Ecoscience: Pollution Problems With World Groundwater Supplies

One of the most crucial "public service" functions of Earth's ecosystems is the provision of the fresh groundwater needed for agriculture, industrial processes, drinking, and other domestic uses.


Paul Ehrlich (Bing Professor of Population Studies and Professor of Biological Sciences, Stanford University) and Anne Ehrlich (Senior Research Associate, Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford) are familiar names to ecologists and environmentalists everywhere.


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The Ecoscience column focuses on pollution problems with world groundwater supplies and the hazards posed by acid rains. 

Paul Ehrlich (Bing Professor of Population Studies and Professor of Biological Sciences, Stanford University) and Anne Ehrlich (Senior Research Associate, Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford) are familiar names to ecologists and environmentalists everywhere. But while most folks are aware of the Ehrlichs' popular writing in the areas of ecology and overpopulation (most of us—for instance—have read Paul's book The Population Bomb) . . . few people have any idea of how deeply the Ehrlichs are involved in ecological research (the type that tends to be published only in technical journals and college texts). That's why we're pleased to present this regular semi-technical column by these well-known authors/ecologists/educators.  


One of the most crucial "public service" functions of Earth's ecosystems (in the eyes of humanity, at any rate) is the provision of the fresh water needed for agriculture, industrial processes, drinking, and other domestic uses . . . and the amount of the precious liquid that these systems circulate is truly colossal! Something on the order of 27,000 cubic miles of fresh water fall on our planet's land surface annually, and about 15,000 of them are subject to direct evaporation or are returned to the atmosphere through the action of plants. The other 12,000 cubic miles flow over and through the land to the ocean, and the cycle is completed by the winds that carry 12,000 cubic miles of moisture, evaporated from the oceans, back to the land.

The freshwater flow to the oceans amounts to over 2.5 million gallons for every man, woman, and child in the human population. And as large as the flows of fresh water are, the stocks are immensely greater. One estimate suggests that the volume of groundwater—that is, the water in saturated soil or rock formations that supplies springs and wells—may be about 50 times the annual surface flow. (In the United States, this would amount to a volume about four times that of the Great Lakes.)


How, then, can there possibly be any difficulty in supplying all the water needs of humanity? Why do we continually hear warnings of shortages? And why does the United Nations strive to call world attention to the problem of providing people with enough pure water?

Well, the answer to such questions has several parts. First, the freshwater supplies are not distributed evenly over the continents . . . nor are human needs. Indeed, in the United States we seem—perversely—to be creating more and more "need" in areas already short of water.

Second, much of the freshwater runoff is not readily available for human use. For example, considerable water flows beneath the land surface to the oceans. More obviously, rivers and streams are subject to fluctuation—seasonally and from year to year—in the amount of water they carry. And the water dependably available to society cannot exceed the flow in a river during the driest seasons and years.

Third, humanity has found an appalling number of ways to pollute fresh water, to the point that much of the liquid is no longer healthful or attractive to drink . . . or even safe to use in agriculture!

In this column and in the one that will appear in MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 79, we'll examine two interrelated aspects of humanity's water problems: the pollution and exhaustion of groundwater, and the hazards posed by acid rains.


For most of human history, the high quality of groundwater supplies was taken for granted . . . indeed, the image of water gushing from an artesian well has long been used as a symbol of aqueous purity. Gradually, though, that picture has lost its beauty. The fact is that in parts of the Midwest and California, over-use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers has already led to nitrate pollution that seriously affects infants who drink water from wells.

'Furthermore, in the Northeast, wells have had to be closed because salt, spread on the highways as a de-icing agent, was infiltrating groundwater. And all over the nation, wells have been shut down because of contamination by human wastes leaking from sewers and defective septic tanks.

Even more serious than contamination by "conventional" substances has been the fouling of groundwater with synthetic organic chemicals. This pollution comes from diverse sources, including the misuse of pesticides. The vast majority of it, though, is a result of the improper disposal of some of the more than 50 million tons of hazardous industrial wastes that America generates annually.

For example, employees of Grumman Aircraft's factory in Bethpage, Long Island complained, in late 1976, about the unpleasant taste of the plant's drinking water. Investigators found that it contained 50 to 200 parts per billion of a known carcinogen (cancer-causing substance) called vinyl chloride. They also discovered that the firm at fault was not Grumman, but the Hooker Chemical Company—located a mile and a half away—which had been pumping toxic wastes into the earth for almost 20 years. Because groundwater typically moves only a few tens of feet per year, it had taken nearly two decades for the poison to reach the Grumman plant.


As you probably know, Hooker was also implicated, a year or two later, in the Love Canal disaster in Niagara Falls, New York. Following a period of heavy rains, hazardous wastes from a Hooker dump traveled through groundwater into the basements of nearby homes. Over 80 substances were identified, including 11 suspected or actual carcinogens. Worse still, one of the chemicals, dioxin, not only is capable of causing cancer, but is also our most deadly synthetic compound . . . being 100 times more lethal than strychnine.

The Love Canal disaster caused the evacuation of hundreds of families . . . the dropping of local housing values to zero . . . and a cost to the state and federal governments (for cleanup, relocation of residents, and associated expenses) of more than $36 million by May 1980! Hooker is now being sued by the United States for a $45 million trust fund, which would be used to guarantee adequate cleanup. (Ironically, the estimated cost of proper disposal of the wastes in the first place would have been less than $2 million.)


Sadly, the entire United States is dotted with potential Love Canals: There are, by government count, something on the order of 50,000 such toxic dumps. And each of them is an environmental bomb with a delayed-action fuse, since the toxic "plumes" generated in groundwater are slow-moving ... expensive to detect (numerous wells must be dug) . . . and virtually impossible to remove. The more we look for such contamination, though, the more we discover. For example, in a 1977 study of 50 separate sites, toxic substances were found to be entering into and moving through groundwater in almost all of them.

And as if it weren't bad enough that the nation's groundwater is being irreversibly poisoned, America is rapidly taking steps to reduce the quantities of groundwater available in many areas, as well. One cause is overpumping, which can result in the collapse of water-bearing formations (aquifers) in the earth, reducing their capacity to hold groundwater.

Overpumping also can allow seawater to invade aquifers, as it has in south Florida. And, most spectacularly, the same practice can cause the land itself to sink as emptying aquifers collapse. In Winter Park, Florida in May 1981, a whole city block disappeared into a rapidly developing "sinkhole" 400 feet across and 125 feet deep. And that was just one of the eight major land collapses that occurred in Florida early that year.

Perhaps less dramatic but still shocking is the fact that the city of Houston has dropped a full five feet (making it more vulnerable to flooding) and Tucson seven feet .. . in both cases, because the aquifers beneath the city have been largely pumped out. Even the enormous Ogallala aquifer that underlies the Great Plains of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, and South Dakota is being drained at a rapid rate. In fact, the depletion is so fast and obvious that crackpot schemes are being suggested to pipe water from the already polluted, gradually drying Mississippi River to replenish the Ogallala!


But pollution and overuse are only two of the three major ways in which the United States is assaulting its previous groundwater supplies. The third form of attack is through the destruction of the natural ecosystems that recharge these reserves. The classic example involves the extensive aquifers underlying Long Island . . . which depend, for their recharge, on the pine-barren ecosystem that once covered most of the island. The thin, sandy soil of the barrens supports a unique population of flora and fauna, which—in turn—help maintain the soil . . . and the uncompacted earth allows rainwater to filter through to the aquifer.

However, starting with Levittown in 1947, more and more of the pine-barren ecosystem has been bulldozed away to make room for housing developments, freeways, factories, and other "improvements". As a result, the' recharge area of Long Island's once pristine supply of groundwater has been progressively reduced. This, in combination with diverse sources of pollution, may well have doomed Long Island's only source of potable water.

Unfortunately, the phrase "out of sight, out of mind" applies all too often to ground-water supplies. State and local governments—up and down the East Coast should be forbidding further development of remaining virgin lands . . . in order to protect recharge areas. But the question of whether the Long Island lesson will be heeded is, as yet, unanswered. Even on the island itself, where the handwriting is on the wall, the forces of development are still on the march.


The short-term solutions to America's ground-water problems are easy to specify: [1] the strictest control (with strong enforcement and heavy penalties for violators) of all localized sources of pollution . . . [2] the institution of water conservation measures, with special emphasis on reducing waste in irrigation . . . and [3] the absolute protection from development of essential recharge areas (water conservation being just one of the many reasons why no more virgin lands in the United States should be destroyed).

The long-term solutions are equally obvious. The population and per capita water consumption of the country must be reduced to a level where the carrying capacity of the nation is not—as is the case today—exceeded. Impractical as this may seem. in an era of "Reagonomics" and unfettered growthmania, a long-term solution is essential, because—as will be seen in our next column—even the strictest application of the short-term measures probably won't be able to protect our water indefinitely.

Basic sources of information about groundwater pollution are the annual reports of the Council on Environmental Quality and the CEQ's 1981 study, Contamination of Groundwater by Toxic Organic Chemicals. A fine overview of the Long Island situation can be found in Joyce Egginton's "The Long Island Lesson" (Audubon magazine, July 1981). The Love Canal affair is detailed in Michael Brown's excellent Laying Waste: The Poisoning of America With Toxic Chemicals (Pantheon, 1979, $3.50). The "public service" functions of ecosystems are outlined in Chapter 5 of Paul and Anne Ehrlich's Extinction: The Causes and Consequences of the Extinction of Species (Random House, 1981, $14.95).  

From January 23 to February 6, 1983 Anne and Paul Ehrlich, and their friends and colleagues John and Cheryl Holdren, will join MOTHER for an educational South Pacific Seminar on the islands of Tahiti, Bora Bora, Rangiroa, and Huahine. For information on this and other tours, turn to page 70 in this issue.