Ottawa County is the fastest-growing and most dominant agriculture-producing county in the state of Michigan. Grand Valley State University’s hometown, Allendale, is one of the fastest-growing townships in the state. The aquifer that supplies water to the area is draining faster than ever as a result.
The Marshall Formation supplies Ottawa County residents with the groundwater they need to cook, clean, drink and grow crops. Unfortunately, the aquifer is unable to “recharge” due to the area’s geology.
According to Paul Sachs, director of the Ottawa County Planning & Performance Improvement Department, a thick layer of impermeable clay creates around 150 square miles in the county where water absorption is “limited,” meaning water from precipitation is not making its way back into the aquifer.
“It’s nestled right around the middle of our county,” Sachs said. “As we’ve developed with a blind eye to what’s happening below the surface, every new well that we put in to suck water up just been dropping the water level.”
Residents old and new have already experienced the effects of groundwater depletion, Sachs said. Ruined crops and homes without running water prompted the county to take a closer look at what was going on beneath their feet.
“(A resident) irrigated his crops the day before, and when he woke up in the morning, all of his soybeans were burnt to a crisp,” Sach said. “Come to find out that the water he was pumping out of the ground to irrigate was full of sodium chloride — saltwater.”
In 2018, the county partnered with Michigan State University, which revealed the scope of groundwater issues facing the county, Sachs said. The Ottawa County Groundwater Board was formed on March 23, 2021, building on the momentum of the Groundwater Sustainability Initiative that was formed four years ago.
The board consists of 15 members of different backgrounds, including scientists, farmers, local businesses and local officials. Al Steinman, a GVSU professor with the Annis Water Resources Institute, said that the diverse board ensures that stakeholders have a say moving forward.
“I give our county tremendous credit. They reached out to all potential sectors that would be influenced by this,” Steinman said. “They’ve included the agriculture sector, the greenhouse sector, the real estate sector, the housing sector, they brought in their health department, the road commission, all these potential utilities and entities that could be impacted by groundwater, to see what can be done in a proactive way.”
Education is another important component of the board’s work, Sachs said.
“We need a paradigm shift on how we operate and we need to think differently about the way we do our land-use planning, the way we do our building design and site development, and the way we use water,” said Sachs.
In a state surrounded by freshwater lakes, Michiganders are often skeptical of the water issues they face, Steinman said.
“One of the biggest issues we face when we talk about a natural resource such as water in the Great Lakes area is how to convince people to conserve water when they see this vast array of surface water all around them,” Steinman said. “Yet we have water conflicts all over the state of Michigan.”
Sachs said that through education and advocacy, he hopes the board’s work in Ottawa County will continue to sustain the area’s growth and serve as a model for change throughout the state. Ultimately, this can change the way resources are used in the state.
“We’re being very strong advocates here in our county because there are other areas of the state, that will probably learn a lot by what we’re doing, and they’ll be better for it,” Sachs said. “We can’t ignore this problem, so that’s why we’re being as strong, forward-thinking and active as we can be.”