Groundwater, though Invisible, Is Critical for Our Survival

Groundwater painting by Glenn Wolff.

What’s the natural resource that is critical to the survival of billions of human beings but invisible to the vast majority of them?

The answer is groundwater, both in Michigan and globally. Out of sight, but not detached from our economy and health, groundwater plays a critical role in Michigan communities, supplying 45 percent of Michigan’s population with drinking water. Yet groundwater is a neglected and much-abused part of our state’s natural endowment.

This year, groundwater will be in the spotlight on the annual World Water Day, March 22. Since 1993, World Water Day has underscored the importance of safe, clean, and affordable water, and the threat to human health and survival among the two billion people on Earth who lack access to it.

In the buildup to March 22, groups around the world will hold events and launch projects on the groundwater theme. On World Water Day itself, the United Nations World Water Development Report will be released, recommending policy direction to decision makers. A United Nations Groundwater Summit will take place in December 2022.

The UN catalogues the following global groundwater challenges:

Agriculture: About 40 percent of all the water used for irrigation comes from aquifers. Especially in water-scarce countries, the provision of cheap energy for pumping groundwater for irrigated agriculture can lead to groundwater depletion and declining water quality, with potentially severe consequences for those who now depend on groundwater irrigation. Furthermore, the use of fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture is a serious threat to groundwater quality.

Borders: Most of the world’s large aquifers cross international borders. Some 468 transboundary aquifers have been identified worldwide; hence, most countries share groundwater resources. Globally, of the eight largest aquifers under stress, six are transboundary.

Finite: There are limitations to groundwater use, such as groundwater quality and high costs of abstraction (from deep aquifers). Furthermore, groundwater is not always available in sufficient quantities in the places where there is the highest human demand for water. For instance, the Asia-Pacific region has the lowest per capita water availability in the world, with groundwater use in the region predicted to increase 30 per cent by 2050.

Natural and Human Pollution: The potential threats to the quality of groundwater are natural contamination and contaminant sources from land use and other human activities. Two of the most widely spread natural contaminants are arsenic and fluoride. Naturally occurring arsenic pollution in groundwater affects millions of people on all continents. Therefore, groundwater quality needs to be assessed and monitored regularly. Human-caused contamination includes the effects of agricultural intensification, urbanization, population growth and climate change.

World Water Day’s groundwater focus is timely observance for Michigan, which faces a groundwater crisis. Consider:

  • There are an estimated 26,000 contamination sites needing state funding for cleanup, and at the current rate of remediation, they won’t all be addressed for decades.
  • Although 1.25 million private water wells supply drinking water to more than two million Michiganders, there is no regular safety testing of that water.
  • High-risk toxic chemicals, including TCE, which has contaminated groundwater in more than 300 known Michigan locations, are still in widespread use.
  • Michigan is the last holdout among the 50 states in protecting groundwater and surface water from failing septic systems, of which an estimated 130,000 exist in Michigan and whose pollution has been linked with disease.
  • Michigan laws protecting groundwater are fragmented.

FLOW’s commitment to educating Michiganders on the importance of protecting groundwater and encouraging them to act reaches back several years. In 2018, we published our first groundwater report, The Sixth Great Lake: the Emergency Threatening Michigan’s Overlooked Groundwater Resource. In 2021, we published a second, Deep Threats to Our Sixth Great Lake: Spotlighting and Solving Michigan’s Groundwater Emergency. We also built a groundwater story map and posted fact sheets about the value of groundwater. And we hosted a groundwater webinar.

In addition to pursuing policy reforms strengthening groundwater protection, FLOW is currently involved in two major groundwater projects. We have formed and convened the Michigan Groundwater Table that includes experts and advocates from a cross-section of interests. Members of the table are reviewing groundwater issues and attempting to identify common findings and recommendations.

FLOW also is a partner with Michigan State University’s Institute of Water Research in a project commissioned by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy to assess the economic impact of state policies that leave contaminated groundwater in place rather than cleaning it up. At such locations, responsible parties restrict access to drinking water and exposure to contaminated soils, meaning contamination remains and, because it is out of sight, such pollution may spread.

There is much more to do to protect Michigan’s groundwater, and World Water Day is a good opportunity to learn about that.

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