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Groundwater Professionals

History

In addition to the water that can be seen on the surface of the earth, such as lakes, streams, rivers, ponds, canals, and oceans, there is water under the ground, known as groundwater. Groundwater includes things like underground streams and aquifers, which are layers of water-bearing porous rock or sediment. People have been tapping into various groundwater sources for centuries, using the water for everything from drinking to irrigation.

Artesian wells, for example, are used to provide water (including drinking water) in some parts of the world. They are created by boring down into aquifers; the resulting pressure causes water in the aquifer to rise up in the well. Australia has the world's biggest artesian well system; in the United States, artesian systems supply water to parts of the Great Plains and the East Coast.

Like other natural resources, groundwater has been the focus of increasing attention in the United States since the 1970s. The U.S. government has recognized threats to this vital supply of water and passed laws to protect it. At first, people in the field and in related fields were called on to adapt their skills to meeting the new regulations. In recent years, especially as the regulations have gotten more technical and complex, demand for people who specialize in groundwater science has risen dramatically.

A look at the groundwater situation in one state, Florida, demonstrates some of the potential problems. The groundwater in many areas is located not very far under the surface—just a few feet, in some cases. A surging population is drawing heavily on these supplies, threatening to use them faster than they can replenish themselves. Rapid development (farming, mining, construction, industry) offers high potential for disrupting the vulnerable groundwater.

Also, in some cases, below the aquifers in Florida that carry good water are aquifers that carry poor-quality water, high in sulfates. Drawing down too far into the aquifers that have good water might accidentally pull up the bad water from the aquifer below it, or, worse, pull over saltwater from the coast. Once saltwater gets in, that aquifer is probably lost as a source of drinking water.

Another groundwater hazard is the possibility of a fuel, chemical, or other spill on the ground. Hazardous chemicals in these substances can soak through the soil and reach the groundwater, contaminating it. Even good-quality groundwater usually is treated before it is used (although in some places, like outlying rural areas, people drink untreated groundwater, drawing it right out of the ground). Regular water treatment facilities are not designed to handle removal of hazardous substances. That requires special steps, is usually more difficult and expensive than cleaning surface water, and sometimes does not work.

This is, in fact, a national concern. According to the National Ground Water Association, about 38 percent of the U.S. population relies on groundwater for its drinking water and other household uses. At the same time, better methods for detecting contaminants have revealed that contamination of ground-water is more extensive than was previously known.

Legislation (including the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act; the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act; the Super-fund Amendments and Reauthorization Act; and the Safe Drinking Water Act) mandates the cleanup, monitoring, and protection of the nation's groundwater supplies. This direction was strengthened by later amendments to such laws. Recent stricter regulations applying to landfills, for example, acknowledge the potential risks of these operations to groundwater. In particular, seepage from landfills can get into the groundwater and contaminate it. New landfills must have double liners and other features to help prevent seepage; existing landfills have new rules about closing and capping the landfill to try to stop or minimize seepage. Groundwater monitoring equipment is used to take constant readings of the area's groundwater and determine if any seepage is occurring.

The special problems of groundwater, people's reliance on it, and the laws passed to protect it all have contributed to the growing need for groundwater professionals. Groundwater work is part of the water quality management segment of the environmental industry, which accounts for about one-quarter of all spending on the environment.

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