The 2022 theme of World Water Day (March 22) is Groundwater - making the invisible, visible. Why is this important? It is estimated there is over a thousand times more water in the ground than on the surface of our planet. This groundwater impacts and enriches our lives even though we don’t often see it. Sadly, we can end up overusing and polluting it, and complicating the problem, can we really know how much is down there?
Groundwater [ ground-waw ter, -wot er ]1
the water beneath the surface of the ground, consisting largely of surface water that has seeped down: the source of water in springs and wells.
To tackle climate change, we must protect this critical resource that feeds our ecosystem, water and sanitation systems, agriculture and industrial needs. It also is the largest source of fresh water and can act as a regulator for floods and droughts.
Throughout history, groundwater sources have been tapped to serve as feeds to agricultural or city settlements, and while we know the water comes from an aquifer somewhere beneath our feet — diffused in layers of soil and rock — what we don’t know is when these sources will run out. We are using groundwater faster than it can be replenished from rain and snow.
Groundwater Fact: The oldest groundwater was discovered 2 miles (2.4 km) under Ontario, Canada, and was at least 2 billion years old!
Over-pumping of wells will lower the groundwater table so well sites will no longer reach the groundwater source. This increases the costs of pumping to access water further down. Doing this near coastal areas can cause saltwater to move inland and contaminate the groundwater supply.
Groundwater Fact: 53.5 billion gallons of groundwater are used for agricultural irrigation every day in the U.S. alone, up from 2.2 billion in 1990.
Protecting groundwater supplies
Then we have the issue of groundwater pollution from chemicals, gas, oil, road salts and microplastics — all poisons that can leach into wells. These may ultimately end up in the food chain, and affect over 50% of the United States population relying on groundwater for drinking water. Read my previous blog post A brief history of why we disinfect drinking water for more on why straight-from-the-well sources can be far from ideal.
Groundwater fact: Globally, an estimated 115 million people rely on groundwater for drinking water. 43 million people from private wells.
Chemical threats are ever evolving. We often think of industrial activities, accidents and incidents as top polluters — and of course they are — with instant and long-lasting impact of gas and liquid chemical spills ending in the groundwater supply. Managing chemical plants and ensuring good safety to avoid chemical disasters is of utmost importance.
There are new emerging threats, which can come from less obvious and more close-to-home sources: Fertilizer runoff from farming, which causes nitrates to leach into soil and contaminates groundwater sources; PFAS accumulation, leading to an ever-growing number of contaminated sites. Then there is landfill leachate from our own daily waste, including pharmaceutical and personal care products, that contaminates the ground. Then there are incidents of sewage discharge … and the contamination list goes on.
As a planet we need to take care of this invisible source of water as much as we do our visible streams and oceans, because without it, we lose “the Earth’s life support system.” Groundwater acts as a giant sponge that can absorb surplus water and mitigate shortage, making it a vital component in adapting to climate variability.”2
Groundwater Fact: Health effects from contaminated groundwater after the Bhopal disaster in India are still prevalent and causing health issues some 30 years after the incident.
While we may never know how much groundwater we have, depletion has been tracked by NASA satellites showing that some 66 percent of California’s Central Valley agricultural region has extremely high levels of water stress. California is the U.S. state most reliant on groundwater. It was also estimated in 2015 that 54 percent of India’s groundwater wells are decreasing.
By making the invisible, visible, we can all think more about this vital resource.
There are some simple things we can do at home to help protect and conserve groundwater:
- Use plants that are native to your region, which can grow naturally with little watering and fertilizer.
- Reduce use of chemicals in the home and garden and dispose of them correctly.
- Go easy on home water use; don’t leave water running unnecessarily and fix drips and leaks.
- Cut down on your spring water consumption – this comes from ground sources.
At Thermo Fisher Scientific, it is our mission to enable customers to make the world healthier, cleaner and safer.
For more on water analysis, visit thermofisher.com/water-analysis
- Dictionary.com definition
- Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) https://siwi.org/why-water/groundwater/