Ecoscience: Pollution Problems With World Groundwater Supplies

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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.

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


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

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

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


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

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
, 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
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.

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