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'A critical issue': Ottawa County's groundwater crisis highlighted by historical drought

"It will hit people in the face when they go to turn on the tap and there's no water available," said Michael Frederick.

OTTAWA COUNTY, Mich. — 13 ON YOUR SIDE has been following the groundwater shortage in Ottawa County for years. And as the extremely dry conditions continue, county officials and experts say it's critical that residents understand and accept that the situation is urgent.

"This is one of the most critical issues facing Ottawa County," said Paul Sachs, Director of the county's Planning and Performance Improvement Department.

Ottawa County is currently facing its third-driest year in the past 127 years. The drought is putting a spotlight on the county's already urgent decline of groundwater availability.

"It's simply not sustainable," Sachs said, "we have to make some changes to the way we operate."

Sachs said that one of the major ways the residents can help conserve water is by decreasing the amount of lawn-watering. 

Here's why:

A Michigan State University study found that in Ottawa County, necessary agricultural production uses about 2 billion gallons of water per year. County land owners, though, use roughly 3 billion gallons of water per year just to water their lawns. 

"Embracing water conservation is something that Michiganders just don't practice as they should," said Paul Sachs, "and in Ottawa County, it's of particular importance that we do start to embrace it."

Here's a questions many of us wonder, though.

How can there be a water shortage in a county that sits right next to a great lake?

Sachs answered by explaining that Lake Michigan is not geologically connected to the water that is beneath us. He said they are two separate systems. 

"So even though we see so much surface water, it doesn't mean we have a ubiquitous amount under our feet," he added. 

Michael Frederick handles Government Affairs for the Michigan Groundwater Association. He agrees that to utilize Lake Michigan as a water source is not a realistic option. 

"It's just so expensive that it would be cost-prohibiting," Frederick said. "You're looking at millions, and millions, and millions of dollars to do something like that."

Steve Hecksel is a well driller in Ottawa County, and also a member of the Michigan Groundwater Association. He said that there is a crisis in the county, but it is hard to find the right balance to fix the problems. 

"Us as well drillers are trying to preserve the groundwater and protect it," Hecksel said, "but we also want to protect property owners and the community's right to use that underground water." 

All agree, though, that without real change, like limiting lawn-watering, the groundwater crisis will undoubtedly grow worse.  

"There's no easy solution," said Michael Frederick. "We're going to have to put our heads together and look at data in terms of how we use the water and what's available, because it's not always about today, it's also about what's available tomorrow."

"It will hit people in the face when they go to turn on the tap and there's no water available," he added.

To learn more about the Ottawa County Groundwater Sustainability Initiative, click here.

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