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Low lake level debate

Benishek, riparian landowners search for water solution

October 14, 2012
By JOHN PEPIN - Journal Staff Writer ( , The Mining Journal

K.I. SAWYER - U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Crystal Falls, recently met with Martin Lake residents, pledging to explore the costs of drilling additional water wells and a hydrologic study to conclusively determine the interrelationships of groundwater and surface water at the site.

"I'll certainly do everything I can," Benishek said at the end of a meeting Thursday with a handful of residents at one of their homes overlooking the diminished 26-acre body of water.

Lakefront property owners have been concerned about a significant decline in the level of Martin Lake for the past few years and have been engaging township, county and federal lawmakers on the issue.

Article Photos

Joe Gendron, left, stands on his deck overlooking the diminished Martin Lake and talks with U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek about the problem. (Journal photo by John Pepin)

The lake has dropped as much as eight feet, impacting not only property values, recreation and lake views, but populations of fish, including northern pike, bass, bluegill and crappie.

Residents, who fix blame for the problem almost solely on the pumping of water from two wells at Sawyer, said the problem occurred previously in the early 1990s, but the lake rebounded about five years after officials stopped pumping from wells No. 9 and 10.

"The Air Force made a mistake," Marquette County Commissioner Bill Nordeen told Benishek. "They put wells 9 and 10 in here without knowing what detrimental effect it would have on Martin Lake."

Pumping was resumed from wells 9 and 10 after a contamination problem occurred in other wells. K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base closed in 1995.

Today, wells No. 4 and 5 - and to a recently limited extent, wells 9 and 10 - provide water for residential, commercial, industrial and fire protection needs at the K.I. Sawyer community.

A previous governmental study into the problem was inconclusive, but the residents said it was two years shy of completion.

Over recent weeks, the Martin Lake property owners have been asking the Marquette County Board for assistance, in hopes of capping the two water wells, which they think would eventually help rebound the lake water levels.

The board voted to reduce the pumping of the water from wells 9 and 10 from 25 percent down to 16 percent and now to between 3 percent and 5 percent of all the water pumped at Sawyer, leaving the bulk of water production to come from wells 4 and 5.

With the pumping volume reduced, the county board will wait until April to reassess whether the reduced pumping effort has helped rebound the lake level.

Several Martin Lake residents said they don't believe the board needs to wait, but should agree to stop pumping from wells 9 and 10 and cap them permanently. They said wells 4 and 5 can adequately supply the community.

Nordeen explained to Benishek the county board wants to keep the two wells available for the possibility of use in the future, should increased commercial development take place at K.I. Sawyer that would require more water. Nordeen said that without replacement wells drilled, the county board would not agree to cap wells 9 and 10.

Lakefront property owner Karl Malashanko said a hydrologic study would conclusively determine the groundwater and surface water relationships at work in the Martin Lake area. But Malashanko told Benishek the cost of such a study - which he suggested could be completed by Michigan Tech University - is unknown.

Benishek said he would look into whether a study is needed and how much such an effort would cost. County staff is exploring the same questions. Benishek said he lives on a lake and that typically, issues of water pumping can affect adjoining property owners and are generally local issues to contend with.

He said the difference in the Martin Lake situation is the prior relationship of the area as a U.S. Air Force installation. Benishek said he will check with U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit, to see what steps have been taken in the past to pursue the issue.

Residents told Benishek Levin had helped them in the past, when the governmental study was undertaken. Benishek said he would also try to determine the cost of drilling new test wells. The lawmaker and the residents wondered whether some money from the base closure or reuse may still be available to invest in the problem.

Benishek also asked the residents if someone is monitoring the water levels of the lake. Residents have informally marked the declining water levels with bricks and sticks. Resident Joe Gendron said he had taken measurements in the past for the U.S. Geological Survey when the previous study was under way. He said he would be willing to do it again.

"This would be a great project for a university ecology class," Benishek said.

No deadline was set by Benishek to gain new information, but aides for the lawmaker said they would be in touch with Nordeen, who volunteered to be a point person for the residents.

John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. His email address is



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