Improving Groundwater Monitoring In America

For almost a century, the United States has been collecting and processing
data about the state of the nation’s surface water. Lakes, rivers, streams,
and ponds are observed, measured and sampled to check for water quality,
contamination and water levels. From this data, a fairly robust picture of the
nation’s surface water can be had. Satellite imagery has made this task more
efficient enabling seasonal changes in water levels to be observed on a grand
scale. Without diminishing the value of these efforts, one critical area of water
monitoring has been left behind.

Groundwater, which makes up a significant amount of the fresh water on the
planet, is more difficult to measure and understand than surface water. The
obvious issue is visibility, while it is readily apparent to even a casual observer
when a lake level begins to drop; the same is not true of a ground water aquifer.
To appropriately measure and sample ground water, monitoring wells must be drilled
and water extracted from those wells.

Until 2009, this monitoring effort was left squarely in the hands of the states.
Some states, like California, New York and Ohio have had extensive groundwater
monitoring networks containing hundreds of wells that are sampled yearly – some
even more often than that. Other states had minimal monitoring systems that
were comprised of only a handful of wells; still other states, like Massachusetts
had no program in place, at all. In fact, as of 2007, a total of 11 states have no
state or regional monitoring program. With the passage of the
SECURE Water Act of 2009, the US Congress is seeking to eliminate that disparity.

Water level and aquifer health monitoring

Among other its other aspects, the SECURE Water Act directs the United States
Geological Survey (USGS) to pull together the data from monitoring sites
nationwide. The USGS will take the data from the states that are already
actively monitoring their groundwater and incorporate this into a national
database. Additionally, the USGS offer grants to states and will teach best
practices for groundwater monitoring, thereby ensuring a national standard for
monitoring and reporting. Using the data that it collects from the states, the
USGS will build a model of the nation’s groundwater supply.

Specifically, the bill directs the USGS to do the following:

  • Work with federal, state, and local entities to implement a systematic groundwater
    monitoring program for major aquifer systems in the United States and to support
    the Groundwater Climate Response Network
  • Work with appropriate state and local entities to conduct a study
    identifying significant brackish aquifers in the United States
  • Implement a National Water Use and Availability Assessment Program
    to provide better information on the water resources in the United States;
    identify trends in use and availability; and help forecast water availability
    for future needs
  • Maintain a national inventory on water and provide grants to states
    to enable locally generated data to be integrated with national data sets.

The model that will be constructed from the data is expected to show what effects
seasonal variations in rainfall have on the aquifer, how long it takes water to migrate
from the surface to the aquifer in various regions of the country, and what
contaminants might be present in the groundwater. Beyond this, the model
will help regional planners understand if water is being diverted or consumed
faster than it can be replenished. This task is critical to water planning and
management and, while relatively easy to accomplish at a reservoir or
single-well field, it becomes significantly more complex when it is applied to an
area such as the Colorado River Basin in the southwestern United States.

While citizens can certainly take advantage of the information that will be available
in the USGS database, another more-practical outcome will be that many individual
home owners and farm owners can start to understand the health of the aquifer
they use every day. A significant portion of the nation’s homes and even more of its
farms are supplied with water coming from individual wells. These wells are
independently maintained by the property owner and have no requirement for
monitoring. By utilizing the anticipated USGS information, these individual
landowners can better understand how their well level might fluctuate over
time and what, if any, contamination might be present. This information should
lead to better decision making on all levels.

For a better understanding of the United States ground water monitoring efforts,
please visit the National Groundwater Association at http://www.ngwa.org/ and examine
the results of their 2007 survey of the states. The survey is available
at https://info.ngwa.org/ga/Form5.pdf