Michindoh Aquifer SSA designation debated 2010.01.20

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

While several city officials and citizens are praising proposed federal oversight of a vast source of drinking water, many members of the agricultural community are strongly opposed.

Representatives from the EPA, along with those pushing for the measure, say that farmers’ fears are unfounded.michindohaquifer.jpg

At public hearings last week in Hudson and Bryan, information was presented and opinions collected about a proposal to declare the Michindoh Aquifer a sole source aquifer (SSA). 

The underground water source is described as an enormous sponge of sand and gravel that holds water over a nine-county area in three states. The northern boundary of the aquifer lies north of Addison and extends south to Hicksville in Defiance County. The western border includes Clear Lake, Ind. On the east, the aquifer ends a few miles east of Morenci.

The EPA has the authority to designate an aquifer as the sole source of drinking water when more than 50 percent of the population depends on the aquifer for water. With this designation, the EPA would review federally funded projects that have the potential to contaminate the aquifer.

Support for the proposal was heard Tuesday night from the Hudson city council and Wednesday night from the mayors of Edon and Bryan.

“If something would happen that we had no water, I don’t know what the 900 residents of our village would do,” said Edon mayor  Darlene Burkhardt.

The cost of obtaining a new source of water would be a burden to taxpayers, said Doug Johnson, mayor of Bryan.

Opposition

Williams County commissioner Alan Word told the crowd that no one wants contaminated water, but efforts must also be made to sustain a livelihood. He said those two efforts appear to be butting heads.

Fulton County commissioner Dean Genter said that water sources are already adequately monitored by the Ohio EPA. Any additional monitoring would be redundant and would hinder the ability of local governments to obtain federal funding.

Williams County Farm Bureau president Fred Slicker said that current practices to protect water resources far exceed those of the past.

“The aquifer is not fragile nor is it likely to lose its natural protection mechanism,” Slicker said.

That view was challenged by Mary Ann Thomas, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, who studied the Michindoh aquifer.

“We documented that the Michindoh glacial aquifer is vulnerable to contamination from human activities,” she said. “The aquifer is not protected by a thick layer of clay. There are widespread networks of vertical fractures and sand lenses throughout that can serve as pathways for contaminant migration.”

More than a third of the wells sampled showed evidence of contamination, she said.

Other speakers expressed a fear of obstacles to economic development through SSA designation, and one person alleged the proposal is actually an effort to destroy agriculture.

“Make no mistake, the main goal that drives this is to stop livestock agriculture,” said Roy Norman, director of the Fulton-Henry-Williams County Farm Bureau.

History is on our side, Norman said, because the aquifer has not been damaged in 150 years of development. He added that “vegans and environmental extremists” are constantly attacking agriculture. The purpose of the SSA, he said, is to put farmers out of business.

Several Hillsdale County representatives suggested that Michigan water is already adequately protected and asked for the boundary of the SSA to be redrawn and end at the state line.

Glen Frobel of Cambria Township claimed the SSA project was kept quiet to hide the facts from the public and he said it’s suggestive of tyrannical government.

“We answer to God in Michigan,” he said, “not to the whims of men.”

Frobel asked for a 180-day extension before any decision is made.

Support

Lou Pendleton, chair of the Michindoh SSA effort, said she’s pleased to hear of Michigan’s efforts because the water flow doesn’t stop at the state line. She countered the charges made about keeping the project quiet.

“The City of Bryan sent mail to all the villages and communities in the aquifer area at the very beginning of this process,” Pendleton said.

DVDs were also sent to provide information about the aquifer, but no response was received. The petition process then began and an update was sent two years later, in 2007. Again, she said, there was no response.

Dr. Julie Weatherington-Rice, a soil scientist, has worked on SSA projects in other areas of Ohio and said the statements about hindering development are unfounded.

“To date, we have found no adverse economic impacts from the designation,” she said.

She said it’s in the best interest of communities to support the effort because they would be responsible for finding new sources of water, if needed. She said the Michindoh petition process marks the first time in her two decades of SSA work where she’s ever encountered opposition from an elected official.

For those with private wells, Weatherington-Rice added, SSA designation is the only federal protection available.

She thinks anyone who studies the issue would see the value in the proposal.

Williams County resident Sherry Fleming said she doesn’t think it’s a wise approach to say, “There’s no problem now so we don’t need to worry about it.”

If nothing else, she said, the SSA effort has raised awareness of the valuable shared resource that lies below the region.

• For details about the SSA petition, go to www.cityofbryan.net and click on the Water link. An aquifer link is listed on the left side of the page.

Are critics' fears unfounded? 

A hindrance to farm operations, a hurdle in the way of obtaining funding for conservation projects, a method to destroy livestock agriculture.…

Those were a few of the comments made about the proposed Single Source Aquifer (SSA) designation for the Michindoh Aquifer. William Spaulding of the EPA’s water division office in Chicago welcomed the opportunity to clear up misconceptions about an SSA.

If the aquifer is granted SSA standing, the EPA would be charged with reviewing federally funded projects showing a potential for contaminating the aquifer.

Spaulding said last week that the only SSA effect on agriculture that he’s aware of could come if there was federal funding for constructing or decommissioning a manure lagoon. In that case, a free review of the project would be needed.

“If someone wants to do these kinds of projects with their own money, EPA would not be involved in reviewing them,” he said.

Spaulding said the EPA’s Region 5 office has never received any applications from the USDA Rural Development Authority (RDA)—the agency that would grant funds for manure lagoons. He checked with the Region 4 office in Atlanta and learned that typical RDA referrals there address water and wastewater treatment projects in rural communities.

He also spoke with an RDA official in Mississippi and learned she could not recall ever sending a manure lagoon construction project to the EPA for review. However, the office did send one application for decommissioning when a lagoon was to be taken out of service.

“The idea that the EPA would review conservation projects is a misconception,” Spaulding said. “Conservation projects by their very nature are meant to improve water quality, and therefore would not pose a significant risk to public health.”

Dr. Julie Weatherington-Rice, a soil scientist based in Columbus, has worked on SSA projects for more than 20 years and she also counters statements made last week about negative impacts on agriculture.

She contacted Soil and Water District offices and Farm Service Agency offices in Miami, Montgomery and Preble counties in Ohio where an SSA boundary runs through the area. This, she thought, would give a comparison of funding for farms located within a protected aquifer area and those outside.

In 23 years on record, she was told there are no distinctions in funding, no federal reviews and no special issues regarding USDA funds related to manure management.

“In some cases,” she said, “those within the boundary get extra points that improve their chances of being funded and/or funded at a higher level. This makes designation a bonus to the farmers, not a handicap.”

She checked with the USDA office in Findlay where another SSA is located and received the same report. 

Finally, she called Mark Smith, assistant state conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Columbus, who was puzzled by the rumor of SSA harm to agriculture.

“He did think that if a farmer contaminated the aquifer because of a farming practice, he might have a higher ranking and/or get more cost-share money to correct the problem if he was in an SSA area than if he was outside,” Weatherington-Rice said. “Again, a benefit, not a penalty.”

She added that the U.S. EPA has federal oversight over concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) regardless of SSA designation.

She sees two advantages to SSA designation that aren’t often mentioned.

“All federal safe drinking water programs which are administered by state EPAs and DEQs and health departments are designed for public water supplies.  The only federal protection that exists for private wells is SSA designation,” she said. “[This would give] people on private wells in the Michindoh aquifer a level of federal protection that they can get no other way.”

Also, she said an SSA application requires cost estimates for obtaining an alternate source of water.

“Then, by granting the SSA, the federal government basically certifies those costs.  That makes the delineation a critical insurance package.”

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