Groundwater Plays Important Role in Water Supply Resiliency

Groundwater Plays Important Role in Water Supply Resiliency

When examining ways to deal with water supply issues and droughts, managing surface water bodies is often what comes to mind first, though strategic groundwater management can have significant positive outcomes as well. Many in the southwest and western regions of the US have recognized this for years, integrating considerations for groundwater recharge into plans for resiliency, but others across the country might need to follow suit to adapt to changes in climate and population.

Groundwater’s role in resiliency

Water shortages have always been something that communities in arid climates have had to prepare for, but with the regional changes that accompany a shifting climate comes the potential for reservoir depletion along with an increase in water demand. Even those in areas that haven’t historically been concerned about water supply quantities, the unpredictability of the weather has made it more difficult to plan effectively to manage their resources, which is particularly problematic when you have a growing population. For instance, here in the Northeast, some areas will continue to see warmer temperatures and dryer conditions, but even those that will experience more rainfall might have a problem. The typical pattern of steady rainfall over time is expected to be replaced by more intense, sporadic wet weather events, which could lead to more runoff and less actual groundwater recharge.

The relatively large volume of stored groundwater, (what is being stored in the aquifer’s comprising materials), makes water shortages much less of a risk in comparison to surface water with its relatively small storage capacity and much shorter residence times. As a result, incorporating groundwater into a water resource plan can provide communities with a much higher level of water security while keeping the costs of water supply low. These benefits make an excellent case for joint management of surface and groundwater resources, which often involves an intentional approach to recharging aquifers that incorporates practices like flood skimming, managed aquifer recharge, and/or aquifer storage and recovery systems.

Managing groundwater sustainably

Groundwater can only be a valuable component of a plan for resiliency if it’s managed responsibly; aquifer sustainability is crucial in ensuring water supplies can withstand the effects of a changing climate. In California, which has experienced some of the country’s most significant water shortages in the past few years, the maintenance of healthy groundwater levels is required by a momentous piece of legislation, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which was enacted in the midst of a major drought. While most other states do have some regulations regarding groundwater extraction, a key feature of SGMA that others may eventually want to adopt themselves is the formation of groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs) that are responsible for developing and implementing sustainability plans to ensure balanced levels of withdrawal and recharge in groundwater basins.

Groundwater is inextricably wrapped up in a complex web of social, environmental, and economic factors. It accounts for the vast majority of freshwater on Earth and is used widely for both drinking water and agricultural irrigation, but it also plays a large role in the health of aquatic ecosystems. This means that an over-extraction of groundwater not only leads to issues like diminished drinking water quality, it also threatens agricultural development and food security as well as conservation efforts. When considered in this light, it becomes clear how critical it is to resilient communities and riparian habitats, and how the irresponsible management of this resource can detract from those systems’ ability to bounce back from the kind of water shortages and population increases that are predicted in the future.

As we rely more on groundwater to perform its instrumental function in resiliency, its management has to be a truly collaborative effort. Groundwater users, regulatory bodies, hydrogeologists, and water resource engineers all need a seat at the table to understand a geographic area’s water supply needs, a given basin’s capacity, and the implications of potential resource overuse issues. With the participation of these stakeholders, it’s possible to develop an operable plan that protects aquifer health and strengthens a community’s ability to withstand the effects of population growth and climate shifts.

Author

Senior Technical Manager
Hydrogeology

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