MARQUETTE - The Marquette County Board voted unanimously Tuesday to create a committee to study whether using water diverted from the Escanaba River - during spring flooding - or the Empire Mine is a viable method to recharge the Sands Plains aquifer.
The board will also seek potential state funding to finance an independent study of declining water levels in the county's aquifers and lakes, including Martin Lake at K.I. Sawyer.
The problem of sinking surface and subsurface water levels has been persistent over the past several years, but not in all locations. In several areas, lake and groundwater levels have fallen while precipitation rates are above average. Despite a good deal of dialogue, local government officials and residents have been unable to agree on the causes.
Former Sands Township Supervisor David Kallio brought the Sands aquifer recharge plan - crafted years ago by former Cleveland Cliffs Iron Co. engineer Hank Greenwood - to the county board in June.
The panel charged the county planning commission with reviewing the idea and wider water level concerns and returning recommendations to the county board, which it did this month. Among its suggestions, the planning commission suggested forming a new group composed of government officials and experts to study the Greenwood plan further.
"The planning commission and their subcommittee that looked over the information saw that there was merit to the recharge proposal, but there was much additional information needed before it could be considered as a viable option," said county Commissioner Gregory Seppanen, who served on the ad hoc subcommittee. "It's either going to be something that looks like it is possible or there could be something out there that would basically say, 'No, this is not a very practical form.' We weren't able to reach that point."
Seppanen said the subcommittee concluded the level of the Sands Plains aquifer appears to be dropping and found there are local individuals with expertise in groundwater matters and state regulations who have expressed an interest or could be approached about looking into the issue as part of a new committee.
The question of how the Empire Mine reclamation plan might fit into the recharge issue was not answered by the subcommittee. One suggestion provided was to potentially use water from the mine pit to recharge the aquifer.
"That answer is something that needs to be explored in a little more detail," Seppanen said.
It was also unclear to the panel whether the recharge effort could legally be considered a Great Lakes water diversion, which might prove problematic.
"It's an interesting situation because you have the surface water, the creeks out there, going into the Escanaba River, which will flow into Lake Michigan, but yet you have the subsurface water, the aquifer, which is below it, which actually flows into Lake Superior," Seppanen said. "So again, that's one of those issues that would take a little bit of exploration."
Meanwhile, Commissioner Deborah Pellow was disappointed in the planning commission's recommendation to refer the problem of dropping water levels at Martin Lake at K.I. Sawyer back to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
For months, Martin Lake residents have tried to convince the county board the pumping of water from two wells at K.I. Sawyer has been the main cause of the lake dropping several feet over the past few years, impacting property and recreation values.
Seppanen said the planning commission didn't find evidence of the linkage. The DEQ referral was made based on the agency's function in licensing wells.
"We did not see the connection, even though the Martin Lake people see it, a connection between the wells and their lake levels," Seppanen said.
Martin Lake resident Karl Malashanko said he was surprised the planning commission came to its conclusion without any formal study. A U.S. Geological Survey was started years ago, but never completed.
"Assume that the wells aren't the problem? The fact is Martin Lake is still dropping, averaging two inches a month," Malashanko said. "It rains. The drop stops. Three or four days later, it continues to drop. So there is definitely something going on."
Pellow said she'd like to see a countywide study done on lakes and aquifers.
"Martin Lake is the one that started this whole thing and brought this to our attention and I really feel like this (planning commission) report back just kind of poo-pooed them and sent them back to the DEQwho they were frustrated with when they first came to us," Pellow said. "So what did we accomplish for them? Nothing, in my opinion."
The board approved Pellow's motion for the Martin Lake and wider area study and incorporated a final recommendation from the planning commission to survey local municipalities to detail lake and aquifer levels countywide. The information gathered will be incorporated into the county's comprehensive plan for 2014.
County staff will report within a few weeks whether hydrology experts from Michigan Tech University, Northern Michigan University or elsewhere are available to do Pellow's lakes and aquifers study, which the county would seek to fund with state money said to be available.
Commissioner Paul Arsenault said he thought it was "critical" the county get some neutral professionals to investigate the hydrologic issues and report only facts. He suggested this should be done while also forming the Sands Plains study committee and pushing hard to find money to fund the hydrologic study.
"We'll all have facts to deal with so we're not back to people involved with the process that have something to lose or gain," Arsenault said. "We all have something to lose because these lakes and aquifers are very important."
Commissioner Gerald Corkin said data on the levels of lakes over the past decade, which should be available from state or federal sources, would help provide a clue as to what's happening.
Kallio said he supports the new studies.
"We do have right now in Marquette County a number of water issues, whether it's some of the lakes on the western part of the county, Martin Lake, Sands Township, I think it's probably time to try to put something together to get a little bit of science, a little bit of brain power to look into this," Kallio said. "I think it would be a great thing for the county and it might lead to some solutions."
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.