Michigan Groundwater Expert Distills Lessons of a Career

Professor David Lusch retired in 2017, after a 38-year career in the Department of Geography, Environment, and Spatial Sciences at Michigan State University (MSU). Beginning in 1992 with the publication of the Aquifer Vulnerability Map of Michigan, Dr. Lusch helped pioneer the use of geographic information systems for groundwater mapping and management in Michigan. The Groundwater Inventory and Mapping Project, which Lusch co-directed, won the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s (MDEQ) Excellence Award in 2005. In 2008, MSU awarded Dr. Lusch the prestigious Distinguished Academic Staff Award and IMAGIN, Michigan’s professional geospatial organization, presented him with the Jim Living Geospatial Achievement Award.

As a member of the team that developed the Michigan Groundwater Management Tool (MGMT), Professor Lusch received the annual Director’s Recognition Award from MDEQ in 2009. Dr. Lusch was a co-PI of the recent Ottawa County Water Resources Study which used process-based flow modeling, coupled with field sampling, historical data mining, geostatistical analyses, and geospatial visualizations to better understand the underlying mechanisms controlling the patterns of shallow groundwater salinization in Ottawa County.

We asked him to offer his views on critical groundwater matters.

Do you think the Michigan populace understands groundwater and its importance? Why or why not?

In my opinion, most citizens of Michigan have only the most basic of an understanding of groundwater. Most people seem to intuitively know that there is groundwater beneath the ground surface and they generally know how important groundwater is as a drinking water source. However, they know little or nothing about aquifer systems, which aquifer they get their own drinking water from, the recharge areas in their landscapes, or the intimate connection between groundwater and surface water resources (especially the maintenance of stream flow and temperature).

What is the most important or surprising thing you have learned in your years working on groundwater?

The lack of adequate amounts of fresh (i.e., non-saline) groundwater in central Ottawa County from the Marshall Formation.

What are the biggest threats to Michigan groundwater quality, and what gaps are there in groundwater policy?

Human contamination of groundwater by an increasing number of hazardous chemicals. PFOS/PFOA are good examples of materials that have been used for a long time and that only recently have been found in groundwater because we never looked for it before. PFOS/PFOA were both on the EPA’s 2016 Contaminant Candidate List, but no preliminary regulatory determinations have yet been made due to a paucity of data about occurrence and toxicity. From a drinking water quality perspective, I think the biggest threat is that we don’t know what we don’t know.

Michigan appears to be a water-rich state; why would groundwater become scarce in some areas in the future?

As the Ottawa County Groundwater Study showed, some areas of Michigan are underlain by a very thin layer of fresh groundwater floating on top of saline groundwater. As groundwater use increases, the saline groundwater can upwell into the production zone and cause an increase in the concentration of dissolved solids (chlorides in the Ottawa County case). Drilling deeper will only exacerbate the problem because the TDS concentrations increase with depth (in some places reaching levels three times the TDS concentration of ocean water). In some areas of the state, the transmissivities of the local aquifer materials are small and the recharge rates are slow, so groundwater yield is notably low (less than 8-10 gpm in some places — a typical 3-bedroom home with modern domestic infrastructure requires 15-20 gpm). Lastly, in certain areas of Michigan, cold-transitional stream types need up to 96-98% of the available groundwater discharge in order to maintain their stream habitat. In such water management areas, this leaves only 2-4% of the available groundwater for all human uses.

If you were Michigan’s groundwater czar, what would you do to protect the resource?

As groundwater czar, my first priority would be to financially enhance the Environmental Health Divisions of all of the Local Health Departments in the state. Environmental Health sanitarians staffing these agencies are the first line of defense for protecting and maintaining groundwater quality (through the well and septic installation inspection programs). Currently, these programs are funded with pass-through money from the Michigan EGLE Department, Drinking Water and Environmental Health Division. The minimum program requirement for the LHDs is to field inspect at least 10% of all the wells drilled in any one year. A few of the more affluent counties LHDs (e.g., Oakland Health Department) in the state inspect 100% of all the well installations in their county. Such a level of funding/staffing for all the LHDs in the state would go a long way toward protecting our groundwater resource.

My second priority would be to increase the funding for the Environmental Health Divisions of all of the Local Health Departments in the state in order to have vibrant and vigilant Pollution Incident Planning Programs. Coupled with this, I would also increase funding for local fire chiefs/marshals so they could effectively bolster the PIP Program with onsite inspections under the Firefighter Right To Know statute. Both of these activities should be focused on existing wellhead protection areas for both Community and Non-community Public Water Supplies, with special emphasis placed on non-transient, non-community supplies (schools, nursing homes, apartment complexes, etc.).

Click here to learn about FLOW’s groundwater program, “The Sixth Great Lake: The Emergency Threatening Michigan’s Overlooked Groundwater Resource,” why Michigan needs stronger septic protections, a FLOW podcast about the groundwater connection, videos and infographics about our groundwater, and key policy recommendations for the Michigan legislature and MDEQ.

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