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Global Groundwater - Are We Running Dry?

Groundwater is an important source of drinking water for more than two billion people worldwide. However, new research using National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite data discovered that 21 of the world’s 37 largest aquifers are rapidly depleting past sustainability tipping points. The data are particularly concerning because many of these aquifers are located in densely populated and unstable regions, as shown in Figure 1. For example, the top three overstressed basins include the Arabian Aquifer (60 million people), the Indus Basin (300 million people) and the Murzuk-Djado Basin (63 million people) in northern Africa.

Each groundwater system is unique and dynamic with complex interactions between human activities, precipitation, evapotranspiration and surface water. The studies present important information on the amount of available water in aquifers, but invite more questions, studies and discussions to better understand the stocks and flows of the entire groundwater system.

No single entity is capable of addressing the complex challenges of sustainable groundwater management alone. However, collective action can harness the best U.S. water expertise and resources from the government, public and private sectors to find solutions to groundwater challenges. The U.S. Water Partnership (USWP) offers a catalytic platform for partnerships that delivers immediate impact while building solutions for long-term outcomes. USWP members are responding to this challenge with a dual focus on improving access to data and information and delivering innovative technologies and approaches.

Improving Access to Data and Information

It is crucial to not only to measure an aquifer’s volume but also important to understand the aquifer system, and its interaction with surface water, human activities and ecosystems. Collecting data and applying decision-support tools to capture this information will help develop actionable information for policymakers, managers and planners. Examples of USWP members’ response to this challenge include:

  • Response #1 – H2infO: This unique water information-management platform harnesses USWP members’ information to connect users across the developing world to the data and resources they need to develop solutions to groundwater challenges. USWP partners featured on H2infO include but not limited to the following:
  • Response #2 – Regional Groundwater Assessments: NextWater’s subsidiary Emery & Garrett Groundwater Investigations (EGGI) recently completed an innovative countrywide groundwater investigation in the Dominican Republic. EGGI’s rigorous analysis evaluated hydrogeological characteristics and developed a numerical Groundwater Development Potential Model, which categorizes, maps and objectively ranks the groundwater development potential. The maps provide critical information needed to prioritize and rank the Country’s thirty-one provinces relative to their groundwater development potential. EGGI is currently working with both government and private sector partners to identify areas where next efforts will be focused.
  • Response #3 – Technical Exchanges: On March 30-April 2, 2015, USACE collaborated with USGS to host a technical workshop on ground water modeling in coordination with delegates from Mongolia’s Ministry of Environment, Green Development, and Tourism.
  • Response #4 – Aqueduct and India Water Tool 2.0: The World Resources Institute developed a suite of tools that helps companies, investors, governments, and other users understand where and how water risks and opportunities are emerging worldwide. The India Water Tool collected local data from more than 4,000 wells, which showed a 54 percent drop in groundwater levels over the past seven years.
  • Response #5 – National Ground-Water Monitoring Network (NGWMN): Designed, pilot-tested, and now being implemented over the next few years, the NGWMN will provide full and consistent groundwater data coverage across all of the major aquifers of the U.S. It reflects nearly a decade of development work by the Federal Advisory Committee on Water Information’s Subcommittee on Ground Water – a collaboration of federal and state agencies, various water organizations, private industry, and academia. The National Ground Water Association (NGWA) has played a significant leadership role, along with the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the USGS and U.S. EPA are continuing to provide the resources and products needed for the NGWMN.
  • Response #6– SOURCE: Blue Legacy International will soon launch SOURCE, mobilizing a storytelling platform to develop awareness of issues such as groundwater depletion and activate citizen science programs for public data collection.
  • Response #7Wellntel, an Imagine H2O Runner-Up for the Food and Agriculture Program and participant in the Accelerator Program, offers the first ever groundwater information system for homeowners and farmers. It measures water levels and displays it online and mobile devices.

Delivering Innovative Technologies and Approaches

In addition to improving access to groundwater data and information, USWP partners deliver immediate impact for improving the quantity and quality of groundwater resources. These impacts include:

  • Impact #1 – Water Reuse and Groundwater Recharge:
    • Xylem’s advanced water-treatment technology is helping Los Angeles, CA produce potable water for recharging stressed drinking water aquifers.
    • The Coca-Cola Company (TCCC) supports groundwater recharge projects through rainwater harvesting, recharge shafts and reforestation activities in India, Nepal, the Maldives, the United States and their plants globally.
  • Impact #2 – Groundwater Protection:
    • TCCC protects groundwater sources by working with its bottling plants to complete source vulnerability assessments (SVA) that include descriptions and maps of local groundwater sources. The SVAs inform comprehensive source water protection plans that detail specific risk-mitigation actions and deadlines.
    • The Alliance for Water Stewardship works with private-sector partners to analyze their water use practices, including groundwater attributes.
  • Impact #3 – Efficient Groundwater Use for Irrigation: Given that only five percent of the land in Africa is currently irrigated, rising food demand and expanding agriculture will require water-efficient irrigation practices. Xylem, Valmont Industries and iDE have all developed efficient irrigation technologies for both large and smallholder farmers.
  • Impact #4 – Groundwater Remediation:
    • CDM Smith developed a pioneering advanced water treatment facility to help build drought resilience in Orange County, CA. The facility injects high quality treated wastewater into the County’s coastal aquifer system, which hosts large-scale groundwater pumping for treatment, distribution, and potable consumption. This recycling system promotes conservation and helps the County minimize its use of imported water from other parts of California and Southwest.
    • CH2M will treat approximately 24 billion gallons of groundwater and remove an estimated 110,000 pounds of contaminants from the Columbia River region.
  • Impact #5Groundwater Management: San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) developed a landmark agreement with the neighboring cities and organizations to develop the Regional Groundwater Storage and Recovery (GSR) project, which will benefit over 2.6 million people and businesses in the Bay Area by providing local supply of water for use in times of drought. As part of the project, surface water will be used in wet years to allow groundwater recharge and the stored water could then be recovered in future times of water shortages.
  • Impact #6 – Artificial Recharge: NextWater’s subsidiary EGGI is a leader in the use of artificial recharge in sand and gravel aquifers, having successfully executed and permitted the very first project of its kind in New England. EGGI’s initial project resulted in a 70 percent increase in the productivity of its client’s production wells, and led New Hampshire to promulgate new regulations and guidelines regarding Artificial Recharge projects in the State.
  • Impact #7 Groundwater Governance: The United States and Mexico agreed to a joint cooperative process for groundwater research and data exchange. The International Boundary and Water Commission developed the framework for the Transboundary Aquifer Assessment Program which is a binational aquifer study and data report produced by the United States and Mexico.

The above examples offer a snapshot of how USWP partners are finding solutions at the local, regional and national scale. The USWP is collecting best practices, innovative approaches and potential collaboration opportunities for addressing groundwater challenges. Please email case studies, examples or questions to Chuck Chaitovitz with the USWP Secretariat at Chuck@getf.org.

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