Grossmann: “Clear Gold” – Aquifers, Promise and Hope

10 October 2013

Groundwater made the news in September.  Rather, groundwater made the news under its more technical (and more fashionable) name, “aquifer.”  The month’s news included the discovery of huge aquifers in Kenya, and the release of a report with a conservation plan for a North American aquifer.

Of course, groundwater isn’t just useful.  It’s essential to irrigation.  And irrigation, in turn, is essential to agricultural production.  Still, discovering an aquifer isn’t the same as discovering oil or gold — or is it?  In North America, “fields” covered with wells continuously pump, not oil out of underground “domes,” but water out of “aquifers.”

This water is used to irrigate other “fields” — the great agricultural fields of Middle America.  If you take a long look at how groundwater is “extracted” from the earth, you have to wonder if plain old “water” needs a media face-lift.  Oil was once called “black gold.”  So, some have suggested that water should be called, “clear gold.”

In September of 2013, five enormous aquifers were discovered in Kenya’s Turkana County.  The discovery was reported by a firm specializing in natural resource exploration, Radar Technologies International, working in the African nation under the sponsorship of UNESCO, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

All of the aquifers were discovered through advanced satellite technology.  Two of the five have been confirmed by drilling with the other three scheduled for drilling confirmation.  The exact size of the find is unknown.  Of the five, the two confirmed aquifers, the Lodwar and Lotikipi Basin Aquifers, are believed to be enormous.  The Lotikipi Basin Aquifer, alone, is estimated to be the size of the state of Rhode Island.  In terms of volume, these aquifers should contain about 66 trillion gallons of water.  That’s equivalent to Kenya’s normal rainfall for the next 73 years.

Why the celebration?  Turkana County has been long plagued by drought.  In fact, according to UNESCO, of Kenya’s 41 million people, 17 million lack access to enough safe drinking water, while 28 million are without adequate sanitation.  In the past, even violence has erupted among competing agricultural users over the nation’s previously scarce water supply.  In Kenya, the discovery of so much fresh water changes everything. With this single, amazing discovery, the course of Kenya’s future has suddenly taken a promising turn.  If the nation were a person, finding these aquifers would be like winning a multimillion-dollar lottery jackpot.

Judi Wakhungu, Kenya’s Secretary for the Environment, Water and Natural Resources, explained that the discovery “opens a door to a more prosperous future” for the African nation.  Clean, safe drinking water will promote greater health.  Sufficient water for raising livestock and irrigation of crops will lead to relief from malnutrition.  So, there is something almost miraculous about the discovery.  A population with the greatest need suddenly discovers an unsuspected abundance right under their feet.

Secretary Judi Wakhungu also added that, “We must now work to further explore these resources responsibly and safeguard them for future generations.”  A wise direction to take considering the increasing awareness that, no matter how big or how deep, no reservoir is bottomless.

On a continent far from Kenya, many wells, covering many fields, continuously pump groundwater up out of a massive aquifer.  The Great Plains Aquifer of North America covers a vast area including portions of eight states in the Midwestern United States.  The aquifer bears the formal name, “Ogallala,” (perhaps in honor of the Native American tribe, the Ogallala Sioux).  This vast aquifer provides 30% of all water for irrigation in the United States in addition to providing water for residential uses.  That’s a lot of water.

Researchers from Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, conducted a four-year study of the Ogallala aquifer published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  No one was surprised that more water is coming out than is going in.  In 1960, the aquifer’s water reserves had declined only 3% as a result of systematic use.  However, by 2010, the reserves had declined by 30 %.  And, with projected usage, a 69% decline would be expected by 2060.

The study’s lead researcher, David Steward, a professor of civil engineering at Kansas State University, explained that the great aquifer’s water reserves are declining, but no one can be certain how long the water will last.  If the aquifer is to remain a continuing source of water, pumping rates must be reduced.  The goal of the conservation plan is simple.  Use the least water possible.  And, use that water as efficiently as possible.

The researchers developed statistical models to project and describe possible patterns of water depletion over the next century.  As Stewart explained, “The main idea is that if we’re able to save water today, it will result in a substantial increase in the number of years that we will have irrigated agriculture in Kansas.”

Steward and his colleagues anticipate future technologies will help farmers irrigate their land more efficiently.  There is reason for optimism.  Through the use of “increased irrigation technology, crop genetics and management strategies,” Steward explained, “water use efficiencies have increased by about 2 percent a year in Kansas, which means that every year we’re growing about 2 percent more crop for each unit of water.”  Looking at their 100 year model, they believe that, with consistent improvements in water use strategies, it may be possible to continue to use the aquifer’s water and increase net agricultural production through the next century and, perhaps, beyond.

However, for both Kansas and Kenya, the future depends on what is done in the present.  As Secretary Wakhungu explained, Kenya’s challenge goes beyond the efficient use and management of the newly discovered reserves.  Vigilance is required to protect those reserves from unscrupulous and potentially destructive economic exploitation, which could rob the nation’s citizens of the full benefits of this amazingly abundant groundwater.

In Kansas, conservation efforts are needed to protect their aquifer from depletion. Serious mismanagement could do damage that would require a long time to fix.  According to Dave Steward, if tapped dry, a completely emptied Ogallala Aquifer would take 500 to 1,300 years to refill.  But the aquifer is far from empty and, with continued action to assure efficient use and management, the Ogallala may continue as a source of water for irrigation and residential use for the next 100 years and beyond.

Author’s Note: The University of Kansas report predicted that, without conservation efforts, 69% of the water in the Ogallala Aquifer would be used by 2060.  With conservation efforts, irrigation with the aquifer’s water could still be going strong, in 2110, along with increased agricultural production.  The report does not predict that the Ogallala Aquifer will run dry in by 2060 or 2110, although a remarkable number of articles seem to say that it does.

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