Everything You Need to Know About Groundwater

As we continue to overuse our vital supplies of groundwater, a new set of problems is presenting itself.

What is groundwater?

Groundwater is fresh water located underground in porous soil or fractures in rock formations. Collections of groundwater are called aquifers, and we draw from aquifers for drinking water and water for use in everything form irrigation to agriculture to manufacturing.

Groundwater pumping is when we pull water from the aquifer for our own use. When we pull more water than is naturally replenished, this is called groundwater mining because we have to drill deeper and deeper into the earth to get at the remaining water.

Groundwater is a very important source of water for civilizations worldwide, making up about 20% of the world's fresh water supply. Many cities have gotten used to mining groundwater to sustain its residents. However, as we overuse the resource, pull water faster than aquifers can naturally refill, and continue to pollute groundwater supplies, we're beginning to face a whole new set of serious problems with this vital resource.

This video from the International Groundwater Resources Assessment Center explains how groundwater is a

Why do groundwater levels matter?

The more we pump from aquifers, the farther the available water is from the surface of the earth. That means more energy has to go in to mining the water, and the costs begin to outweigh benefits, and our capabilities. When aquifers are mismanaged and too much water is extracted, it can mean the aquifer is no longer a viable source of water and a new source needs to be found. Depending on the available options, it can mean anything from a city moving to energy intensive and environmentally problematic solutions, such as desalination plants, to the community being unable to survive.

Overpumping groundwater leads to a loss of water beyond the water table. Diminished water levels means springs dry up, less water flows through rivers, pollution builds up even more, and the impacts trickle through the flora and fauna of an ecosystem.

Don't natural rainfall and water flow patterns fix everything?

Technically, yes. But it can take centuries, or even millennia, for groundwater levels to be replenished naturally. The

Great Artesian Basin

in Australia has water that is two million years old!

The replenishment of water in an aquifer is called recharge. The time it takes water to move from the recharge zone -- or where it enters the earth's surface -- and the aquifer is often far longer than humans are willing to wait to pump more water. That turns an aquifer into a finite, and unsustainable, resource for water.

Plus, more flow of water doesn't fix the problem of pollution. Everyday contaminants can sink into the groundwater supplies in aquifers, which means more energy has to be expended to purify the mined water and ecosystems become more vulnerable to those pollutants.

What's the worst that could happen if we continue groundwater pumping?

Simply put, we run out of that supply of drinking water as well as negatively impact surrounding ecosystems and riparian habitats. Most rivers, lakes and wetlands are dependent upon groundwater, so overdrawing aquifers often means a drop in the water table, making it harder for every living thing to get at water supplies.

Water management agencies are responsible for determining how much water is pumped from an aquifer. But a major problem is sometimes the agencies count water supplies twice, measuring both the amount that is in the aquifer as well as river water that can be drawn for human use. But that river water may be feeding the aquifer or vice versa. Inaccuracies in measuring supplies can have disastrous results.

When we move from pumping to mining water, we know we've crossed a line. Still, groundwater mining continues in many areas because the impacts aren't necessarily immediately seen. It can take decades or centuries to see how draining an aquifer alters -- or kills -- the flora and fauna of an ecosystem. While the impacts are delayed, they're no less dire. Water management agencies tend to work in human timeframes that revolve around election cycles, rather than earth-based time frames that revolve around life cycles. To really protect our environment and future generations, their water supplies need to be considered in today's planning.

No water and failing ecosystems means everything from bankruptcy of businesses to crop loss and starvation, to environmental refugees and civil war. In short, continuing to mine groundwater in unsustainable ways has some extraordinarily serious consequences. While it has started to sound like a cliche, it's true that water is life.

Here is a video detailing the importance of sustainable groundwater use.

What are our water alternatives?


Cutting back on

how much water we consume

is the first line of defense against dried up aquifers. Getting smart about water management and ending wasteful water use in manufacturing, agriculture, and individual consumption is key to sustainable water use.

Smart metering


smart water technologies

can help us achieve this in part, but government officials and leaders in water-intensive industries need to also engage in water conservation through improving practices and policies of water management.

WATCH VIDEO: Water Conservation Strategies for a Green Home

Recycling water
Improving our greywater systems and recycling water both in homes and businesses can help drastically reduce how much fresh water we consume from aquifers.

Cities can become more water-independent through city planning. Capturing storm water run-off and recycling municipal water for irrigation use goes a long way in stretching a limited resource. And, greywater systems can be used in the home to help reduce how much a household consumes, and spends on water.

Check out this video of a step-by-step tour of how to make a safe, ecological and legal suburban home graywater system:

Supplemental water sources

Many areas have other options for water than groundwater that aren't fully utilized. Rainwater harvesting is a big one. Cities and individuals can consider sustainable ways to harvest and store rainwater for daily use. It can quickly become a controversial subject, as water rights and impacts on ecology come into play. But well-thought-out plans for rainwater harvesting is a practical solution to a pressing problem.

Desalination, or turning seawater into drinkable water, is another controversial option that, if well planned, can be a sustainable supplement to groundwater supplies. One small community in California found themselves running out of access to groundwater and figured out a relatively sustainable way to supplement supplies with a desalination plant. Options like this should be considered last resorts since they can be as rife with problems as mining groundwater.

Over all, rethinking how we use water for daily life -- from food production to urban planning -- is the most important way we can protect groundwater supplies and ensure future generations have access to fresh, clean water.

Jaymi Heimbuch coverrs all things techy, gadgety and green for TreeHugger.
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