Dear EarthTalk: What is currently being done in the U.S. to ensure the wise use and safety of our nation’s groundwater?
— Kevin Orr, Baton Rouge, LA
Keeping fresh water safe and abundant is a challenge for all societies. In the U.S., about half of the country’s drinking water comes from groundwater sources. Many rural areas derive all of their drinking water from groundwater, which also provides 40 percent of the irrigation needs of American farmers. While underground aquifers may at one point have seemed limitless, huge demand for water (especially in arid areas like the Southwest) means that groundwater reserves are precious and need to be carefully managed with conservation in mind. Also, groundwater is easily contaminated by any number of common man-made products like gasoline, oil, road salts, pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals.
Management of specific water supplies is decentralized—local and regional water authorities manage supplies for municipalities and counties around the country—but oversight comes from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as mandated by the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. Enacted in 1972, the Clean Water Act addresses water pollution in general and requires everyone, but especially large water users including large industrial and agricultural operations, to deal with their water inflows and outflows in a responsible, non-polluting manner. Meanwhile, 1974’s Safe Drinking Water Act requires the EPA to set standards for drinking water quality that the 150,000 public water entities across the country must meet. Third party laboratories provide detailed analyses to ensure that local supplies live up to the EPA’s expectations. These laws work together to keep groundwater supplies safe, but environmentalists would like to see both strengthened substantially in the face of drought-inducing global warming and other threats.
While regulation and enforcement of industry and agriculture are important for protecting our limited groundwater supplies, consumers also must play a role. The Groundwater Foundation, a Nebraska-based non-profit working to educate people and inspire action to ensure sustainable, clean groundwater for future generations, suggests taking short showers, shutting off the faucet while brushing teeth and shaving, running full loads of dishes and laundry, checking for leaky faucets and getting them fixed, and watering plants and the lawn only when necessary. Likewise, the group advocates that consumers recycle used motor oils, limit the amount of fertilizer and pesticides used on plants, lawns and gardens, and generally reduce household chemical use. And leftover chemicals should be disposed of at hazardous waste collection sites (find one near you at earth911.com), not down the drain or into the gutter.
Another way to help is to initiate a Source Water Protection process, which involves locating local groundwater sources and identifying ways to protect and conserve them. Anyone interested in doing so can download the Groundwater Foundation’s free Source Water Assessment and Protection Workshop Guide, which has detailed information about a number of source water protection strategies and additional information on areas where the Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Water Act intersect. Funding for the guide was provided by the EPA’s Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water, which considers it a must-read for officials, policymakers and activists deliberating land use and water quality issues.