Published in Economic Development

Groundwater issues in Ottawa County halt developments

BY Sunday, September 01, 2019 02:24pm

In response to growing concerns about groundwater issues, Ottawa County’s Olive Township has hit pause on plans for a platted subdivision that’s been in the works for nearly a decade. 

The Olive Township board of trustees in May placed a moratorium on new developments that use well water. The move effectively stalled the subdivision project north of Holland because of the high costs associated with building municipal water infrastructure. It remains unknown when or if the development will move forward. 

“If we require municipal water, there is a good chance it might not ever happen with affordability,” said Olive Township Supervisor Todd Wolters. 

In 2018, Ottawa County along with the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Institute of Water Research at Michigan State University completed a study that showed the volume of groundwater in the county has decreased over the last 50 years. The water that remains in the aquifer also has high levels of chloride and salt.

The county first became aware of a potential groundwater issue in 2008, when subdivisions in Allendale Township reported no water coming out of their faucets. Around the same time, farmers in the area reported crop damage as a result of high chloride levels in the water used for irrigation.

The issues exist because Ottawa County has “the worst geology in the state of Michigan for groundwater recharge,” said Paul Sachs, the director of planning and performance improvement for Ottawa County.

The naturally occurring issues have the potential to greatly affect how development occurs in some areas of the county, according to Sachs and other local officials. 

“If we don’t start making changes now and employing more due diligence, the problem will get worse,” Sachs said. “It will not solve itself. If we don’t consider the fact that we have a groundwater problem, those developments could go in, but at some point — maybe in two years, five years, 10 years — those homes will not have available water. And then you’re left in this reactionary state where we need to come up with tens of millions of dollars immediately to run infrastructure to those areas.” 

In response, Ottawa County wants to deploy a real-time groundwater monitoring network across the entire county. Sachs is hoping to secure some state funding by the end of 2019. Monitoring where the issue is worst will be “very important” for deciding how to solve the problem. The monitoring system could cost between $500,000 and $1 million, Sachs said, prompting the need for communities and stakeholders to get involved.

The problem

The issue stems from users withdrawing more water from a deep bedrock aquifer formation than can be recharged back into the system in Ottawa County, Sachs said. Adding to the problem is the presence of a thick layer of clay about 70-80 feet underground that sits on top of the bedrock formation.

In a normal hydrologic cycle, rainfall and melting snow percolate into the ground and recharge the aquifer, but in Ottawa County, the clay layer is impermeable, effectively blocking the groundwater from being recharged. 

“As we continue to grow and there’s not available municipal infrastructure lines for new developments, those developments will go in as well-dependant structures, and it’s not a productive enough water supply for homeowner use,” Sachs said. 

According to the groundwater study, during the last 40 years, the groundwater level has dropped by 40 feet. The study’s authors projected another 20-foot decline by 2035 given the level of anticipated growth in the area.

If more wells are drilled to serve the growing population and development in the county, the pumps will draw up water that contains a higher concentration of sodium chloride, according to the study,

Primary issues occur where growth is high, including Allendale, Blendon, Robinson and Olive townships, Sachs said. 

“As those communities start to think about the future and growth, we need to start thinking differently about how they’ll access water going forward,” Sachs said.

Behavioral change needed

While the groundwater problems are naturally occurring, it is going to take human behavioral change to help remediate the issue in the future, Sachs said.

Before the county became aware of the extent of the groundwater problems, there was never any requirement for developments to connect with municipal water. Moreover, some communities in Ottawa County rely mostly on well water and lack the extent of municipal water infrastructure that other communities have. 

Allendale Township now requires every platted development in the township to connect with municipal water as opposed to drilling individual wells. The township is fortunate to be able to tap into the lines that connect the city of Grand Rapids to its water supply, said Allendale Township Supervisor Adam Elenbaas.

“It puts us in a very positive situation,” he said. 

Not all communities with groundwater issues have access to that municipal water infrastructure, Sachs said.

“We have to continue to assess opportunities and mitigation strategies for our other communities that don’t have the infrastructure network,” he said.

Elenbaas serves on Ottawa County’s committee overseeing groundwater issues and mitigation. The committee is compiling a groundwater management plan that is currently in a draft stage. 

Sachs hopes to present the plan to the county’s Board of Commissioners in October.

The plan will include revisiting the county’s groundwater ordinance, which could create standards on low-impact design and green infrastructure beyond what is currently required. 

People may have to look at how their lifestyles affect the groundwater issue, including their landscaping choices and other changes that could be built into local ordinances.

“Everyone loves a green lawn,” Sachs said, though they tend to use large amounts of water for upkeep. “It’s that type of landscape we may have to adjust in the future.”

For its part, Olive Township also will continue to monitor the scope of the issue. Currently, the moratorium does not allow anyone to divide land more than once, such as for a platted development that would require multiple wells. In the future, Olive Township could require developers to make their sites able to connect to municipal water, but that currently is in the research phase.

“We have no determination if we are going to force people to use municipal water, which is going to be very costly to install,” Wolters said.

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