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The Importance of Ground Water in the Great Lakes

U.S. Geological Survey Water-Resources Investigation 00-4008

By N.G. Grannemann, R.J. Hunt, J.R. Nicholas, T.E. Reilly, and T.C. Winter

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Ground water is a major natural resource in the Great Lakes Region because it indirectly contributes more than 50 percent of the stream discharge to the Great Lakes. In addition, ground water is the source of drinking water for millions of people in the region, is an important source of supply for agriculture and many industries, and provides a relatively uniform supply of water in some ecologically sensitive areas to sustain plant and animal species. Therefore, to improve our understanding of water-resources issues in the Great Lakes Region, it is important to have a better understanding of the role that ground water plays in the overall hydrologic system of the lakes. The main ground-water resources issues in the Great Lakes Region are related to the amount of ground water, the interaction of ground water and surface water, changes in ground-water quality as development expands, and ecosystem health related to quantity and quality of water.

Although the amount of water in the Great Lakes Region is vast, issues related to relatively small quantities of water are being raised more and more often. For example, even though the amount of ground water pumped in the region is small compared to the total amount of water present, ground water is an important source of public-water supply as well as an important source of supply for industrial, agricultural, and domestic needs. Less clearly understood, however, is the relation between the amount of streamflow discharging to the Great Lakes and the large portion of that flow that originates as ground water. The implications of this understanding for water- and land-use practices and, in turn, their effects on water quantity and quality, have not been fully incorporated into a policy framework. To help include information about the implications of the role that ground water plays in addressing regional water issues, a comprehensive analysis of indirect ground-water discharge to the Great Lakes is needed. Direct ground-water discharge to the Great Lakes is not a large factor in water-budget analyses for the Great Lakes. Locally, however, direct ground-water discharge to the Great Lakes may be important, even though the rates and places of discharge are not well known. A long-term evaluation of direct ground-water discharge to the Great Lakes would help place this hydrologic process in proper perspective. Near-shore areas with high rates of direct ground-water discharge may provide valuable habitat for aquatic organisms.

Withdrawal of ground water removes that water from the watershed when it is consumptively used or when the return flow is discharged to another drainage basin. Under these circumstances, pumping ground water constitutes a diversion of Great Lakes water. Alternatively, ground-water withdrawal could have the opposite effect of diverting ground-water flow into the watershed by altering the ground-water divides. In particular, as withdrawals associated with urban expansion increase, more accurate data on the amount and effects of ground-water use need to be collected. Data on the amounts of ground water pumped both within the watershed and outside, but near the watershed boundaries needs to be collected and evaluated for potential diversion of water to or from the Great Lakes. It is currently thought that both irrigation and ground-water withdrawals near the watershed boundaries constitute relatively small amounts of water; however, both rapidly changing farming practices and rapidly expanding urban communities could alter these amounts in a relatively short timeframe, especially during drought periods. At present, the effects of ground-water withdrawals have been quantified in detail at only a few urban locations. In addition to quantifying the amount of water pumped out of aquifers, it is also important to improve our knowledge of the amount of water that is recharging them. Ground-water recharge rates estimated in earlier studies cover only a small part of the Great Lakes Region. A comprehensive study of ground-water recharge rates for the entire watershed is needed to more completely determine the role of ground water in the hydrologic budget of the Great Lakes.

Ground-water quality is as important as quantity for most water uses. As ground-water development proceeds, the possibility of altering the quality of ground water increases. The quality of ground water can be altered when water levels are drawn below the layer that confines the aquifer or by inducing water of lesser quality into an aquifer. Many local studies of these problems have been conducted, but few regional-scale analyses of changes in ground-water quality as a result of ground-water development have been done.

Ground water is essential to maintain wetlands and to provide healthy habitat for other aquatic systems. Wetland hydrology is widely recognized as the primary influence on wetland ecology, development, and persistence, and information about hydrology is essential to understanding and quantifying wetland functions and processes. Studies of the role of ground water in selected wetlands in a range of physiographic settings throughout the Great Lakes watershed are needed to more fully understand the role of wetlands in the Great Lakes Region.


Grannemann, N.G., Hunt, R.J., Nicholas, J.R., Reilly, T.E. and Winter, T.C., 2000, Date Posted: May 8, 2006:The Importance of Ground Water in the Great Lakes Region: Water Resources Investigations Report 00-4008

For additional information, contact:

U.S. Geological Survey
Michigan Water Science Center
6520 Mercantile Way, Suite 5
Lansing, MI 48911-5991
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