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When will it flood and how often? MSU researchers are developing groundwater model to find out

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While folks out on the West Coast continue to face water restrictions amid an ongoing drought, here in Michigan residents have the opposite problem—what we might call a “water surplus.”

Now, a group of researchers wants to make it easier for scientists to get a better picture of when events like flooding might occur.

Jeffrey Freymueller is a professor at Michigan State University's College of Natural Science and is the principal investigator of the study alongside co-investigator, Anthony Kendall, who teaches in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences.

Their research is sponsored by a $960,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

WKAR's Megan Schellong spoke with Kendall to discuss their research on developing a new groundwater model to monitor surface and groundwater flow.

Interview Highlights

On how ground water impacts our everyday lives

It's actually groundwater that helps provide the water that we use yearlong here in the Greater Lansing region, our drinking water and that in the MSU campus comes from groundwater. And that same groundwater feeds the streams, lakes, and wetlands that pretty much define our summertime recreation here in Michigan.

On how the research will contribute to the conversation around climate change

Some of the extremely warm temperatures that we've been seeing across the country have been a little less severe here in the Great Lakes, in part because of our surface water resources. But also, because groundwater feeds streams and lakes with cold water year-round, and that helps those ecosystems. So we're really interested in knowing how as climate changes and summers warm and winters warm, what that might mean in terms of our temperatures of our lakes and streams, and rivers.

On the main take away he’s hoping the research will shed light on

One of the big products that we're hoping to produce is just such a map that looks backward and says, “Here's how groundwater has been changing through time. And here's what it's like right now.” That kind of information could be useful for people trying to forecast floods, for decision makers about irrigation for their crops or state agencies trying to decide whether a water withdrawal would be appropriate.

Interview Transcript

Megan Schellong: While folks out on the West Coast continue to face water restrictions amid an ongoing drought, here in Michigan residents have the opposite problem— what we might call a “water surplus.”

Now, a group of researchers wants to make it easier for scientists to get a better picture of when events like flooding might occur.

Anthony Kendall teaches at the Michigan State University Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and joins me now to discuss his research on measuring ground water which is a focus of his new study.

Anthony, thanks for being here.

Anthony Kendall: Thank you, Megan.

Schellong: Why is ground water important when it comes to our everyday lives?

Kendall: Yeah, here in the Great Lakes, we have water literally surrounding us. But it's actually groundwater that helps provide the water that we use yearlong here in the Greater Lansing region, our drinking water and that in the MSU campus comes from groundwater. And that same groundwater feeds the streams, lakes, and wetlands that pretty much define our summertime recreation here in Michigan.

Schellong: Can you give us a picture of how the level of ground water has been changing in the Great Lakes region over the years?

Kendall: Yeah, we actually don't have a great idea about what groundwater is doing. And that's a big reason for this study. Groundwater is hidden from us, unlike the water on the surface. So we need to develop different tools and methods to understand groundwater and how it's changing. From the measurements that we do have scattered in wells across the region, we know that in times of high Great Lakes water levels, groundwater levels tend to be high as well. But there's some important details that we don't yet know. And in particular, we don't know what role groundwater is playing in helping contribute to those high Great Lakes levels.

Schellong: One of the things you’re looking to examine is how fast ground water is flowing under us. How might that be useful in tracking things in rivers, lakes and streams, like PFAS contaminants?

Kendall: Absolutely. For decades, if not centuries, we have allowed contaminants into our groundwater. And those contaminants are moving along with the current beneath the surface. So, the faster those move, the faster those contaminants might reach our wells, or our streams and lakes. On the opposite problem, some of those groundwater systems are moving very slowly, meaning that contaminants that we put in now or decades ago, are gradually moving to that system and could continue to cause issues decades or even centuries into the future.

Schellong: How does your research contribute to this conversation surrounding climate change?

Kendall: Groundwater systems are one of the big unknowns in terms of climate change. But one of the things that we hypothesize here in the Great Lakes Basin is that our groundwater resources can help buffer against some of the short-term effects of climate change.

Some of the extremely warm temperatures that we've been seeing across the country have been a little less severe here in the Great Lakes, in part because of our surface water resources. But also, because groundwater feeds streams and lakes with cold water year-round, and that helps those ecosystems. So we're really interested in knowing how as climate changes and summers warm and winters warm, what that might mean in terms of our temperatures of our lakes and streams, and rivers.

Schellong: Here in East Lansing, flooding is a big problem. How might your research offer some insight into solutions to prevent flooding?

Kendall: We have developed, the researchers across the globe have developed, really good tools to understand how flooding happens when you have a big rain event. But one of the things we don't know very much about is the role that groundwater plays because as I've said it's difficult to measure and understand how deep that groundwater system is. So we hope to shed more light on the depth of groundwater, how quickly it moves through and how much storage space there might be below ground when those big rain events hit, helping us to better forecast the frequency and occurrence of floods.

Schellong: What's one of the main takeaways you’re hoping the research will shed light on at the end of the study?

Kendall: One of the things that we don't have anywhere is a map of what groundwater levels look like right now, or last year. So, one of the big products that we're hoping to produce is just such a map that looks backward and says, “Here's how groundwater has been changing through time. And here's what it's like right now.” That kind of information could be useful for people trying to forecast floods, for decision makers about irrigation for their crops or state agencies trying to decide whether a water withdrawal would be appropriate.

Schellong: Anthony Kendall is an assistant professor at Michigan State University's department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. Anthony, thanks for your time.

Kendall: Yeah, thanks again, Megan.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Megan Schellong is the local host and producer for Morning Edition on WKAR.
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