Tuesday, August 11, 2009

It's Not Just Scarcity or Sustainability

You'll read a lot on this blog about water issues related to drought, wasteful use of water vs. sustainable use and other conservation related topics. But as the stories below illustrate, smart water management is about a lot more than just how we use water, it's about taking a holistic, all encompassing view of water as a resource, and balancing it against competing needs.

In Wyoming's Powder River Basin, an area rich in natural gas, the extraction of that resource also depletes, and in some cases pollutes another resource; the local groundwater supply that farmers and ranchers rely on for their livelihood. A recent research report:
...said that between 1987 and 2006, BLM collected data from 111 monitoring wells in Wyoming’s portion of the basin using a deep network designed to evaluate potential leakage between the coalbed methane water-producing coal deposits and adjacent sandstone beds, and to measure the drawdown in the producing zones.
During that period, CBM production in the Wyoming PRB withdrew 4.1 billion bbl of groundwater at total pumping rates up to 77.3 million gallons daily, the report said. Based on BLM’s deep monitoring well data, water levels in some of the monitored CBM wells have declined up to 625 feet within the CBM production areas of the Wyoming PRB’s CBM production areas, it indicated.
In Delaware, increasing development in formerly agricultural areas is raising questions of the impact to groundwater, the major source for human consumption:

Groundwater is both the source of drinking water and the method of disposing of wastewater, said Scott Andres, hydrogeologist with the Delaware Geological Society. There is plenty of water to be had, he said, but the challenge is protecting public and environmental health.

As nutrient-pollution limits increase the cost of septic, land-based disposal systems are becoming more economically appealing, said Andres.

Different methods of disposal add different amounts of water to the groundwater system. They also add contaminants, including nutrients, household chemicals and pharmaceuticals. Andres said there is no data yet on the human health effects of those pollutants....

Land use adds pollutants to groundwater, and, when the flow of water changes, so do rates of natural filtration, said Ator. Less natural filtration could mean fewer contaminants are pulled out of the water.
In Michigan, years of illegal dumping of waste products from fruit processing is contaminating streams and groundwater. No one knows how long it will take the environment to recover:

In Michigan's prized fruit and vegetable industry, processors have contaminated groundwater with metals and arsenic by spraying wastewater on fields -- a 40-year-old practice that has led to polluted wells.

But in some cases, they also have dumped or spilled their waste into streams, marshes and wetlands, damaging them for years to come.
These issues aren't limited to any particular state or country. NASA's GRACE satellite mission recently confirmed that India is depleting it's groundwater faster than it's being replenished. In an area where groundwater is responsible for supplying much of the water used to irrigate crops, as well as provide drinking water to 600 million Indians, this has disaster written all over it:
Farming is a thirsty business on the Indian subcontinent. But how thirsty, exactly? For the first time, satellite remote sensing of a 2000-kilometer swath running from eastern Pakistan across northern India and into Bangladesh has put a solid number on how quickly the region is depleting its groundwater. The number "is big," says hydrologist James Famiglietti of the University of California, Irvine--big as in 54 cubic kilometers of groundwater lost per year from the world's most intensively irrigated region hosting 600 million people. "I don't think anybody knew how quickly it was being depleted over that large an area."
With climate change threatening to change the distribution of rainfall across the globe, it seems like now would be a good time to start addressing these issues. An ounce of prevention and all that...

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