Aquifers: The Harsh Reality of Their Importance

Let me thank George Denhard for forwarding this article to me. We dug wells together in West Africa and share similar concerns today for environmental issues. Water is always at the top of our list.

People like digestible pieces of information. Those are easiest to view, easiest to respond to with manageable emotional impact, and easiest to move away from. On any given day, in any given group and on all media outlets, you can easily identify the important issues of the day. We are coerced into passive submission by every “authority’s” view on each of these highlighted issues with seemingly too many digestible views. Too often, it is the tragic that determines an item’s newsworthiness.

Unfortunately, what media decides is good for viewer attention might not always be the most important. As an example, much of the world is very aware that something is different with global climate. The debate about the causes of climate change – and even its existence – is ongoing. We now see that these aberrations in weather and climate are neither occasional nor limited in their geographic reach.

This post is about water. More specifically, groundwater. Yes, we are becoming more aware of the growing challenges of freshwater availability and quality and community wastewater management.

Weather is the volatile element of climate that creates the conditions we experience from day-to-day. Some years, the weather just seems to be better or worse than other years. Climate controls the weather where you live. It is the average weather pattern in a place over many years. For more detail, see: What is the Difference between Weather and Climate?

Other volatility in weather can be the result of anthropogenic influences. Yes, people do contribute to environmental change. This post is about one such human behavior that has very clear implications but is not noteworthy enough to compete with other more shocking highlights.

Too many hot days in a row get attention as does a seemingly unstoppable cycle of fires that threaten super-dry, parched areas of increasingly more countries. Series of tornadoes or floods or hurricanes that rip through towns and devastate entire communities also get front-line attention.

Groundwater issues are not unique any region of the country. The most obvious impact is first noticeable in agricultural regions. Today, California is suffering the most though other regions are at high risk as well. But because of California’s importance to the economy and its importance as an agricultural producer, it has become more noteworthy.

There has been a devastating drought in California that is into its fourth year. A recent L.A.Times article summarized its severity: ‘Severe’ Drought Covers Nearly 99.8% of California.

“In May, 100% of California was experiencing “severe” drought — the third harshest on a five-level scale — but since things have leveled off, that figure has only improved to 99.8%…”

We witnessed an extended drought in Texas a few years ago and a drought in Australia that lasted eleven years recently ended!

When we think of drought, we think about too little rain or not enough rainfall to replenish surface water that is used for agriculture and recreation. Boats sitting on dry lake beds and barges grounded on shallow rivers are perfectly digestible photo opportunities. Lifestyles might be impacted by the occurrence of drought, But, in time, weather patterns always seem to shift and rains return – often in larger volumes than the land can handle and damaging floods result. Somehow, we find ways to recover and continue living in rebuilt communities.

What is happening in California has taken on a new magnitude of importance. From its Agricultural Statistics Review, 2012-2013:

“California agriculture experienced a 15 percent increase in the sales value of its products for 2011. The state’s 81,500 farms and ranches received a record $43.5 billion for their output last year, up from the $38.0 billion reached during 2010.

California continues to set the pace for the rest of the nation as the country’s largest agricultural producer and exporter. In 2011, California’s farmers and ranchers exported about 25 percent of the state’s agricultural production. In dollar terms, California’s agricultural exports reached a record-breaking $16.87 billion for 2011. Significantly, California is the nation’s sole exporter of many agricultural commodities…”

How important is water to farmers? Water always gets top priority. Agriculture is global water’s number one application. Globally irrigated farming takes more than 60 percent of the available freshwater. In many developing countries, agriculture is critical for subsistence living. In the US, agriculture is important for domestic consumption and economic, export power.

The situation is now becoming even more critical than the obvious impact that drought is having on surface water. Throughout the world, as drought conditions have persisted and population has increased, the demand for greater agricultural production has also risen to new levels. This demand has forced farmers to rely more heavily on underground water reserves. And that is the problem. Often called ancient water, these reserves cannot be easily replenished – if, at all. Once gone, they are gone forever.

“Relying on groundwater to make up for shrinking surface water supplies comes at a rising price, and this hidden water found in California’s Central Valley aquifers is the focus of what amounts to a new gold rush. Well-drillers are working overtime, and as Brian Clark Howard reported here last week, farmers and homeowners short of water now must wait in line more than a year for their new wells.”

This over reliance on groundwater is occurring around the United States and in countries around the world.

“Aquifers in the Colorado River Basin and the southern Great Plains also suffer severe depletion.”

In an earlier post, I wrote about the close relationship between energy production and freshwater: The Interdependency of Energy and Water. Freshwater is needed to produce energy and to extract fuel to produce energy. There have been a number of important discoveries of vast, underground gas reserves from the Middle Atlantic States to Wyoming. It is estimated that there is enough natural gas to power the energy needs of the US for the next two hundred years. That’s the good news. The bad news is that freshwater is needed to extract (frack) the gas from the shale formations in which it is buried.

“Scarce groundwater supplies also are being used for energy. A recent study from CERES, an organization that advocates sustainable business practices, indicated that competition for water by hydraulic fracturing—a water-intensive drilling process for oil and gas known as “fracking”—already occurs in dry regions of the United States. The February report said that more than half of all fracking wells in the U.S. are being drilled in regions experiencing drought, and that more than one-third of the wells are in regions suffering groundwater depletion.”

Further controversy with fracking is the use of chemical “cocktails” to dislodge the gas. Only those who are drilling seem to think that this process is safe and will not contaminate groundwater aquifers that reside above these underground reservoirs of gas.

As clearly stated in the title of the referenced National Geographic article: If You Think the Water Crisis Can’t Get Worse, Wait Until the Aquifers Are Drained, keep in mind that when it’s gone, the real crisis will begin.



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