As groundwater supplies decrease, pollution concerns are on the rise
Do you ever feel you are about to drown in all the news stories about water quality nowadays? Well, take a deep breath. The coverage is on the verge of hitting tsunami levels as public awareness of the water quality issues facing the U.S. starts to soar.
Consider this: A Reuters study in December 2016 found nearly 3,000 areas with lead poisoning rates “far higher” than in Flint, Mich. In January, the Knoxville (Tenn.) News Sentinel reported on environmental groups suing the Tennessee Valley Authority, alleging it was polluting the Cumberland River. In February, readers of the Chesapeake Bay Journal were told how farm pollution was affecting drinking water due to nitrates in agricultural runoff.
In a further spur to the overall water quality debate, the U.S. Senate in February voted to end a rule enacted during the Obama administration aimed at reducing water pollution in streams close to mountaintop coal mines. Those favoring the rule say it would have led to safer drinking water by monitoring for pollutants, such as lead, that may find their way into water supplies. Opponents saw it as a costly burden on an already heavily regulated coal and mining industry.
It is becoming clear that episodes like the Flint lead contamination crisis are not aberrations. Despite decades-long efforts, U.S. water resources remain under threat from contaminants old and new, in addition to climate-related issues, such as drought.
High Demand for Groundwater
According to Circle of Blue, an organization founded in 2000 by journalists and scientists with the goal of providing reliable and actionable information about the world’s resources, “more than 140 million people in the United States use groundwater as their primary source of drinking water.” Of that group, approximately 45 million people use private wells, which are not subject to the same legal quality standards as water utilities, and therefore are more vulnerable to contamination.
The groundwater on which approximately 50% of Americans rely is under threat from gasoline, fertilizers, paint thinner and antibiotics that dissolve in water or soak through the soil, according to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Water Science School. Even air pollution—car exhaust, smokestacks and dust—contaminate groundwater with hydrocarbons, pesticides and heavy metals that seep through the ground into aquifers or run off into rivers and lakes.
Other threats to groundwater quality stem from industrial and municipal waste disposal, road salting, and rural use of animal waste, fertilizers and pesticides.
As if pollution was not enough, groundwater also is quickly disappearing. Over the past 10 years, millions of people have suffered water shortages in states across the U.S. While abnormally dry conditions are not new phenomena, their effects on modern society are far-reaching and costly, impacting agriculture, industry, municipal water supplies and natural resources.
Heather Cooley, water program director for the Pacific Institute, has warned that there are absolute limits on water and that one of the key challenges is the belief that it is limitless. Commenting on water scarcity in water-parched California, she told the Real News Network that the state has seen “a steady decline in groundwater levels,” which has led to major challenges both in drought and non-drought years.
The nonprofit Groundwater Foundation is a network of people, businesses and communities founded in 1985 in Lincoln, Neb., that works to protect groundwater for sustainable use today and in the future. It noted that although groundwater is “one of the nation’s most valuable natural resources, it’s often misunderstood.” There is an immense amount of water on the planet when you take oceans into account, but less than 2.5% is pure enough to drink. Less than 1% of that is accessible, because the rest is either frozen or buried deep underground in aquifers.
The bad news is that a 2015 NASA satellite study found that water levels in 21 of the world’s 37 largest known aquifers were declining. The research noted that groundwater is an increasingly important freshwater supply source. It also prompted one of the study’s authors, Jay Famiglietti, to warn the Washington Post that the “water table is dropping all over the world.”
A 2014 study by a group of researchers from Aarhus University in Denmark, Vermont Law School and CNA Corp. concluded there would not be enough water in the world, let alone the U.S., to meet demand by 2040 if the energy and power situation does not improve before then. ”If we keep doing business as usual, we are facing an insurmountable water shortage—even if water was free, because it’s not a matter of the price,” said Aarhus University Professor Benjamin Sovacool. “There will be no water by 2040 if we keep doing what we’re doing today.”
Efficiency & Reuse
So what do we need to do to survive in a future world where freshwater is in short supply and is suffering from higher levels of pollution?
The bottom line is there is no simple solution. Growing urban populations place huge demands on agriculture, which relies heavily on water and widespread chemical use to meet demand. Fixing America’s water delivery infrastructure, in which an estimated 20 of every 100 gal are lost through leaking pipe, would be a big help and seemingly is high on President Donald J. Trump’s agenda, but it will take time and substantial financial expense to address it. Installing smart water meters to track water use and encouraging water-saving measures also has been shown to reduce water use. Innovating more water- and energy-efficient home appliances could produce substantial savings, too.
Another option is to turn seawater into drinking water. This is no longer a dream thanks to pioneering work in countries like Israel, but the process, which harnesses industrial-scale reverse osmosis (RO) membrane technology, remains expensive.
Residential RO solutions provide a serious point-of-use option for homeowners wary of possible contaminants in their tap water. “The latest residential reverse osmosis water purifiers use far less energy than before and reject substantially less water, which makes them an excellent choice for consumers,” said Lin Guo, North American head of Bluewater USA Inc. She noted how two of the company’s water purifiers donated to Flint as the lead crisis unfolded continue to deliver contaminant-free tap water to local citizens every day.