$7 million project aims to improve water quality, quantity in Ottawa County

The Ottawa Conservation District (OCD) has taken collaborative steps to ensure farmlands, watersheds, and wildlife habitats continue to have a future. And that’s just for starters.

A new project, expected to start this fall, will leverage nearly $7 million in federal, state, and local funds over the next five years through the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) for ODC’s Farmland and Water Quality Conservation Initiative.

The goal is to nourish the long-term economic, social, and environmental health of Ottawa County by protecting surface and groundwater quality, improving aquatic and wildlife habitats, and preserving manageable farmland in the Macatawa, Lower Grand River, and Pigeon River watersheds.
Preserving farmland is one of several goals for the OCD’s conservation initiative.
The OCD will not work as a Lone Ranger. Along with NRCS, it is partnering with Ottawa County’s Farmland Preservation Program, the Macatawa Area Coordinating Council, Ottawa County Farm Bureau, neighboring conservation districts, and local townships to get the job done.

Broad, manageable goals

The OCD’s big-tent goals are intentionally broad in tackling the unique natural resource concerns in West Michigan.

“We wanted to keep it pretty broad, first of all, because the district has never administered a project of this size before and we wanted to keep it manageable for ourselves. Part of that is not constraining ourselves with resource concerns too much,” says Frank Schroyer, a watershed technician for OCD. “We specifically want to address water quality, improve habitat for fish and wildlife, and preserve farmland.”

The OCD considers the preservation of farmland, so it’s not rezoned and sold for development, as an ongoing concern, according to Schroyer.

“We would like to preserve 125 total acres of farmland over the life of this project,” says Schroyer. “That is our goal.”

Preserving groundwater

Preserving the quality and quantity of groundwater as a sustainable resource is another key goal because groundwater supplies drinking water for 51% of the total U.S. population and 99% of rural U.S. populations; 64% of groundwater is used for irrigation to grow crops; and it also is a source of recharge for lakes, rivers, and wetlands, according to the Groundwater Foundation that’s operated by the National Ground Water Association.

“We’re taking a holistic view of the issue and then, eventually, we will take those initial steps toward conserving more water in this county,” says Schroyer. “I have pored over the MSU (Michigan State University) reports from 2003 to 2018 and the groundwater sustainability issue on the county’s website, and I have seen where there are wells drying up in certain parts of the county and issues of high salinity in some of the water due to the natural upwelling of brine in a natural aquifer.

“We want to protect groundwater quality, that’s kind of a basic overall goal to implement,” he says. “This financial assistance program that we will be able to implement with our partners will help to improve groundwater quality and, hopefully, quantity as well.”

Step in the right direction

Schroyer adds the OCD doesn’t intend to be to solve all of the county’s conservation issues with this one project.

“This is definitely a small first step in the right direction in terms of what we’d eventually like to implement on a larger scale,” he says.

“The next step would be more focused goals. We’d like to get a lot of people in the door at this point, interested in conservation practices and, further down the road — once those are more well-known and being implemented on a decent scale with the county and project area — we’d like to increase our impact in the future.”

The OCD is a locally controlled resource management district created by concerned landowners and administered by a publicly elected board of directors. It was organized as a local unit of state government in 1938 under Michigan law.

It provides local coordination for many state and federal land and water management programs, cooperates with local government units to influence private land management decisions, and provides management assistance to landowners in Ottawa County.
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Read more articles by Paul R. Kopenkoskey.