ALANDAIL, MICHIGAN (AP) – Dale Buist knew that managing a commercial greenhouse would create problems. He just didn’t expect there to be a shortage of water among them. Not in Michigan, with its vast water resources.

However, a couple of irrigation wells gave only a trickle. And one quickly dried up.

He installed equipment to collect rainwater for plants. Then a well with drinking water failed. Finally, Buist spent $ 350,000 to connect to the pipeline that supplies neighboring Grand Rapids.

“My greenhouse is 12 miles from Lake Michigan, one of the largest sources of fresh water in the world,” said the Ottawa County producer. “And I didn’t have enough.”

Its struggle as a result of geological quirks and high demand from farmers, developers and homeowners in the turbulent area of ​​southwestern Michigan is a warning to a state that relies on its reputation as a water paradise to become a competitive economic advantage due to climate change. hotter, drier regions.

Some futurists draw Michigan and the Great Lakes as “Climate Shelters” it will attract people and businesses tired of drought, forest fires, hurricanes and other disasters. Not so fast, skeptics say. Images of wealth include problems with pollution, overuse and deteriorating infrastructure.

Bystanders “see these five huge lakes and believe the water is more than enough for everyone,” said David Dempsey, an environmental analyst at government agencies and activist groups. “But we have a lot of unresolved issues.”


The Great Lakes region is seeking to get rid of its worn-out image of the Rusty Belt development of the “blue economy” that uses its rich fresh water. Around the lakes, many cities are promoting water tourism and technology, turning urban waterfront from industrial wastelands into parks and condominiums.

It would seem that the strategy is particularly suited to Michigan. Surrounded on three sides by four Great Lakes, it also boasts 11,000 inland lakes and 76,000 miles of rivers and streams.

“We are a state geographically and culturally defined by our water,” Governor Gretchen Whitmer told a conference last year.

But clean, affordable water is not as affordable as it seems.

Lead pollution has made cities out Flint and Benton Harbor symbols of neglect that do disproportionately much harm to the poor, mostly minority communities. Water bills are rising in some areas as infrastructure deteriorates, a recent study from the University of Michigan found.

Toxic chemicals known as PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, pollute wells around the state. Industrial waste, farm effluents and wastewater blooming algae and sometimes warn of swimming in lakes or eating too many fish.

And while Michigan doesn’t share the growing crisis with depleted reservoirs and aquifers haunting the West, the situation could change – at least in high-demand areas.

The reason: despite all this surface water, nearly half of Michigan residents are getting supplies from underground. The state has the largest number of domestic wells in the United States

It is believed that there is enough groundwater in the Great Lakes region to fill another Lake Huron. But it is not evenly distributed and not available.

“This resource is huge, but it’s limited, and the public doesn’t know it,” said David Lush, an honored professor of geography at the University of Michigan. “We all grew up with such a bias that we are a land of water wonders, and how can we be short of it?”

Glaciers that scanned the landscape before melting into the Great Lakes left a mess of underground rock formations, some containing more water than others, said John Elich, director of the Michigan Geological Survey. Where soils are rich in sand and gravel, rain flows deep underground, replacing water that is sucked out for irrigation, industry or home use.

But in some places thick clay does not allow surface water to replenish aquifers. Heavy pumping can lower dangerously low levels – and pull out the salty remnants of the oceans that covered the continent many years ago.

Michigan lags behind the detailed mapping of its groundwater, so the extent of its vulnerability is unknown, Elich said.

“For some parts of the state, it’s a fool,” he said.

In at least one place the danger is obvious.


Ottawa is the fastest growing district in Michigan, and the city of Allendale is a booming town – a dormitory in Grand Rapids, where the University of Grand Valley is located. On the main highway there are chains of restaurants and shops. The Grand River, the second longest in the state, winds toward Lake Michigan past blueberry farms and cornfields mixed with new divisions.

While Buist struggled with nasty greenhouse wells, local officials used reports of salt fuel water from farmers and stains in residential buildings. Studies have shown that the clay aquifer has fallen 40 feet since the 1990s, said Paul Sachs, the county’s director of strategic impact.

This is a sore spot for Chip Rybitsky, a fifth-grade teacher whose family five years ago first took a new impasse in the nearby town of Blendan.

“Nobody said, ‘Hey, you know there’s not enough groundwater, and you’re at the well?'” He complained.

One summer afternoon in 2019, when his lawn sprinkler was running, “I heard it spitting and splashing … like when you sink to the bottom of a glass with a straw,” he said. “We’re out of water.”

He cut back on spraying – “I’d rather be hurt than not have water” – but many others didn’t.

“People say, ‘Hey, I don’t water much,’ but there are thousands of homes, and that’s a lot,” said Kelly Rice, president of the Ottawa Parks Commission.

She has won several quotes alleging violations of regulations on “harmful weeds” in rural areas and road vision rules after replacing water-absorbing turf with local shrubs on its 5 acres.

The county plan warns of dire consequences if things don’t change: dry wells; crop failures; health problems from drinking excess sodium.

The advisory board is considering policies such as limiting well-dependent units that may face resistance in the constituency with the Republican election, where Donald Trump received 60% support in 2020.

But Allendale’s decree already requires new housing projects to be connected to city water. Residents “will appreciate it if you open the tap,” – said the head of the village Adam Ellenbaas.


Some other parts of Michigan have geology, like Ottawa County, and “there is potential for similar problems,” said Jim Milne, head of water resources for the state’s Department of the Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

Demand is growing, especially where farms are stepping up watering.

“Groundwater is a natural resource that is at risk,” scientists and Michigan regulators said in an October report, arguing that more protection against overuse and pollution.

Inner communities that remain inadequate cannot count on help from the Great Lakes. They provide nearly 300 public government water supply systems – but mostly in coastal areas. Pipeline projects are very expensive and must meet strict environmental standards.

Instead, experts recommend convincing people to take nature conservation seriously.

“Marketing the blue economy is a good idea,” said Alan Steinman, a professor of water quality at Grand Valley. “But we don’t want to follow in the footsteps of the timber barons, who said they saw a century-old timber in Michigan and destroyed it in 10 years.”

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