Friday, August 31, 2001

Thirsty suburbs endanger aquifer


Industrial pollution also a threat

By Randy McNutt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The aquifer that provides a hidden, but crucial, water source to much of Southwest Ohio is under attack.

        It's a two-pronged assault on the Great Miami/Little Miami Buried Valley Aquifer system: In Butler County, the aquifer is challenged by industrial and commercial pollution, and in Warren County by thirsty suburbs that need more water for lawns, pools and car washes.

MAP OF AQUIFER
        Ultimately at stake for the 1.6 million residents served by the aquifer could be water restrictions, more expensive water, or drawing on Ohio River water that must be more heavily disinfected and treated. Some warn of “water war” competition among Tristate communities if the aquifer is overwhelmed by the demands of the fast-growing region.

        No one can say how much longer parts of the aquifer, formed many thousands, perhaps millions, of years ago, will withstand the Tristate's growth boom. But some experts and local residents are raising red flags.

        Unless significant action is taken soon, development will increase and at some point overwhelm the aquifer in Warren County, according to a report issued

        this week by the executive board of the Residents' Association of West Central Warren County.

        “Due to a number of causes,” the board wrote, “the aquifer is declining in health, and is in danger of being compromised to the point of losing its long-term economic value. Future development over the aquifer, above or near its recharge zones and in the watershed around it, must take account of the importance of these areas to the healing and continuing health of the aquifer.”

        The group, composed of 80 area families concerned about growth, interviewed geologists and other scientists. Members also reviewed more than 20 scientific studies, court testimony, aquifer evaluations, state investigative reports and well logs, said President David E. Rawnsley.

        “Although the aquifer can be seen as a single system, interest in it and stewardship of it has been fragmented and sporadic,” he said.
       

Searching for water
               Farmer Robert Buffenbarger, who moved to Warren County's Turtlecreek Township some 50 years ago before it had subdivisions and shopping centers, explains the change he sees from the time he dug two wells that pumped all the water his farm needed.

        “Back then, water would force up a fence post,” he said. “Today, I can go down 30-40 feet and still not hit any water.”

        The fence-post test is a harbinger of possibly drier times and the condition of a section of the resource for about 1.6 million people.

        “There's only so much water available and we're trying to preserve it,” Mr. Buffenbarger said. “The aquifer is renewable by rainfall, but we have to give it time to recharge. It's a constant battle to remind people that the aquifer is here and needs protection.”

        The aquifer — 2 miles wide in places and 150-200 feet deep — is a geological formation that yields significant quantities of water.

        It is not, as commonly thought, an underground river or even a lake, said William Gollnitz, a veteran hydrogeologist with the Cincinnati Water Works.

        Much of Southwest Ohio depends on the system, which contains an estimated 1.3 trillion gallons of water. Many other parts of the country aren't as fortunate to have so much water, above and below the surface.

        Formed by three waves of glaciation 2 million to 10,000 years ago, the aquifer extends south from Indian Lake, which is south of Lima in west-central Ohio, to the Ohio River. The aquifer follows the course of the Great Miami River.

        The aquifer's big advantage is also a disadvantage: Water is filtered naturally by layers of gravel. A clay-lined layer of porous sand traps snow and rainwater, but the porous material also could make the aquifer susceptible to pollution.

        “Two problems with the aquifer are quality and quantity,” said Sterling Uhler, a Fairfield councilman and a board member of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI).

        “Legislation is designed to protect the quality. I think everybody in local government would respond if hazardous chemicals were found in the water. But quantity is another matter. If we find we're overpumping the aquifer and can't refill it, local governments will have to collectively make a decision. Do we restrict our citizens' use of water?”

        Some people see the quantity problem already in Warren County. Needing more water, Lebanon is trying to decide the best way to obtain it. Officials are weighing three options:

        • East Fork Lake in Clermont County, about 35 miles southeast of Lebanon.

        • The already-low Union Village Hidden Valley Aquifer system in central Warren County.

        • Cincinnati Water Works. Officials say the water works is one of 200 in the United States to receive a Groundwater Guardian Award for its aquifer-protection programs.

        This summer, the city started using volunteers to mark storm drains with special decals that read: “NO DUMPING — DRAINS TO CREEK/AQUIFER.”

        “We need to let people know what damage could be done,” said Peg Collins, a Fairfield resident who has been fighting to protect the ground water since she moved to town in 1958.

        “There was a time when you threw something on the ground if you didn't want it. But not anymore. Not when you sit above an aquifer,” she said.

        The aquifer in central Warren County is clean, but more con fined and not recharged by a river. This summer's rainfall has helped keep up the supply. Growing suburbs suck water out of the ground and leave the aquifer compromised at times in this part of Warren County.

        “The water level has been decreasing every year for 20 years, dropping 20 feet,” said Richard Renneker, the county's sanitary engineer. “It's losing ground, not maintaining equilibrium.”

Pumping reduced
               To help ease the depletion, Warren County's Water Department has reduced its pumping in the area by one third — down to 700,000 gallons a day. Mason is buying 5 million gallons a day from Cincinnati while pumping 2.2 million from the aquifer. In late 1999, the city pumped as much as 3.5 million gallons.

        Warren County is Ohio's second-fastest-growing county. From 1990 to 1998, its population increased 28.2 percent. It is now 158,383.

        Over the next four years, the county's high-growth areas probably will be Mason, Deerfield Township and others that have been growing for years, said Robert Craig, director of the Warren County Regional Planning Commission.

        Mason is Ohio's second-fastest growing city.

        “When Mason finally started buying 5 million gallons a day from Cincinnati, that helped,” Mr. Buffenbarger said. “But then other communities increased their withdrawal. So the aquifer was no better off than before.”

        He believes that rules are needed to determine how much water can be pumped from the aquifer.

        “We're trying to protect the recharge areas, but everything is hit and miss,” he said. “Sooner or later, they'll have to start designating which water (source) will be used for humans and for other things. We'll just run out of water. That will be the big battle. States are already fighting states and cities fighting cities for water. At some point, it's going to be people fighting people.”

       



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