How do we protect our aquifers and keep groundwater flowing?
We’ve been pumping water from aquifers for thousands of years; however, as technology improves and population continues to grow, our ability to pump more water - faster - increases, and so does our need for it, yet our ability to properly monitor it is still heavily lacking.
A cycle exists which prevents stability for those that rely on groundwater for survival. Although this is not an all-inclusive list of issues surrounding groundwater problems, it is meant to illustrate the often blended components required to overcome many broad-scale problems we face today, while also highlighting the difficulty in attempting to resolve them.
The Water Law Problem
Since surface water is seen and easily accessible; many states enacted water laws to distribute and protect it. However, since groundwater seemed unlimited and invisible, plus a mysterious and misunderstood phenomenon, many states did not regulate groundwater in the same manner.
Even today, states allow many rural landowners to construct ‘permit-exempt’ wells, which collectively pump vast amounts of groundwater. Although some states set maximum pumping rates per day, other states do not limit the amount of water withdrawn, regardless of its potential impact on other landowners and the environment. Without extensive groundwater monitoring, this reduces our ability to understand the impacts these wells have on our aquifers. When wells do run dry, this can also present an equality issue.
In many cases, groundwater is deep, which means it requires deep wells to access. This is expensive. And often when a well goes dry, drilling deeper is the only option. That places a disparity between those with financial stability, and those without it. Those with money available to drill deeper do - and those without can’t.
Those with money can also afford to pump more water. This can cause groundwater levels to drop further, creating conditions impossible for financially limited families or those on fixed incomes to overcome.
It doesn’t stop there. When groundwater becomes depleted, local streams and rivers levels can drop to dangerously low levels – killing off fish and other aquatic habitats due to high water temperatures and an increase in stagnant water. This leads to less water for wildlife and humans. Stagnant water can also lead to algal blooms and other negative consequences including water quality degradation of both surface and groundwater.
Since groundwater is not well understood or monitored in vast areas of the United States, many water well owners tend to believe their neighbors, other landowners, or different entities are pumping an unfair share of water, causing local wells to go dry. This may be true in many circumstances; however, groundwater conditions can be extremely complex and depletion may be tied to one or tied to many factors including roads and paved structures that prohibit water from entering the ground. It could also be tied lower snowpack not feeding our aquifers in the spring, or other surface conditions.
In many places, groundwater may be very old. For example, ‘old’ groundwater may have come from water which melted during former ice ages. When this water is pumped, the aquifer cannot be replenished in the manner in which it was first formed, because the source which supplied the water no longer exists.
In some places, the removal of water causes a collapse of pore space that are the spaces within the aquifer where the groundwater resides. When collapse of these spaces occur, the land subsides and the ‘storage capacity’ of the aquifer decreases; therefore, the aquifer cannot hold as much groundwater as it did previously.
Irrespective of the reasons why groundwater depletion occurs, those which relied on this water, likely want it back.
The Science Problem
Pumping groundwater is expensive, and so is monitoring it. Monitoring groundwater is a prerequisite for understanding what conditions exist below and why conditions changed, whether it be pumping or other lack of replenishment. Monitoring provides data, which is used in different scientific approaches to give us an understanding of groundwater movement and volume. The USGS maintains a database of 850,000 wells across the Nation, and actively measures water levels in 18,260 wells, yet the National Groundwater Association – a community of groundwater professionals – estimate more than 15,900,000 water wells exist in the United States. This suggests the USGS is monitoring just 0.1% of water wells.
That is not enough. We need more. Without more, we are left with dueling experts unable to provide solutions to our most important problems.
Additional monitoring, new technologies to analyze groundwater conditions, and other advances in groundwater science is needed to push the science forward before we can resolve the groundwater dilemma.