MARQUETTE - The Marquette County Board voted unanimously Tuesday to recommend that pumping at two water wells at K.I. Sawyer be reduced to the lowest amounts feasible to see if water levels in some lakes in the area rebound.
Lakefront property owners have been concerned about significant decline in the levels of Sporley Lake and, especially, Martin Lake, where boat docks jut into the air over dry land. Many think the problem is the result of natural factors including drought and evaporation, but also the pumping of wells 9 and 10 at Sawyer, which provide water for residential, commercial, industrial and fire protection needs.
Meeting as a committee of the whole, Commissioner Steve Pence made a motion to have county staff come back to the board with a recommended minimum pumping level as soon as possible, and the lake level issue will be revisited in April 2013 to assess the results.
Commissioner Bill Nordeen said the notion of whether pumping from wells 9 and 10 has affected the water level in Martin Lake has been a question for many years. A U.S. Geological Survey study of the problem from 1995 was inconclusive.
"We haven't been able to quantify or identify for sure whether or not, the pumping of wells 9 and 10 at Sawyer affect the lakes that are just adjacent to Sawyer, but certainly the U.S.G.S. study suggested that it was a potential and could be happening," Nordeen said. "The Air Force's reaction to that was to stop using wells 9 and 10."
Reading from the report, Nordeen said: "K.I. Sawyer officials decided to reduce pumping of wells 9 and 10 and rely primarily on wells 4 and 5 for the base's drinking water supply. In the future, wells 9 and 10 will be pumped just enough to keep the well systems hygienically safe. Wells 4 and 5 were used for 20 years with minimal impact on area lakes."
Nordeen said use of wells 4 and 5 was eventually reduced to prevent against solvent contamination, a problem that has since been resolved.
"I don't think there's a big controversy as to what the county's going to do, that's to support Martin Lake or any of the other lakes if it's within our means," Nordeen said. "I would suggest the county not use wells 9 and 10 except to keep them hygienically safe."
Nordeen said there are droughts affecting the region and country, but Martin Lake is being impacted by more than that.
"It's incredible what has happened to the lake," Nordeen said, holding up a color photograph of Martin Lake at formerly higher level. "Yes, there's a drought going on, I'm the first to acknowledge that. I live down in Gwinn, I'm very familiar with the lakes; all the lakes are down. But this lake in particular is down significantly more than the rest."
Nordeen said he hopes to talk with U.S. Rep. Dan Benisheck, R-Crystal Falls, to explore whether federal funding exists to pay for drilling new wells to provide water for Sawyer that, like wells 4 and 5, would not affect the water supplies to Martin Lake because they are linked to a separate aquifer.
Marquette County Administrator Scott Erbisch said he spoke briefly with the DEQ about the prospect of drilling new wells.
"Those locations for those would be pretty far distances from our existing infrastructure, so you're looking at a pretty sizable investment ... to locate an appropriate aquifer, and then to run it and tap it into our existing system," Erbisch said.
Erbisch said the county recently reduced pumping levels at wells 9 and 10 to 10 percent of the total water pumping at Sawyer. However, he said if water demands change, pumping levels would be increased to meet demand.
County water officials said running wells 9 and 10 too low would put rust into the lines and result in odor and taste complaints from users.
All four wells pump a total of about 300,000 gallons per day. In mid-July, wells 9 and 10 were reduced to about 30,000 gallons per day. So far, there has been no significant impact on rebounding the Martin Lake water level.
Chuck Thomas of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality said the county must keep all four wells available under the Safe Drinking Water Law, but the pumping levels could be reduced. He said that under the law, if the main wells are shut down for any reason, remaining wells must be able to produce average daily and peak demands.
"The K.I. Sawyer water supply cannot do that with just wells 4 and 5," Thomas said. "At this point in time, unless they get replacement wells someplace else, (wells) 9 and 10 have to stay operational."
Violation of the law could result in enforcement action from the DEQ, but it would take time and deadlines would be set for getting back into compliance, he said. Wells 4 and 5 cannot be run at the same time without one of the wells drawing air from the line.
Thomas said wellhead protection areas, which generally outline the aquifer range, include Martin Lake for wells 9 and 10.
"There's no doubt about it, wells 9 and 10 could have some impact on water levels," Thomas said. "I don't think it's 100 percent the reason why Martin Lake is down. I think it's a combination of the precipitation problem and the fact that 9 and 10 draw water from that aquifer."
Thomas said there are restrictive covenants affecting where wells can be drilled at Sawyer because of known areas of contamination.
From another angle, Commissioner Bruce Heikkila said he believes Martin Lake residents should go to their tax assessors to seek reductions, given they have lakefront properties with no lake.
Commissioner Michael Quayle suggested letting the reduced pumping levels continue through the winter or longer to see what changes occur.
"Quite honestly, I don't know what else we could do," Quayle said.
No firm estimates were available as to how long it may take for the lake levels to rebound, even with the diminished pumping levels.
Several residents from the affected area who came to the board meeting Tuesday applauded at the end of the board discussion. A final vote on the recommendation is slated for next Tuesday's regular board meeting.
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.