World's groundwater increasingly at risk

Jan 30, 2014 by Patrick Mcdonagh
Tom Gleeson in Ontario’s Tay River with a temperature-conductivity probe to detect groundwater coming out of bedrock fractures. Credit: Tom Gleeson

The groundwater footprint. If you haven't heard that term yet, read on, because it soon could become as familiar as "carbon footprint."

Groundwater, which originates in rain, snow or ice, collects or flows beneath the earth's surface, providing the water to replenish aquifers, springs and wells. The groundwater footprint is essentially a tool for evaluating where and how this groundwater can be used sustainably.

Department of Civil Engineering and Applied Mechanics professor Tom Gleeson says "about two billion people drink groundwater every day, and it's just as important to industry and agriculture because 40 per cent of irrigation water around the globe also comes from groundwater."

But Gleeson's research shows there is a problem.

Working in collaboration with hydrologists at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, Gleeson determined that the global groundwater footprint is 3.5 times the size of the world's 783 large regional aquifers. What this means is that groundwater is being used unsustainably in many parts of the world.

Though 80 per cent of aquifers have a groundwater footprint less than their area, some regions with a hugely unsustainable footprint are driving up global water usage. In these regions, notably in Asia and North America, humans are overexploiting the resource, primarily for agriculture.

The effect of depleting these aquifers extends well beyond farming, however. Gleeson says a quarter of the world's population lives in regions where groundwater is overused, so, in addition to reducing the water available for drinking and irrigation, unsustainable groundwater use could cause ecosystem shifts.

Although has global ramifications in terms of food security, Gleeson said solutions are going to have to happen locally or regionally because each region and each aquifer has different social, economic and political conditions.

"But while there may not be one solution, we can devise broadly applicable approaches, including valuing groundwater differently, regulating and managing it better, and, in some cases, planning our water management strategies over a longer time frame.

"Groundwater moves very slowly, so if we try to manage this resource over the short term, then we're not taking into account how it flows naturally."

One thing is clear; the regions most affected should become the focus of future groundwater-management priorities.

Currently Gleeson is tracking the groundwater footprint for various crops from two of the most depleted aquifers in the U.S. – the California Central Valley aquifer and the Midwest's High Plains' aquifer – to learn how to break the groundwater footprint down according to specific crops.

"We're hoping to learn what kinds of food are best to grow for specific environments, and looking at how and when to grow these foods," he said.

With two degrees in Geology and a doctorate in Civil Engineering, Gleeson wears the fundamental and applied science mantles with equal ease.

In describing his research team, he said, "we're working to understand how work – that's the fundamental science. And then we're using that knowledge to develop new tools for applied research that could teach us how we can use this resource sustainably."

Explore further: World's shrinking groundwater 'needs better governance'

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Asia, US plains facing water extraction crisis

Aug 08, 2012

Heavily-populated regions of Asia, the arid Middle East and parts of the US corn belt are dangerously over-exploiting their underground water supplies, according to a study published on Wednesday in the journal ...

Plugging water's effects in an Earth system model

Jan 10, 2014

(Phys.org) —Connecting several data pipes in a popular land model, a research team led by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory simulated how irrigation from both surface water and groundwater affects the ...

Recommended for you

US delays decision on Keystone pipeline project

Apr 18, 2014

The United States announced Friday a fresh delay on a final decision regarding a controversial Canada to US oil pipeline, saying more time was needed to carry out a review.

New research on Earth's carbon budget

Apr 18, 2014

(Phys.org) —Results from a research project involving scientists from the Desert Research Institute have generated new findings surrounding some of the unknowns of changes in climate and the degree to which ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

China says massive area of its soil polluted

A huge area of China's soil covering more than twice the size of Spain is estimated to be polluted, the government said Thursday, announcing findings of a survey previously kept secret.

UN weather agency warns of 'El Nino' this year

The UN weather agency Tuesday warned there was a good chance of an "El Nino" climate phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean this year, bringing droughts and heavy rainfall to the rest of the world.

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...