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Groundwater plays a critical role in climate change adaptation

March 22, 2022

By Michael Adelman

How this World Water Day is shining a spotlight on the importance of groundwater to the survival of people and the planet

Close your eyes. Think of a water source. You probably didn’t imagine a source you can’t even see: Groundwater.

This year, World Water Day is focused on making an invisible resource, groundwater, visible. Why? Because almost all the world’s accessible freshwater is groundwater—and our supplies are in danger.

Groundwater might be out of sight, but it can’t be out of mind. It’s time to get creative to better tackle the issues of this essential resource.

Issue #1: Many aquifers are compromised by contamination

Imagine if we turned on the taps, and the water wasn’t fit to drink. And imagine if that were the case, in part, because of our own actions.

Right now, half of the world’s population uses groundwater for daily drinking. Our population would suffer, and our clients would struggle, if we couldn’t rely on groundwater. Yet this worry is a reality in many places because of pollution from a variety of sources: Agricultural practices, mining operations, industrial waste, saltwater intrusion, and even natural geochemistry. All of these endanger the cleanliness and availability of groundwater. So, what can we do?

In Los Angeles, groundwater provides approximately 11% of the water supply. In drought years, that number has climbed to 20%. Unfortunately, historic industrial waste disposal practices, including from Cold War-era aerospace facilities, resulted in widespread contamination in some areas. Contaminant plumes have rendered several local wellfields unusable. We’re working as part of a design-build team to help the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power with two multi-year treatment plant projects totaling $400 million. These plants will clean up the plumes and allow the City to use a critical local water source once again. Once remediated, water from the San Fernando Valley Groundwater Basin will provide drinking water for up to 800,000 Angelenos.

New state-of-the-art projects to remediate and restore contaminated groundwater basins to protect public health and reduce imported water dependence.

Issue #2: 40% of all water used for irrigation comes from aquifers, and agricultural demand is growing

We don’t just need groundwater to supply our drinking water systems—we need it to fuel our food supply. In fact, agriculture is the largest consumer of the world’s freshwater resources. But satellite imagery shows people have depleted more than half of the world’s major aquifers. With the world's population expected to increase to nine billion people by 2050, it's estimated that food production will need to increase by 60%. So, we must withdraw water responsibly. If we extract more groundwater than we recharge, our water table will lower and potentially turn to brackish water—ultimately creating an untenable supply.

Can we improve the sustainable use of groundwater? Yes.

In the developing nation of Niger, the need to increase food production is significant—Niger has the fastest growing population in the world. The landlocked nation’s population could triple by 2050. As part of our work with the Millennium Challenge Corporation, we’re helping communities that have long relied on rain-fed agriculture investigate how they can sustainably tap into groundwater. This will help them to adapt to climate change and meet growing demand for food.  

Groundwater use in agriculture is soaring around the world. Irrigation water is essential for keeping fruits, vegetables, and grains growing to feed the world's population.

Issue #3: A long-term solution to the groundwater challenge will require embracing alternative sources

Cleaning up groundwater is important. Thinking about how much we use, and how we use it, matters too. However, the fact remains that those two actions alone may not be enough. A holistic integrated water cycle management plan includes consideration of all potential water sources: The sky, the sea, and even the sewers. In coastal areas around Australia, we’ve helped design desalination plants to create new sources of water. In the Northeastern United States, municipalities are beginning to reuse stormwater to fuel supply. In California, we’re working on potable reuse projects where wastewater goes through advanced treatment and the highly purified product can be used to replenish aquifers. And in the deserts of the Middle East, we’re helping clients examine and exercise a range of options to shift their water supply away from groundwater.

In Abu Dhabi, the population relies 100% on desalination for potable water and almost 100% on groundwater for agriculture. So, we’re helping the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency develop a comprehensive set of strategies to improve water management. The goals will include transitioning the Emirate’s reliance on groundwater for agriculture to 100% wastewater reuse.

We face challenges. But the work we’re doing, and the benefits we’re realizing, show there is hope. Our groundwater resources can be strengthened and secured.

The groundwater solution

We face challenges. But the work we’re doing, and the benefits we’re realizing, show there is hope. Our groundwater resources can be strengthened and secured.

The push to measure and protect groundwater at a large scale is surprisingly recent. Though there’s long been a focus on localized site remediation in the treatment practice, it’s only in the past few decades that people have begun to take a wider view of our aquifers and figure out how broad—sometimes disparate—groups of stakeholders can work together for the greater good. Treating contaminated groundwater to increase local water supplies in arid regions, implementing potable reuse and stormwater capture to recharge aquifers—these are all a part of sustainable groundwater management.

Now, the trends and innovations around infrastructure and beneficial reuse are really taking off. In many cases, I’m proud to say that Stantec is leading the way. We’re helping with groundwater projects as small as 10 gallons [37 liters] per minute and as large as 50 million gallons [189 million liters] per day. Every drop counts.

Did you know almost all the world’s accessible freshwater is groundwater? We need to work together to find lasting solutions to preserve this essential resource.

This year’s World Water Day theme provides us a prime opportunity to help make our important, invisible resource—groundwater—visible to everyone. 

  • Michael Adelman

    Michael’s an environmental engineer whose work includes conventional and advanced water treatment process engineering projects such as granular media filtration and groundbreaking water reuse, and research investigating and testing new treatments.

    Contact Michael
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