Don’t overlook importance of groundwater

National Groundwater Awareness Week, March 6-12, is time to take stock of the role that groundwater plays in our daily lives. While groundwater depletion and contamination are often described as a crisis, perhaps the real groundwater crisis results from a general lack of education and attention to the world’s most extracted natural resource.

With numerous users, sustainable groundwater use depends upon an informed public.

We depend on groundwater for many purposes. About half the world’s people rely on groundwater for their drinking water. Almost everyone in rural areas does.

Groundwater provides much of the water used to irrigate crops – a message driven home by the California drought. Groundwater keeps streams and rivers flowing during dry periods, providing environmental benefits in addition to water supply.

With a growing population and changing climate, the world needs groundwater more than ever.

Groundwater supplies that once appeared inexhaustible are now in sharp decline around the world. Pumping can further result in streamflow depletion, land subsidence and deterioration of water quality.

These effects are slow to develop and play out over decades, or longer.

The seriousness of groundwater problems are not unlike those of climate change. It’s hard to understand the scope of a problem you can’t see and that develops slowly.

While there is a tendency for media coverage to paint a dire situation everywhere, groundwater conditions vary greatly from place to place, with groundwater commonly at least partly a renewable resource.

There are also diverse opportunities to capture excess water during wet periods or other surplus water and store it in aquifers underground where it is free from evaporation losses.

Understanding groundwater is key to knowing when to use it, and when to save it.

Groundwater was long considered so “secret, occult and concealed” that it was deemed hopeless to regulate. In contrast, today’s groundwater professionals have a solid understanding of the basic principles.

Transfer of key elements of this knowledge to the public is needed to foster responsible action at local levels. State and federal agencies also have an essential role to support monitoring and research.

For too long, groundwater has remained largely out-of-sight and out-of-mind. National Groundwater Awareness Week provides an opportunity to help turn this situation around.

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