have a crisis such as PFAS contamination or lawsuits such as Nestle Ice Mountain, it is out of sight and out of mind. However, conditions in Ottawa County, where groundwater levels have dropped 40 feet over the past 50 years in locations such as Allendale Township, are vivid reminders that we must use this precious resource sustainably," Steinman said. "Ottawa County has addressed this crisis in a well-thought-out and carefully planned manner, where the appropriate scientific studies were first conducted, and are now being used to inform policies that will help maintain the region’s quality of life into the future.” 

The county plans to promote and reinforce the need for all residents and businesses to practice water conservation. Partners in the county groundwater management plan include the Ottawa County Planning and Performance Improvement Department, the Michigan Geological Survey, Michigan Groundwater Association, the Ottawa County Department of Public Health, the Ottawa County Road Commission Public Utilities Department, as well as many other scientists, experts, and local decision makers. 

To learn more about the Annis Water Resources Institute, visit www.gvsu.edu/wri.

To learn more about the county groundwater management plan, visit www.miOttawa.org/groundwater.