National Groundwater Awareness Week

March 11, 2014

You may not draw your water from a well, but you probably rely on groundwater much more than you know. Many Americans can say the same.

That's why National Groundwater Awareness Week, which runs from March 9-15, is so important. Simply put, everyone should be aware of the state of groundwater and the issues that face this crucial resource.

What is groundwater?

According to the National Groundwater Association (NGWA), groundwater is defined as "the water that soaks into the soil from rain or other precipitation and moves downward to fill cracks and other openings in beds of rocks and sand." Excluding the polar ice caps, 95 percent of all fresh water in the world is groundwater. It is technically a renewable resource, though efforts must be made to keep it pure and fit for human consumption.

The United States has significant groundwater resources totaling as much as 33,000 trillion gallons, according to the National Geographic Society. Americans use nearly 80 billion gallons per day for personal use, as well as for industrial and agricultural purposes.

What threatens the safety of groundwater?

There are a number of activities that can threaten the safety of groundwater if handled improperly. 

Surface runoff is a major problem. Groundwater deposits located near major urban areas and well-traveled roads risk contamination from runoff, which can take the form of gasoline, oil, road salts and other chemicals. In fact, certain municipalities do not allow road salts on some of their roads for this reason, and instead rely on sand to improve traction during the winter.

Waste storage also poses a threat. Septic systems, for example, are designed to allow human waste to filter underground at a slow rate. However, if damaged or set up improperly, they can inadvertently threaten groundwater supplies. The same can be said of landfills, which require protective layers to keep harmful contaminants within.

Finally, some of the most high-profile threats to the groundwater supply come from major environmental disasters. As much as two years after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan, officials admitted that nearby sources of groundwater were contaminated by radioactive caesium. This information, revealed by Reuters in 2013, cast doubt on the ability of cleanup teams to fully contain the problem.

Sometimes, the problems take longer to recognize. For decades, Fort Detrick, Maryland saw a number of experimental military activities involving a wide range of chemicals. However, it was only recently that an Army contractor decided to take a closer look at the possibility of groundwater remediation of the site.

Maintaining clean groundwater for its intended uses is extremely important, which is why industries that run the risk of polluting water should work with environmental consultants to prevent that from happening. For the rest of us, this week is a great time to learn about all the issues facing the groundwater supply.