Tag: Bob Otwell

Osceola County Site Visit –  Stealing Michigan’s Invisible Resource


This article is a follow-up to my January post on “Groundwater – Invisible but Precious.”

On a recent bike tour in northern Michigan, I decided to put Evart on the itinerary and stop by the area where Nestle Waters North America is hoping to increase their taking of Michigan groundwater. Nestle would like to increase the flow in their existing production well (PW-1) from 250 gallons per minute (gpm) to 400 gpm, and send the water to their water bottling plant in Mecosta County. This flow would total over 500,000 gallons per day, or 210 million gallons per year. Nestle’s cost to take this water - a $200 permit fee. This production well is located in a hydrologically sensitive area of springs and between the upper reaches of Twin Creek and Chippewa Creek.

Before my visit, I had already reviewed information provided by Nestle: topographic maps, soil borings, historical stream flow and groundwater level data, an aquifer test performed on the production well, and the predictions from a groundwater computer model their consultants produced. Hydrologists rely on this type of data and models to analyze watersheds and look at “what if” scenarios. A site visit fills in some of the gaps and details that you can’t see on a sheet of paper or on your computer screen.

This area just north of the small village of Evart is beautiful - rolling and wooded. The land is private, and mostly occupied by hunt clubs and the Spring Hill Camp. The travel was slow for me on my bike because the roads were soft gravel and hilly. A loaded touring bike (and owner) prefer flat and paved. I was able to only see the creeks where they crossed the roads, but I was able to get some sense of the hydrology and topography.

Bike touring provides lots of time to think, and my concerns with this taking of Michigan groundwater rolled around in my brain. Two primary concerns are as follows:

  1. Nestle has been pumping groundwater from this production well for over a decade and gathering data. It is unusual but very beneficial to have all of this historical data. Unfortunately, Nestle did not use the data to analyze the effects of the historic pumping on the small streams and springs near their production well PW-1, nor did they share all of the data with the public. They only used the data to develop a computer model that was then utilized to predict the impacts of an increased flow from PW-1. Computer models are far from perfect. FLOW hired its own hydrologist to review Nestle’s reports, and has pointed to several concerns and unsupported assumptions in Nestle’s work.
  2. The production well is located where it is so that Nestle can label the water “Spring Water.” Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requirements in fact state that “Spring water shall be collected only at the spring or through a bore hole tapping the underground formation feeding the spring.” (See excerpts from FDA regulations in Attachment 1). The difference between taking a few gpm of groundwater flowing out of a spring, and pumping hundreds of gpm from a bore hole is significant and will likely always impact the small springs and streams nearby. If a large production well is installed, one is simply drawing in groundwater from the area and the production well can be located out of the sensitive headwater areas of the watershed. For example, the City of Evart community wells are located only a few miles away from PW-1, along the Muskegon River, and are pumping virtually the same water from the same unconfined aquifer. But the potential impacts are much different – the average flow in the Muskegon river is 450,000 gpm, whereas the average flow from a gauge on Twin Creek close to PW-1 is 780 gpm. When a pumped well removes 400 gpm from an unconfined aquifer, the result is a taking of 400 gpm from the springs and streams nearby. The impact is obvious.

So whether you enjoy bottled water or not (I don’t buy it), it is clear to me that Nestle is taking too much of Michigan’s groundwater, in a precarious and sensitive location, for too small a fee. On this bike trip, I travelled along the Muskegon River from Paris to Hersey to Evart to where it crosses Highway M-61 west of Harrison. It is a big, beautiful river, from a big, beautiful watershed that drains a large chunk of Michigan. Groundwater taken close to the Muskegon River minimizes the impact to the watershed, and gets rid of the uncertainty of the computer models. This water could not be labeled Spring Water, but that may be a compromise that the citizens of Michigan would be willing to accept.


Bob Otwell has been a member of the FLOW board since 2013. He is the founder of Otwell Mawby PC, a Traverse City environmental consulting firm. He has degrees in Civil Engineering and has experience in groundwater and surface water hydrology, along with environmental studies and clean-up. Bob did a career switch and was the executive director of TART Trails from 2001 to 2010.

FDA Regulation Excerpts

Groundwater – Invisible but Precious

Bob Otwell, FLOW Board of Directors
December 2016

Most of us in northern Michigan drink groundwater and use it to bathe. Outside of metro Detroit, the majority of Michigan’s public water supplies along with water in rural homes comes from groundwater. Groundwater also is used to water golf courses and supply the growing thirst of irrigated farm land. We would not have trout in our northern streams if they were not nourished during the heat of the summer by cold groundwater. This is our invisible resource.

This blog is the first in a two-part series examining groundwater; this article will provide the reader a better understanding of the physics, and the second one will examine current groundwater regulations.

Understanding Groundwater

Groundwater is simply rainfall and snowmelt that has percolated into the ground. In northern Michigan, about one third of our annual 33 inches of precipitation ends up as groundwater. The remainder runs off on the surface to lakes and streams, or is taken up by plants and is lost through evapotranspiration. In the Great Lakes Basin, abundant groundwater is stored in the layers of sand and gravel left behind by the glaciers, and in sandstone and limestone bedrock. The temperature of groundwater is generally the average annual air temperature above the ground. In northern Michigan, this means 50 degrees Fahrenheit all year round. This temperature cools trout streams and provides a nice cool drink in the summer, and it also helps keep small streams from freezing in the winter.

Groundwater flows naturally by gravity through permeable sands and other porous materials, and continues moving downhill until it seeps into wetlands, springs, streams, rivers or lakes. We’ve all seen groundwater percolating into a spring, or felt the cool currents on our feet while swimming in one of our clear lakes. But groundwater discharge to surface water bodies is in fact continuous throughout the bottom of the stream, lake, etc., even though we can’t see it. They are connected, and if you care about a certain babbling brook, you in fact care deeply about the groundwater that makes it what it is. Rivers and streams flow at a velocity measured in feet per second, whereas groundwater flows at a rate of feet per day. This sure and steady seepage provides the base flow that makes a perennial stream flow all year round.

Groundwater also flows unnaturally where the “downhill” direction is altered through the installation of wells and pumps. This pumping creates a “drawdown cone” around the well. If a small well is installed, there is a small blip in the groundwater table. By contrast, if a large well is placed with a large capacity pump, the groundwater table can be altered dramatically. Where there are many large wells, serious regional impacts can take place. The High Plains (Ogallala) aquifer that extends from South Dakota to Texas has been over-pumped for decades, resulting in a lowering of the groundwater table in some areas of over 150 feet. This significant drawdown forces other groundwater users to deepen their wells, increasing their costs and energy requirements. This “mining” of water has created a net loss of groundwater in the High Plains of 340 km³. What would be the effect if this volume of water was taken from Lake Michigan? If spread out over the surface area, this would reduce the lake level by 20 feet.

Large wells can also dry up springs and streams. The most vulnerable springs and streams are those near the headwaters, where flowing tributary groundwater is limited. Ironically, due to FDA requirements, this area is where bottled water companies must install their wells if they want to label the bottle “Spring Water.” Pump a gallon out of the ground in these areas and you lose a gallon in the stream.

Groundwater, springs, wetlands, rivers and lakes are all interconnected. To care about one, is to care about all. Are we taking care of our groundwater in Michigan?

To be continued next time.

Note: I have simplified the discussion above to aid in understanding. Hydrogeology is complicated by a combination of confined, unconfined and perched aquifers, separated by discontinuous layers of less permeable soils (silt, clay and glacial till). In addition, we only know for sure what we find in a soil boring at a specific location, and we must then interpolate between the borings. Our knowledge is dependent on the funds available to install multiple borings.