Detroit's Suburban Growth Drains Wells

July 29, 2002
Michigan's hot, dry weather is causing anxiety for the 32 growing Metro Detroit suburbs that rely on wells for all or some of their water.

Low rainfall and high temperatures have caused sharp drops in the amount of water replenishing some underground wells, leading to problems with water pressure and prompting residents and businesses to dig deeper, a prospect that can take weeks to accomplish and cost homeowners up to $6,000 to drill a minimum of 75 feet.

The quick growth in Oakland and Macomb counties and rural communities across Michigan places a further strain on an already overtaxed underground water supply, state and community officials warn.

About half of all Michigan cities and townships rely on private and city wells. In Oakland and Macomb counties alone, 32 communities, with a combined population of 360,000 people, use underground water rather than hook up to the huge Detroit water system that serves 126 cities and townships.

In Wayne County, the strain on well water has not been a big issue because subdivision developers generally are required to bring municipal water to areas still using wells, said Steve Tackitt, director of the Environmental Health Division for the county's Health Department. There are an estimated 3,500 wells in Wayne County, compared to 75,000 in Oakland.

Residents are concerned in communities where wells are losing pressure or going dry, because low pressure poses a risk for bacterial contamination and drilling a new well or a deeper well can cost thousands of dollars.

"The entire situation is too scary," said Edwin Hollis of New Haven. "You can't rely on a well. And there are too many chances to be taken with a well -- from bacteria, iron to low water pressure. Sometimes, they simply dry out. Our pressure from the well is low now, and I refuse to drink the water. It can be a nightmare."

The Macomb County community recently switched back to its municipal well system after water mains carrying Detroit water broke. To prevent contamination, the wrong chlorine was dumped into the well system earlier this month. Many residents have complained of being ill.

"Everyone should be hooked up to a public water system just for safety reasons and peace of mind," New Haven's Hollis said.

In Independence Township, water restrictions are in place to deal with a shortage, said Linda Richardson, director of the department of public works.

The prospects for relief look dim. Independence has grown by 13,000 residents since 1992 to about 35,000, and Richardson expects the community's population will swell to more than 45,000 within the next 20 years.

"Our wells are producing all they can produce, and we're trying to help the tanks fill back up to prepare for the next day with the restrictions," Richardson said. "Besides people watering their lawns, part of the problem is that more people are pulling from the same source than in the past."

The problem is most serious in the far northern Metro Detroit communities where dozens of new subdivisions spring up each year. Urbanization, farming and rock and sand mining all are putting strains on municipal well systems.

The shortage of rainfall this summer is only adding to the problem. Southeast Michigan has received just over 3.85 inches of rain in since June, 2.4 inches below average. So far in July, the Metro Detroit area has received 2.78 inches of rain, slightly below the normal average of 2.79 inches, according to the National Weather Service in White Lake Township. Most of that precipitation fell during scattered storms over the weekend.

One of the driest winters in state history has made matters worse. Melting snow and rain replenish underground water sources. The strain on state underground water is impacting communities across Michigan.

In Mecosta County in northwest Michigan, the Ice Mountain Spring Water Co., a division of Nestle Waters North America (formerly Perrier Group of America Inc.) opened a controversial $100 million bottling plant in May that eventually will pump about 260 million gallons a year from an nearby underground well. Angry residents and environmentalists have been fighting the plant ever since its inception, to no avail. Lawsuits against the plant are pending. Bottled water companies in Ann Arbor and Battle Creek also draw fresh water from wells.

The strain has forced some rural communities to consider costly hookups to the large municipal water systems. Rural Salem Township in Washtenaw County wants to hook into neighboring Canton Township's water system to lure a large auto-supply company to the community. The water hookup would cost millions of dollars.

As more residents flock to once-rural areas, the demand for reliable water sources only will mount. Bruce Township in Macomb County is expected to double in population in the coming years, placing a strain on an underground well system already under stress, officials there said.

Michigan's underground rivers -- sponge-like porous rock formations called aquifers -- are shrinking, and few agree about the possible causes, said Chuck Hersey, manager of environmental programs for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments.

"It's an issue the state will be grappling with for some time as it strives to protect the Great Lakes ... to limit the impact on our natural resources," he said.

Evaporating wells is not a new problem. In the 1970s, urbanization of southeast Michigan caused many rural wells to go dry. The paving over of farmland and the exploding suburban growth had slowed or stopped melting snow and rain from being absorbed into the underground water system.

The answer was easy and costly: dig deeper, said Jay Lehr, a leading expert in underground water and the first American to earn a doctorate in hydrology, the science of water.

The cost to drill deeper for water can be $5,000 or more, depending on the depth. Most private wells were re-drilled to 80 feet and deeper, Lehr said. The problem has slowly resurfaced as development continues, dry conditions prevail and more sources pull from the limited water supply.

"Everyone for decades was getting by and, all of a sudden, it was gone. They had to look seriously at deepening" back yard wells, he said. "The deepest straw gets the most water."

While Michigan well owners will likely suffer as development comes to rural towns hydrated by wells, the troubles are nothing like those in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona, where over development and drought are draining limited underground water supplies, Lehr said.

By western water standards, "Michigan doesn't have, by any stretch of the imagination, a serious water problem," said Lehr, who is finishing a four-volume encyclopedia on water. In the parched southwestern states, "it's an ongoing balancing act."

Michigan's deepening crisis is most evident in Monroe and Saginaw counties, where farm irrigation and quarry mining have been shown to take huge bites of the underground water supply.

Monroe County environmental authorities in the early 1990s noted an alarming number of homeowners in Monroe and neighboring Washtenaw County with private wells losing water pressure or having their wells go dry altogether.

Reports filtered in that Monroe County's active mining operators had been digging so deep into the sand and gravel-rich bedrock that they had reached huge veins of water. One London Township mining company had pumped millions of gallons of underground water from a storage pit into nearby streams. And that was a daily estimate. There are eight mining operators in Monroe County.

Yet state groundwater officials insisted the catastrophic loss of water couldn't be linked to the mining operator, said Carol Austerberry, Monroe County's director of the Environmental Health Division. But the county was determined, setting out its own set of devices to monitor the situation.

When federal geologists reviewed the monitoring data in 2001, showing water level drops of up to 60 feet in some cases, they "almost croaked," Austerberry said. Federal agencies have since committed $150,000 to further study the steady decline of underground water in Monroe County.

Such brewing water battles have prompted state lawmakers to propose legislation to limit what farmers, industry and miners may take from the system.

Source: Detroit News