Deep, Dark and Wonderous, the Saginaw Aquifer

by Brian McKenna

Brian McKenna
Brian McKenna

Lansing’s dark underbelly houses a virtual ocean of water. It’s called the Saginaw Aquifer – the source of our drinking water. It is so awesome in size that if one were to magically lift it above ground, it would stand about 70 feet above our heads and we'd all drown. According to a rough estimate by Carol Luukennon, aquifer specialist with the Lansing office of the U.S. Geological Services, there are approximately four cubic miles of water beneath our feet in the 550-square-mile Ingham County region. That's four times greater than Lake St. Clair and 16 times greater volume than all the water that flows down the Grand River in a given year. Truly mind boggling.

But imagine turning on your faucet and finding no water. In 1969 our water planners thought that by 1990 Lansing would "find it increasingly difficult to obtain adequate water supplies from underlying groundwater reservoirs (primarily the Saginaw Aquifer)." The Geological Service, the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission and the state Natural Resources Department speculated about scenarios in which the Great Lakes and even the polluted Grand River might have to be used for our water needs.

Fortunately, it never happened. The cone of depression in the Saginaw Aquifer made a dramatic comeback, from 170 feet below the surface area to about 50 feet, soon after the Lansing Board of Water and Light dug new wells away from the cone.

But what if the water hadn’t come back? Planners recognized that the key impediment to building a pipeline to Lake Michigan was "primarily an economic one." Today such a scenario would be a logistical nightmare costing tens of millions in construction and additional millions in buy-outs and litigation.
We take the Saginaw Aquifer for granted. The aquifer – which stretches from 25 to 600 feet below the surface -- is one of the most spectacular natural resources in all of Michigan. Today it is not the quantity of water that is the concern, but the threats to its quality. We can imagine that during pre-European contact, the Saginaw Aquifer was unscathed, with no human meddling. Today Ingham County has 499 leaking underground storage tanks (most from old gasoline stations), more than 70 major sites of environmental contamination (including three Superfund sites like Motor Wheel) and an estimated 30,000 abandoned water wells that serve as potential pollution conduits to our water supply. More than 20 of the Lansing Board of Water and Light’s 110 wells are temporarily out of service due to real or potential pollution issues. While our tap water is safe, owing to the size of the aquifer, these threats, left unchecked, could someday render it useless.

Bottled water could never substitute for the Saginaw Aquifer. Only a tiny fraction of the aquifer, 0.03 percent, is used for drinking. Most domestic uses go to toilets (26 percent), clothes washing (23 percent), showers (18 percent), faucets (15 percent) and leaks (13 percent). Competing with domestic use is industrial use. In fact the amount of water that it takes to manufacture two cars (39,000 gallons per car) would satisfy the drinking needs of all Lansing citizens in a day.

It’s called Saginaw because of its far-reaching underground connection to Saginaw Bay, where it discharges water. The water does not sit in a big space, like a lake, but fills the spaces between rock particles, a little like a sponge. The rain and snow replenish the water.

Are we surprised to learn that "Saginaw" is a Native American derivative? It refers to "land of the Sauks." Like so much of Michigan history, the decimation of the Native Americans parallels the despoliation of the environment.

A little historical inquiry reveals the irony that the Saginaw (or Sauk) Indians (both of which are corruptions of Osakiwugi) probably got their water from the surface bodies and had no conception of ocean-like aquifers.

Here's another irony. The Saginaw Indians were essentially wiped out, driven by wars with the French and hostile tribes, to Wisconsin, where they settled at the confluence of Wolf and Fox rivers. Their home in the "Saginaw" region was completely destroyed by an alliance of the Chippewas, Pottawattamies and Ottawas, who led a series of massacres following a great massacre of the Sauk’s principal village on the Saginaw River, from which only 12 women were spared. One historian writes that, "The poor Chippewas were in constant dread of the spirits of the exterminated Sauks. If misfortune befell them, if their traps failed to hold the game or if their rifles failed to shoot accurately, it was the spirits of the Sauks and nothing could they accomplish until the medicine men had been brought and the poor spirits either set at rest or otherwise quieted."

Will the Saginaw Aquifer go the way of its namesake, the Saginaw (Sauk) Indians, exterminated? We need these historical reminders to help us avoid the mistakes of our forebears. We need to listen for the spirits of the Sauks.

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