Groundwater in Crisis? Addressing Groundwater Challenges in Michigan (USA) as a Template for the Great Lakes
2. Summit Description and Methodology
3.1. General Findings
3.1.1. Scientific Issues
- Groundwater budgets: there is a pressing need for better information on aquifer recharge and withdrawals throughout Michigan, but especially in regions where groundwater pressures already exist or are anticipated to soon become worse.
- Contamination: this concern has been highlighted and exacerbated recently by the discovery of PFAS in many groundwater systems, but it has been an issue for decades with other pollutants such as excess nitrate from fertilizer applications, excess phosphorus from septage, and trichloroethylene from manufacturing processes , as well as other human-produced contaminants from commercial and manufacturing operations and processes.
- Forecasting: although we must gain a better understanding of the current state of Michigan’s groundwater, we also need to envision the future state of supply and demand. This has multiple considerations, including, but certainly not limited to, the potential impacts of climate, land use/cover, and demographic shifts that may change withdrawal and recharge rates [35,36]. These factors can influence and exacerbate the movement of pollutants lurking in the groundwater (those already known), as well as those not yet discovered.
- Connectivity: the notion of hydrologic connectivity was a consistent thread in our discussions with respect to both surface water and groundwater. Concerns were expressed about the public’s general lack of understanding of this concept, as well as the lack of geological information regarding connectivity because of limited three-dimensional (3D) geologic mapping in many areas.
- Information Tools and Gaps: these two issues are related, as we have significant information gaps on the 3D extent of glacial aquifers, aquifer water budgets (see above), and groundwater quality, but conveying this complex, technical information in an intuitive and easily digestible manner is equally difficult. Increased efforts to complete 3D mapping of the geologic substrata, as well as other visualization tools will allow us to share complex information efficiently, display information effectively, and communicate the information intuitively. Although better information and science is a critical step forward, it does little good without effective decision-support systems and information/visualization tools.
3.1.2. Management-Oriented Issues
- Public Education: anecdotal evidence suggests there is a substantial portion of society that perceives groundwater as vast pools of “underground lakes and rivers”; there is a pressing need to better educate the public, including elected officials, on groundwater science. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, in association with the Institute of Water Research at Michigan State University, developed the Groundwater Education in Michigan (GEM) Program in 1987. This program demonstrated that successful source water protection programs must be persistent and depend upon strategic partnerships among federal and state agencies, universities, local and district health departments, watershed groups, conservation districts, and others. Similar efforts need to be reconstituted and maintained into the future.
- Water Use Conservation: how do you convince the Michigan public to conserve water, whether it be from the surface or ground, when they are surrounded by four of the largest lakes on the planet and live in a state with over 10,000 inland lakes? This conundrum was termed the “fallacy of universal ubiquity” by one of the summit participants.
- Land and Water Management: although “conservation” frequently refers to reductions in the use of groundwater, the term may apply also to practices that benefit keeping or maintaining groundwater in the system, including multiple agricultural and urban best management practices (cover crops, green infrastructure), as well as legal mechanisms that restrict development or land use change in high groundwater recharge areas. The benefits of such practices must continually be documented, and subsequently, incentives for implementation will need to be established.
- Environmental Justice: there was an acknowledgment that important segments of our society were not represented at the summit, including representatives from BIPOC communities. Clearly, this limits the scope of our findings and recommendations but highlights that additional efforts, strategies, and capacities are needed to engage with, and understand, this issue from multiple perspectives.
- Advocacy: considerable discussion was devoted to the need to lobby more effectively on behalf of groundwater. This “Sixth Great Lake”  deserves increased attention, but there was no clear consensus on how this should be accomplished, especially given the mix of NGO, academic, and government actors at the summit. Each of these groups has perspectives that in some way must comport with their institutions’ guidelines and codes of conduct. However, there was general agreement regarding the need for more effective strategies to garner the resources and attention on groundwater as a growing Great Lakes issue. A few of the ideas that were discussed included: (1) using the GLRI (Great Lakes Restoration Initiative) to create a new Focus Area devoted to groundwater or the Great Lakes Water Quality Annex (GLWQA) Annex 8 update; (2) an annual MI conference devoted to groundwater (although concerns were expressed about preaching to the choir); (3) conducting a study estimating the economic value derived from groundwater use in the state through the agricultural, manufacturing, drinking water, etc. sectors; and (4) utilizing the Water Use Advisory Council as a vehicle for greater advocacy.
3.2. Groundwater in the Agricultural Sector
3.2.1. Key Challenges
- The increasing use of groundwater for agricultural irrigation—the need to irrigate, primarily using groundwater sources, has dramatically increased in Michigan over the last two decades. Between 1997 and 2017, the amount of irrigated cropland in Michigan expanded by ~51,175 ha—a 64.6% increase [40,41]. In the period 2008–2020, the number of agricultural irrigation wells in Michigan more than doubled, increasing by 152% [38,42,43]. Over 3600 high-capacity agricultural irrigation wells have been developed in Michigan over the past decade (Figure 1). The irrigation sector (dominated by agriculture) withdrew an average of 154.3 MGD (million gallons per day) of groundwater in 2010 and 208.5 MGD in 2019 [14,44], and questions are being asked about sustainability .
- The increasing contamination of groundwater from agricultural nutrients and chemicals—fertilizer use in Michigan increased steadily from the 1930s, when commercial fertilizers first became available, to the early 2000s when total consumption of fertilizers in Michigan leveled off . According to USEPA , the amount of N fertilizer purchased in Michigan in 2007 contained 243.6 million kg of N. The longer-term trend shows an 8% decrease in N fertilizer sales in Michigan, comparing 2002–2006 with 2007–2011 . Virtually all agricultural commodities produced in Michigan require treatment with pesticides to prevent serious yield losses from disease and insect, nematode, vertebrate, or weed pests .
- Groundwater Recharge and Drainage Best Management Practices (BMPs)—in general, agricultural producers deal with excessive soil moisture nine months out of a year, with the remaining three months committed to irrigating crops during periods of limited precipitation. Although traditional practices of subsurface drainage have proven successful in reducing excessive soil moisture, thereby creating optimal conditions for crop production, a detrimental impact of such practices is a decrease in groundwater recharge . Subsurface drainage systems, in general, transport surplus water in the soil’s root zone to surface drainage ditches, and ultimately into rivers and lakes. Over time, this removal of water from agricultural fields negatively impacts localized groundwater recharge rates, resulting in a decline in available groundwater from shallow aquifers, and also contributes to downstream eutrophication [50,51].
3.2.2. DPSIR Models
Groundwater and Irrigation Model
- Improve the Michigan Water Use Program and the Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool by funding and implementing the recommendations of the Water Use Advisory Council ; see below.
- Improve the efficiency of low-loss irrigation technology and conservation measures.
- Promote precision irrigation technologies utilizing GIS and in-situ monitoring.
- Advocate for gray water irrigation technologies and adoption.
- Improve local zoning by adopting “ag only” zones and open space uses of regional groundwater recharge areas.
- Incentivize the widespread adoption of irrigation BMPs .
- Advocate for enhanced research funding of drought-tolerant/low-water-use crop genetics.
- Promote and sustainably fund groundwater education to local stakeholders, decision-makers, and middle/high school students.
Groundwater Contamination Model
Groundwater Recharge and Drainage Best Management Practices (BMPs)
Policy and Practice
- Develop techniques to recycle/reuse drain tile water and residential gray water;
- Advance precision agriculture, including the enabling conditions such as expanding soil testing and expanding access to broadband;
- Assess local and state ordinances as well as regional planning efforts that protect and conserve groundwater;
- Employ new approaches to improving irrigation efficiencies; and
- Connect Wellogic to the state water quality database to increase consistent and accessible data.
Science and Infrastructure
- Assess groundwater connectivity, with a focus on movement of groundwater from one system to another;
- Update statewide groundwater recharge maps;
- Develop and/or update tile drain maps;
- Assess groundwater changes via techniques such as calibrating GRACE (https://grace.jpl.nasa.gov/applications/groundwater/ (accessed on 4 February 2022)) to the Great Lakes region;
- Invest in core development of precision irrigation, broadband availability, real time collaborative monitoring networks, and use of satellite imagery to guide agricultural practices; and
- Assess the benefit of agricultural best management practices for groundwater quality and quantity.
Education and Outreach
- Continued communication with and among the agricultural community on groundwater issues, especially utilizing farmer-led watershed groups;
- General education with the public (i.e., where does your water come from?);
- Training for water well drillers for consistency to improve the accuracy of lithology data;
- Improve/develop new water conservation programming through existing programs like MAEAP or others; and
- Stronger and more intentional engagement between various governmental, academic, NGO and business communities.
3.3. Groundwater in the Urban Sector
3.3.1. Key Challenges
- Presence of anthropogenic contaminant sources
- Elevated and fluctuating groundwater tables
- Anthropogenic modifications to urban groundwater systems
3.3.2. DPSIR Models
Anthropogenic Contaminant Sources Model
Groundwater Table Model
Anthropogenic Modifications Model
Policy and Practice
- Address urban land use concerns: zoning, restrictive covenants, regulations
- Increase the use of green infrastructure to manage urban water
- Prevent anthropogenic pollutant releases in urban areas: pollution prevention, development of less toxic chemicals (green chemistry), regulatory oversight
- Manage urban water in a changing climate: climate regulations, zoning, urban planning, FEMA map updates, flood insurance, infrastructure funding and asset management, green infrastructure planning
- Need for better stormwater management in urban centers: green infrastructure, resilient water strategies, retrofits, drainage relief, smart stormwater management, relocation, flood insurance.
- Address urban land use concerns: zoning/regulations, limits on impervious cover and mandating infiltration where feasible, alternative de-icers to minimize salinization of groundwater and surface water.
- Data—groundwater and surface water (real-time, IOT, long-term, open-access), retrofits.
Education and Outreach
- Education ideas:
- Pollution prevention, development of less toxic chemicals (green chemistry)
- Stormwater management
- Salinization reduction
- Infrastructure upgrades
- Climate impacts
- Scientific process
- Outreach ideas:
- Green infrastructure
- Flood insurance
- Citizen science
- Environmental justice
- Data translation
- Native plants/grasses
3.4. Groundwater in the Coastal Wetland Sector
3.4.1. Key Challenges
3.4.2. DPSIR Models
Climate Change Model
Competing Human and Ecological Uses of Groundwater Model
4. Summary and Recommendations
- Develop a statewide groundwater budget
- Coordinate data collection/management activities into a coordinated information management system
- Enhance and refine the Michigan Water Use Program and the Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool
- Develop a statewide groundwater monitoring program focused on contaminants
- Develop an early warning system to envision the future state of supply and demand
- Develop an interactive decision-making tool to quantify the impact of potential new withdrawals based on real-time groundwater monitoring data and enhanced geologic mapping data
- Improve our public education and outreach efforts to improve the public’s general lack of understanding of groundwater, and especially its connectivity to surface water
- Create new information and visualization tools to explain groundwater science and policy
- Instill the importance of water conservation
- Garner more input from underrepresented communities to obtain multiple perspectives
- Although we did not reach a consensus on how we should advocate on behalf of groundwater as a resource, there was general agreement regarding the need for more effective strategies to garner the resources and attention on groundwater as a growing Great Lakes issue
- The Michigan WUAC is statutorily charged to report and make recommendations biennially to the Legislature. It can be an effective advocate for groundwater in Michigan given its diverse membership, with appointees representing: business and manufacturing, public utilities, anglers, agricultural and non-agricultural irrigators, well drillers, local units of government, wetlands conservation, municipal water supplies, riparian landowners, professional hydrogeologists, Indian tribes, the aggregate industry, environmental organizations, and local watershed councils.
Conflicts of Interest
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Steinman, A.D.; Uzarski, D.G.; Lusch, D.P.; Miller, C.; Doran, P.; Zimnicki, T.; Chu, P.; Allan, J.; Asher, J.; Bratton, J.; Carpenter, D.; Dempsey, D.; Drummond, C.; Esch, J.; Garwood, A.; Harrison, A.; Lemke, L.D.; Nicholas, J.; Ogilvie, W.; O’Leary, B.; Sachs, P.; Seelbach, P.; Seidel, T.; Suchy, A.; Yellich, J. Groundwater in Crisis? Addressing Groundwater Challenges in Michigan (USA) as a Template for the Great Lakes. Sustainability 2022, 14, 3008. https://doi.org/10.3390/su14053008
Steinman AD, Uzarski DG, Lusch DP, Miller C, Doran P, Zimnicki T, Chu P, Allan J, Asher J, Bratton J, Carpenter D, Dempsey D, Drummond C, Esch J, Garwood A, Harrison A, Lemke LD, Nicholas J, Ogilvie W, O’Leary B, Sachs P, Seelbach P, Seidel T, Suchy A, Yellich J. Groundwater in Crisis? Addressing Groundwater Challenges in Michigan (USA) as a Template for the Great Lakes. Sustainability. 2022; 14(5):3008. https://doi.org/10.3390/su14053008Chicago/Turabian Style
Steinman, Alan D., Donald G. Uzarski, David P. Lusch, Carol Miller, Patrick Doran, Tom Zimnicki, Philip Chu, Jon Allan, Jeremiah Asher, John Bratton, Don Carpenter, Dave Dempsey, Chad Drummond, John Esch, Anne Garwood, Anna Harrison, Lawrence D. Lemke, Jim Nicholas, Wendy Ogilvie, Brendan O’Leary, Paul Sachs, Paul Seelbach, Teresa Seidel, Amanda Suchy, and John Yellich. 2022. "Groundwater in Crisis? Addressing Groundwater Challenges in Michigan (USA) as a Template for the Great Lakes" Sustainability 14, no. 5: 3008. https://doi.org/10.3390/su14053008