Living Sustainably: Water, water everywhere? Not so much, anymore

By Paul Sachs, Ottawa County

One of Ottawa County’s most alluring features is its water. For as far as the eye can see, Lake Michigan’s crystal-blue waters lap up against our expansive sandy shoreline. Twenty-four miles of coastline provide the perfect backdrop for walking, swimming, kayaking, boating, and fishing.

But what we can’t see, and something that is threatening our quality of life, is a serious groundwater issue: The deep underground aquifer system that supplies water to Ottawa County wells is declining.

Water levels in Ottawa County’s deep aquifer, supplying wells for one in four county homes, have declined 40 feet in the last 40 years and are projected to drop another 20 feet by the year 2035.

Residents get their drinking water in one of two ways – from municipal pipeline systems that pump water from Lake Michigan, or from private wells that pump water from the underground aquifers. Of the more than 104,000 households in Ottawa County, one in every four homes uses groundwater as their primary source of drinking water.
The groundwater issue in Ottawa County involves the deep bedrock aquifer, located more than 100 feet underground. A seven-year scientific study determined that a thick layer of clay is preventing water from re-entering the deep bedrock aquifer. As groundwater is continually pumped out of the aquifer, the system is not being “recharged” fast enough to keep up with demand.
Furthermore, as water levels continue to decline, water quality is worsening due to naturally occurring brines (salt) found in the aquifer. Elevated levels of sodium chloride can corrode pipes, damage crops, and potentially exacerbate health concerns.

Water levels in the deep aquifer have declined 40 feet in the last 40 years and are projected to drop another 20 feet by the year 2035. While we tend to think that water is abundant in our lakeshore county, we need to start thinking differently about our water usage in order to sustain this natural resource.
Ottawa County is implementing a comprehensive groundwater management plan to address this issue head-on, but it will take a village to stop this slow leak. Do your part to help sustain our excellent quality of life by making these four water conservation tips a part of your routine:
1. Practice smart lawn care: Ask yourself, how important is having a green lawn? Homeowners use over 2 billion gallons of water annually in Ottawa County watering their lawns.
2. Load up washers: Start your dishwasher or washing machine when full. Older units use up to 16 gallons of water per cycle.
3. Turn off the faucet: Turn off the faucet when brushing your teeth. Faucets use more than two gallons of water per minute.
4. Low-flow devices: If you don’t already have low-flow toilets or faucets, install them to save water, and money.
For more information about Ottawa County’s groundwater issues, visit Also, this past week, March 10-16, was also National Groundwater Awareness Week. Learn more here:

 Paul Sachs is director of planning and performance improvement for Ottawa County, where he is responsible for implementing innovative, pragmatic solutions that positively impact quality of life and economic growth in the county.

This Week’s Sustainability Framework Theme
Environmental Awareness/Action: Environmental education and integrating environmental practices into our planning will change negative outcomes of the past and improve our future.

Living Sustainably is a collection of community voices sharing updates about local sustainability initiatives. It is presented by the Holland-Hope College Sustainability Institute, a joint project of Hope College, the City of Holland and Holland Board of Public Works. Go to for more information.