Marquette County exploring potential iron ore mine links to dropping water levels

MARQUETTE – The Marquette County Board is exploring a reported significant drop in groundwater on the Sands Plains, including possible links to the diminished water levels of Martin Lake at K.I. Sawyer and operations at the Empire Mine.

Former Sands Township Supervisor David Kallio said groundwater levels on the plains have been slowly dropping for decades, with no rebound.

“The township, this spring, as it has going back into the ’80s, the Sand Plains aquifer has been tested twice a year to see any changes,” Kallio said. “Since 1980, the groundwater has dropped in Sands Township between 9 and 17 feet, depending on what location in the township you’re talking about.”

Kallio said above-average precipitation in May didn’t help the situation.

“At the same time Lake Superior went up 9 inches, our testing in Sands Township showed the groundwater dropped another 10 inches,” Kallio said. “Now this has been going on since 1980 like slow water torture, with the groundwater continuing to drop and drop and drop.”

Last fall, residents in the Martin Lake area at K.I. Sawyer asked the board to stop pumping water from the wells in hopes of influencing lake levels, which have dropped precipitously over the past few years. The board agreed to cut water production at the wells to the lowest levels possible, without affecting water quality, and said it would revisit the lake levels issue this spring. The residents want the wells capped.

Steve Schenden, director of operations at Sawyer, said the decreased pumping levels have been in effect since Oct. 5 and a summary of the water pumping is sent to Martin Lake and Sporley Lake residents each month, as requested by the board. The two wells produce 3 percent to 7 percent of the water used at K.I. Sawyer.

Martin Lake resident Karl Malashanko said Tuesday that despite the decreased well pumping, Martin Lake levels are still down as much as 6.5 inches in one month. He marked declines with a group of cement blocks placed in the lake and rainwater and evaporation measurements calculated with the help of a swimming pool used as a catch basin.

Schenden said it’s too early to link the pumping with the lake levels.

“We used to be over 60 percent, now we’re less than 10,” Schenden said about pumping percentage from wells 9 and 10 of total water pumped at Sawyer.

“It’s a 50 percent reduction from that well, which is 150,000 gallons a day,” Schenden said. “Now, Martin Lake is about 4,000 feet from that well. Groundwater, you can assume, flows about a foot a day, in sand it might be a little faster out there, but we’re still years away. So any differences we have in pumping there, the effects at Martin Lake, I just don’t believe will be seen for a few years.”

Martin Lake resident Sue Gendron discounts Schenden’s comparison of lake water levels with conditions in 1964, and the natural rise and fall of the lake and others in the area on regular intervals. Schenden and state officials have suggested many factors at work at Martin Lake including evaporation, precipitation and vegetation.

“I disagree with Schenden’s 10-year cycle,” Gendron said.

Gendron said 1964 was a housing building boom period at Sawyer Air Force Base, which used water from Martin Lake.

“I have spoken to some of the long-time property owners on Martin Lake to find out that Sawyer Air Force Base was pumping water out of Martin Lake for their use,” Gendron said.

Water was pumped out at two locations. Pipes were put in and water was pumped into big water tanks and hauled away, Gendron said.

“They continued to do this until the Michigan Department of Natural Resources found out about it and stopped them,” Gendron said. “So in 1964, they were dealing with a manmade cause as to Martin Lake water dropping, just as we are now.”

Kallio said Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials have suggested the Sands Plains Aquifer decline – which could affect Martin Lake – was natural and linked to drought. But he said National Weather Service reports show average or above-average precipitation over most of that time.

“Other lakes in the area have kind of rebounded over the winter,” Kallio said.

Kallio said Big Shag Lake is up 4 or 5 inches, while Strawberry Lake in Sands Township is down 10 inches.

“We’re at a point right now, where there’s a large number of residences in Sands Township that may be forced in the next five years I would guess to replace their wells,” Kallio said.

Kallio estimated the cost of well replacement at between $10,000 to $15,000 each, a cost not covered by insurance.

Kallio suggested potential sources impacting the aquifer, including water diversions at the Empire Mine and its associated water basins. He also suggested the Empire Mine pit could become a potential future water source.

According to Kallio, a 1980 study said 30 percent of water leaving Goose Lake outlet is part of the Sands Plains aquifer recharge. Reductions of 1 million gallons a day to help aid a Cliffs selenium problem at the Empire Mine could affect water level. The Gribben basins for the mine could affect Martin Lake water levels, Kallio said

“This is extremely complex science and you know, I’m just kind of reaching at possible answers,” Kallio said. “It would take probably a lot of study and money to conclusively determine what’s happened. But it appears that what were historic levels have changed and when you have normal precipitation and all, you have to think, ‘What’s another factor that’s causing this?'”

The board voted unanimously Tuesday to have the county planning commission review information, including a plan by a retired Cliffs Natural Resources engineer to divert spring floodwater from the Escanaba River to help recharge the Sands Plains aquifer, for a possible study of the groundwater on the Sands Plains.

Commissioner Deborah Pellow said she wants Schenden to review the recharge plan.

“I truly have to believe that the groundwater is the problem that we’re experiencing at Martin Lake,” Pellow said. “And if the groundwater has fallen that much … in the Sands Plains, common sense would tell us that that’s what’s happening to Martin Lake as well. It’s the highest lake, the groundwater has lowered.”

Board Chairman Gerald Corkin said the issue might fit well with the planning commission.

“If they can get their teeth into (it), because if it’s this much change in the groundwater, I guess we ought to be looking at what’s possibly causing it,” Corkin said. “And the mine there ought to be part of looking at what’s going on.”

Marquette County Administrator Scott Erbisch said, “We’ll get a copy of that study and we’ll talk with planning about it and have them review it and see what they might recommend as far as next steps.”

Kallio said Martin Lake could be a “coal miner’s canary.”

“The southern part of the wells that we test in Sands Township reflect that same 8 to 10 to 12 to 14 feet of drop in groundwater and that could well factor itself into the Martin Lake issue,” Kallio said. “Martin Lake might be just telling us what’s happening on a bigger level throughout the Sands Plains aquifer.”

John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.