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Tools & Techniques>Groundwater - Protection

Groundwater Protection Measures
The following information was adapted from "Watershed Resource Papers" developed for the Dowagiac River Watershed Project by Langworthy, Strader, LeBlanc, & Associates, Inc.

Efforts to protect groundwater resources need to occur at all levels of government. Special consideration to the types and densities of permitted land uses should apply in areas that offer little natural protection to groundwater. This should also apply where the protection level is unknown. Groundwater quality is also a concern since domestic water for nearly all of the residents of the Watershed outside of the community service areas are supplied through individual wells.

Land use regulations, land acquisition, and education programs can play a key role in protecting groundwater. Examples of land use control activities include the following:

- Land use plans which take into account groundwater vulnerability;
- Zoning ordinance and site plan review standards related to aboveground secondary containment, interior floor drains, and other topics;
- Purchase of land and/or conservation easements to provide a wellhead protection buffer around municipal wellfields; and
- Public education through public meetings, school-based classroom programs, library displays, cable television videos, public information flyers, and municipal newsletters.

Protection of groundwater resources requires efforts on several fronts, including the need for regional planning, land planning for individual sites, and technological advances that may offer alternative solutions. Regional planning must be based on the entire Watershed; it will do little good for one community to implement solutions to its problems only to find that neighboring communities do not. Groundwater has no respect for community boundaries.

From a land planning perspective, simply requiring larger lots does little or nothing to enhance groundwater quality. One of the few readily available solutions to polluted wells or failed septic systems is to obtain public water and sewer. With the larger lots sizes and frontages prevalent in many of the communities within the watershed, the costs to provide water and sewer services to homes are likely to be exorbitant. On the other hand, where lot frontages are lower, so too will be the cost to provide public utilities.

Several regulations are in place by the counties within the watershed which target the protection of water resources. Septic system regulation, for example, is the responsibility of the various Health Departments in relation to permitting, placement, and enforcement. The county health departments are also responsible for the inspection of septic systems prior to the sale of a parcel of land. If the system fails the counties' tests, the system must be upgraded or maintenance must be completed before a permit will be issued to the new property owner.

Finally, there are technological advances on the horizon that may offer opportunities to improve groundwater. These include:

- man-made wetlands;
- terraced, overland flow systems;
- package plants;
- sand-filter systems; and
- greenhouse, peat, and bio-filter systems.

The following are some specific measures that may be taken by communities within the watershed to help in the protection of groundwater resources.
Septic System Maintenance
Secondary Containment
Site Plan Review
On-Site Community Treatment Systems
Wellhead Protection

Septic System Maintenance

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It is generally recommended that septic tanks be pumped out or the sludge and scum layers be measured at least every three years so that solids don't wash out into the soil treatment system. Solids can clog the soil and limit its ability to properly treat the septic-tank effluent. A local government may choose to impose septic system maintenance requirements on individual developments.

However, implementing this recommendation is sometimes difficult without adequate cooperation between the community and county health departments. One solution may be to adopt a local ordinance that establishes "septic system maintenance districts," where higher concentrations of septic systems are present. Within these districts, property owners could be required to submit evidence of inspection or maintenance of septic systems at periodic intervals. This may be particularly effective for any approved Open Space Developments which have homeowner associations.

Secondary Containment

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A common groundwater protection method for identified potential sources of groundwater contamination (such as above ground fuel storage tanks and facilities) is a requirement for secondary containment. A variety of containment methods are possible, but the most common is the construction of "traps" for runoff and spillage areas where possible contaminants are contained within walls or other structures and any runoff captured and contained within the structure. Other, more elaborate systems are required, such as that pictured, for larger, intensive activities with extensive use of chemicals, fuels, or other potential contaminants.

Site Plan Review

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Local units of government through the site plan review process should be made aware of the locations for possible contamination and the measures planned by the operator to reduce the risks associated with those materials. This can be done as part of the site plan review process for potential point sources of contamination, such as industrial uses involving chemicals or hazardous materials. Each site plan should contain a stormwater management plan that details the impact of proposed land use on water quantity and quality, both on-site and within the Watershed. This may be implemented by adding a requirement for site plans for submission of information regarding potential hazardous materials, and measures to be taken to protect drainage ways, water bodies, or other areas from accidental spills.

Another provision which can be made part of the site plan review process, as well as for discretionary zoning approvals, such as planned unit developments and special land uses, is a requirement for monitoring wells for specific land uses with potential to affect groundwater resources. Monitoring wells have long been required for certain uses, such as landfills. Increasingly, communities are requiring them for other uses, such as golf courses, sand and gravel mining operations, higher density residential developments in identified groundwater vulnerability areas, and others.

Provided on the following pages are specific site plan review standards for groundwater protection published by The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. These standards could be incorporated into a communities zoning ordinance, with additional standards as determined necessary depending on the type of development a community is experiencing, problems experienced in the past, etc.

Site plan review standards allow land use commissioners to review plans for compliance with general planning guidelines to protect groundwater, while the detailed engineering is best left to trained professionals.

On-Site Community Treatment Systems

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The expense involved in resolving groundwater issues for a single site makes some solutions financially difficult. One area-wide solution intended for limited use is a package treatment system which serves smaller areas. Although a single, small development project may not be able to afford the installation and operation of a compact treatment system, several combined projects may join forces to implement an effective waste treatment system.

A number of management and financial issues would obviously need to be resolved before such a system was implemented. Administering the system will likely be the responsibility of individual property owners formed into an association or authority. Questions of who will pay for the initial acquisition and installation of the system as well as maintenance responsibilities will need to be addressed. Issues of liabilities and other legal problems must also be examined. Generally, engineering expertise will be needed to conduct routine repairs and inspections, and replace system components when needed.

To encourage these systems, zoning ordinances may offer density increases for developments utilizing community systems, where public systems are not, and will not be available. The bonus should be reasonable, but may be significantly higher than those bonuses often offered for open space or recreational amenities. These developments will, for the most part, take place within an open space (cluster) development.

Wellhead Protection

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The purpose of wellhead protection programs is to protect public water supplies taken from groundwater from potential sources of contamination. Protection is provided by identifying the area supplying groundwater to the community's wells, identifying potential sources of contamination within that area, and developing methods to cooperatively manage the area and minimize the potential threat to groundwater.

Wellhead protection programs must address seven elements:

- Establishment of roles and duties for communities and property owners within the wellhead protection area.
- A description of the wellhead protection area.
- Identification of potential sources of contamination within the wellhead protection area.
- Procedures to manage the protection area and minimize threats to the water supplies.
- Plans for water supply emergencies.
- Procedures for the development of new well sites.
- Public participation methods.

A wellhead protection area is defined as the surface and subsurface area surrounding a water well or well field, supplying a public water system, through which contaminants are reasonably likely to move toward and reach such water well or well field. In Michigan, the area for any potential threat is based upon a ground water time-of-travel (TOT) of 10 years.

Zoning and land use measures to protect wellhead areas are generally similar to those that protect open spaces, including purchase of lands, conservation easements, and other similar measures. Grants are available from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to assist communities in developing wellhead protection programs and legislation.