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5 things we learned about groundwater

This week’s Frontiers talk featured Kate Brauman, lead scientist with IonE’s Global Water Initiative, and a panel of experts providing perspectives on the current state of groundwater resources. Joining her was Perry Jones, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey; Steve Polasky, IonE resident fellow, The Natural Capital Project lead, and professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences; and Sherry Enzler, general counsel for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Here are five things we learned:

1. Water is essential. This certainly isn’t a new idea, but its always good to have a reminder. The reason water use is such a big issue is that we rely on water so heavily for multiple purposes, including hydration, agricultural irrigation and even power generation. In Minnesota, we traditionally have relied on surface water and operated from a paradigm of abundance. A growing dependence on groundwater in recent years has brought new questions and conflicts.

2. We don’t really know where we are. Surface water is visible, but groundwater has the extra challenge of being out of sight. Despite impressive improvements in monitoring technology, we still don’t have a very clear idea about the current state of groundwater, including the size of the total groundwater supply. And, although we know groundwater and surface water are interconnected, we don’t always know how, so sometimes using one can have unexpected consequences for the other.

3. There is a disconnect between use and best use. Groundwater issues should really be categorized into two separate questions: “How are we using our groundwater?” and “How should we be using it?” While the answers to these two questions are ideally the same, we know this is probably not the case. Moving forward, we need to think about how to bridge this gap.

4. Minnesota has taken steps, but the system is still imperfect. The state’s water sustainability guidelines include preventing harm to ecosystems, not degrading water quality and making sure future generations are able to meet their own needs. Within the DNR, the department responsible for permitting groundwater use processes have switched to looking at the cumulative impacts against groundwater, a promising step for promoting sustainability.

5. We may or may not be having a water crisis. This brings us back to the big question posed at the beginning of the talk: Is drawing down our aquifers really so bad? Well, that depends. Just as Minnesota’s water challenges are not the same as those facing California, there is no unified water crisis. Some places face tensions between supply and demand, while others have lots of water but lack appropriate quality. Our job is to keep monitoring our systems and make the most informed decisions possible.

Photo by Benjamin Jakabek (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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