More than half of the mass of the human body is water and a typical adult will die of dehydration without water after only a few days, far sooner than they would die of starvation. This makes fresh water pretty important to humans, as it is to most other life on planet earth. That “fresh” is a critical component; even though the Earth is covered mostly by water, the vast majority is salt water and unfit for use by many living things, including humans. Generally speaking, there are two major sources for water that you or I may consume in a given day – surface water and groundwater.
I’m based in Northeast Ohio (NEO), where we are graced with more than enough surface water to fill our needs, thanks to our proximity to Lake Erie (part of the Great Lakes, which together make up the largest surface freshwater source). While we may be lucky in NEO to have abundant, easily accessible water, that’s not the case for everyone. Instead, much of the world – including parts of Northeast Ohio – rely on groundwater, as it makes up 95% of liquid fresh water.
It’s easy to be reminded of the importance of surface water, because it truly is right there: we might drive passed ponds, rivers, or reservoirs on the way to and from work or school. Many threats to surface water are just as visible as the surface water itself. However, given the reliance of so many people on groundwater, it is important to take a bit of time to think about its role in our lives as well, which is the entire point of National Groundwater Awareness Week (March 6- 12 2016).
One major threat to groundwater is depletion, or simply running out of that supply of water. Because groundwater lies deep in the earth, under bedrock, it takes longer to recharge (or refill a pocket of groundwater) than surface water does. Unfortunately, we can’t just look and see a falling water level in groundwater reserves, like we can with surface water. This makes judging when a groundwater well may go dry very difficult, which makes wise use important to the sustainability of groundwater resources. Groundwater is also extremely difficult to clean up if it happens to become contaminated, making it important to prevent possible contamination before it occurs. Of course, having to dig a well to get to groundwater can be expensive and time consuming, as can maintaining that well over the course of its functional life, so conservation and responsible use of groundwater is economically important as well as being necessary to life.
In 2010, the United Nations recognized access to clean water as a human right. Although water is not specifically mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, without access to clean water, exercising rights that are spelled out is a bit difficult. The contamination of so many surface water sources, disproportional reliance on groundwater, the cost of obtaining groundwater, and the need for maintenance on wells make obtaining clean water today extremely cumbersome on the individual level, which is why so many more households are moving away from self-supplied water systems to public water systems. The privatization of these public water systems represents a distinct challenge to human rights and a direct threat to peoples’ health. Obviously, there needs to be considerable investment in maintaining our public water systems, as witnessed by Toledo, Ohio, and Detroit and Flint, Michigan especially, but the cost of this investment should not be seen as another reason to push for destructive neoliberal economic policies. Instead, these infrastructure needs would be best met with methods that have been tested and successful previously: large-scale public works projects that benefit the public good as well as the economy.
If you would like to learn more about the importance of groundwater and National Groundwater Awareness Week, please visit the National Ground Water Association’s website, by clicking here.
Dr. Lisa Regula Meyer is a biologist, teaching anatomy and physiology at The University of Akron and surveying herptiles for EnvironScience. Lisa has been active in Kent Environmental Council, Edible Kent, and other community organizations addressing sustainability in Northeast Ohio.