Michindoh Aquifer decision delayed 06.30.2010

Written by David Green.

aquifer map graphic


A decision about the proposed Sole Source Aquifer (SSA) designation for the Michindoh Aquifer is facing another delay, pending further study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Described as a gigantic underground sponge of sand and gravel, the aquifer contains a vast amount of water. The Michindoh supplies drinking water to more than 20 communities spread over nine counties in three states, with Morenci and Fayette included.

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 and opposition to the SSA were heard during public hearings earlier this year, and a decision to extend the comment period was granted.

In a press release issued this month, William Spaulding of the EPA’s Region 5 office in Chicago announced an additional delay. He said that due to comments and additional technical information, the EPA has determined that further study is needed.

“The Agency is asking for technical assistance from U.S. Geological Survey and other partners to clarify what is known about the underlying geological structure of the area,” Spaulding wrote.

More specifically, he said, geologists are investigating if the aquifer behaves as one single interconnected water bearing formation, or is a series of separate formations.

A “scoping study” will collect and review all available geologic information and determine if more comprehensive field study is needed. The study is expected to be completed before the end of the year.

Eventually a responsiveness summary will be published to list responses to comments made about the SSA designation.

At Jan. 14 hearing in Bryan, opponents such as Fulton-Williams-Henry County Farm Bureau president Roy Norman claimed the goal behind the SSA proposal was to stop livestock agriculture and put farmers out of business.

A Hillsdale County resident said designation was suggestive of tyrannical government.

Fred Slicker of the Williams County Farm Bureau said the aquifer is not fragile and is not likely to lose its “natural protection mechanism.”

His statement was challenged by Mary Ann Thomas, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who said the drinking water source is not adequately protected by the thick layer of clay that covers most of the aquifer.

“There are widespread networks of vertical fractures and sand lenses throughout that can serve as pathways for contaminant migration,” she said.

More than a third of rural wells sampled in a study showed evidence of contamination, Thomas said.

Other critics charged that the SSA designation would hinder economic development.

Soil scientist Dr. Julie Weatherington-Rice has been involved in 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 added that 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.

Following the public hearing, Weatherington-Rice contacted agriculture officials in counties where SSAs are designated. She was given no reason to oppose the measure, she said.

How much water in the aquifer?

It’s impossible to know just how much water is contained in the Michindoh Aquifer, but there’s a way to make an estimate.

After making a presentation about water resources to Fayette sixth grade students last month, George Stuckey, a geologist with the Ohio EPA, started thinking about the massive underground water resource.

He pulled out his calculator for assistance and discovered that the resulting numbers are truly mind boggling.

The aquifer includes portions of nine  counties, but Stuckey made an estimate only of the area under Williams County—approximately 400 square miles.

That area measures about 11 billion square feet, and with an aquifer depth of 50 feet, he came up with 557.6 billion cubic feet of rock, sand and water.

Stuckey placed the porosity of the aquifer at what he calls a conservative estimate of 20 percent, meaning 20 percent of the “underground sponge” holds water.

This produces a quantity of 111.5 billion cubic feet of water.

A cubic foot of water equals 7.48 gallons, so a 50-foot thick section of aquifer holds 834 billion gallons of fresh water.

Stuckey looked for a way to illustrate that number and came up with this: A 50-foot thick aquifer under Williams County holds enough water to give 123 gallons  for every person on the planet.

But wait a minute, that’s for a 50-foot section. Many areas of the Michindoh are at least 120 feet thick, and now the quantity of water jumps to more than 2 trillion gallons, or 294 gallons for every person on Earth.

“The Michindoh Aquifer is an incredible natural resource that needs to be protected,” Stuckey said.

 

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