Salty groundwater could hurt agriculture, business, homeowners

LANSING — A worrisome environmental issue is bubbling up from deep below Michigan’s ground with little public awareness, experts say.

The salinity of the state’s groundwater is on the rise, raising concerns about killed crops and corroded pipes.

The problem is increasingly severe and requires action, but Michigan residents and lawmakers struggle to recognize it, said Alan Steinman, a Grand Valley State University water researcher and board member of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

“It’s hard for people to imagine that we have a water problem in Michigan when their view is the Great Lakes,” he said. “Because we’re surrounded by so much water, they can’t imagine that we’re having an issue with the supply.”

To understand why it’s happening, go back to Michigan’s prehistoric roots, Steinman said.

Before glaciers shaped the state, Michigan sat on an ancient seabed, he said. Today, that salty water sits thousands of feet below ground in deep aquifers.

Above them are potable “surface aquifers” with non-saline water from the glaciers. Over time, people depleted them and started drilling deeper and deeper wells, often punching into the salty water below, Steinman said.

The problem is worse along the shorelines, where the bowl-shaped deep aquifers are closest to the surface. Agricultural areas in Southwest Michigan and the Thumb are already facing problems, Steinman said.

In Ottawa County, troubles became evident almost 20 years ago.

In 2006, a farmer called the county for help after he woke up to a field of crops “burned to a crisp” by saline water he was pumping from a deep well, said Paul Sachs, the county’s director of strategic impact.

The county secured state funding to study the situation, he said. It found that an aquifer of salty water sat high underground in the central parts of the county. Tests found that the water could be nine times saltier than the ocean.

In the years since, the county has used state funding to closely monitor its water supply and attempts to drill wells in the right places, hopefully avoiding the wrong aquifers, Sachs said.

The long-term solution, however, will involve a shift in how the public thinks about water, with a new emphasis on conservation, he said.

Sachs said he suspects that will be tricky, because Michigan residents don’t think about water as limited.

“We’re the Great Lakes state – we seem to have water everywhere,” Sachs said. “So, up to this point, it hasn’t been necessary to think about practical water reuse and conservation like you see in the more arid parts of the country.”

Ottawa County is also unique in being heavily studied and understood. The geology and water salinity of the rest of the state is largely a mystery, said Steinman.


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