In April 2016, NGWA and the American Water Resources Association (AWRA) convened 25 water experts from across
the United States and Canada in a day-long Groundwater Visibility
Initiative workshop. This seminal event sought to discuss the best way
to elevate groundwater’s status in the international discourse on water
policy, governance, and management by crafting recommendations for
The attendees tackled an agenda consisting of provocative talks by
recognized experts, panel discussions, and breakout sessions. They
articulated ways to better integrate groundwater into integrated water
resources management and incorporate it into policies for agriculture,
energy, environment, land-use planning, and urban development.
For most of the public, groundwater is out of sight and out of mind. Groundwater, and the boundaries that define it as a water management unit, are physically invisible to humans. Our inability to readily see groundwater contributes to groundwater’s lack of visibility in many discussions of water policy, governance, and management.
In many parts of the world, the failure to manage groundwater in an integrated, sustainable way could have severe consequences. Depleted and/or contaminated water reserves contribute to regional conflicts and create public health hazards. Subsidence causes significant damage to critical infrastructure such as roads and levees. Entire economies, based on water-dependent agriculture and industry, are at risk.
Groundwater constitutes more than 95 percent of Earth’s unfrozen freshwater. Given its vast reserves, broad geographical distribution, generally good quality, and frequent availability at or near the point-of-use, it has become the foundation of many water management systems for drinking water, irrigation, and municipal and industrial uses. Still, and despite its importance, groundwater is largely undervalued and narrowly perceived. Even while the interrelationship between groundwater and surface water is well established by science, institutions at all levels struggle to effectively incorporate these concepts into laws, regulations, and sustainable management.
An archaic piece of British common law, brought to the New World with the settlers, contributes to the problem. Under these laws, the owner of a piece of property owns the water beneath it. This created situations nearly equivalent to telling a group of preschoolers that whoever can get their straws in the cup first will get the fruit punch. An 1861 court case in Ohio [Frazier v. Brown, 12 Ohio St. 294 (1861)] famously concluded that groundwater was too “secret, occult, and concealed” to regulate. While water law has advanced somewhat, the aura of mystery remains. Even today, water dowsers (sometimes called water witches or diviners) are found using sticks and plumb bobs to suggest places to drill a well.
Recognizing a critical need to elevate groundwater discussions, AWRA and NGWA joined forces to launch a Groundwater Visibility Initiative in early 2016.
These organizations understand the stakes for properly managing groundwater could not be higher. Over two billion people get drinking water from groundwater. In the United States, about 38 percent of the population regularly depends upon groundwater for its drinking water supply and that same percentage is groundwater’s portion of irrigation water. Rural areas are often 100 percent dependent on groundwater.
Proper groundwater management may even contribute to improved national security. Corporate users have become very aware of the importance of the resource. Consider this statement about groundwater depletion from a decidedly corporate vantage point in a recent report by the Earth Security Group:
“The rapid depletion of aquifers is a systemic risk to one billion people in the world’s growing economies. Aquifers are shared across national borders and have the potential to spark conflict. Companies must
act beyond their site operations and help improve groundwater governance if they are to ensure their sustainable growth.” (Foreword, "Global Depletion of Aquifers", Chapter 4 in Earth Security Index 2016 Report, http://tinyurl.com/zdot9dp)
The following is a summary of the workshop findings and recommendations.
The Denver workshop was intended as only a first step in efforts by NGWA, AWRA, and the workshop participants to increase groundwater’s visibility in scientific, management, and policy dialogues. The following are recommended next steps:
Now is the time to disabuse society of its "secret, occult, and concealed" approach to groundwater. The path identified above will help provide the tools to do just that. The hard work of making groundwater visible has just begun.
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National Ground Water Association
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(614 898.7791 outside the US)
fax 614 898.7786