Aquifer Depletion: Part 2, Pragmatic Approaches

Fears of groundwater depletion have led to some desperate plans.  The Biscayne aquifer serves millions in Florida, but it is rapidly depleting.  Pembrooke Pines planned to accelerate Biscayne’s replenishment by injecting treated sewage deep into the aquifer instead of the traditional approach which allows treated sewage to trickle from wetlands, lakes and fields into the aquifer over many years during which the wastewater is further treated by natural bacteria.   

When underground water near the surface is depleted, sink holes can develop.   Sinkholes occur naturally although they may be hastened by unusually aggressive pumping of underground water.  State laws can compound the community’s problem by encouraging lawyers to troll for potential sinkhole claimants, passing cash award and litigation costs onto insurance companies and in turn onto the rest of the community – in effect increasing sinkhole costs by 50%.

The main groundwater challenges before us are twofold:  we need to balance withdrawal and replacement; and we need to control contamination.   Ideally we would assign the burden of corrective measures onto those who cause the problem.  

Man-made contamination of surface and groundwater by industry is sometimes monitored and corrected by agencies such as the EPA.  Reasonable standards for effluent water quality and for enforcement of remedies should become widespread.  Residential wastewater contamination should be monitored and corrected with equal vigor to that exerted on industry.  There seems to be widespread public support for actions that crack down on water “pollution.”  If motivation is needed it should be as consequential costs levied on the problem causers.  Those costs should not be absorbed into the public purse as another “entitlement.” 

The more difficult problem pertains to balancing the withdrawal and replacement of groundwater (at least equal in purity).  Perhaps the goal should include both groundwater and surface water, although surface water is subject to very substantial evaporation losses diffusing the benefits into rain and snow elsewhere.  Making agricultural water use more efficient is a likely candidate for improvements.   Perhaps we need to make a more careful study of Pembrooke Pines’ sewage infusion ideas.  Perhaps there really is a way to capture and “mine” the fresh water from an iceberg.   Perhaps deepening lakes would cut back on percentage evaporation losses.   Perhaps there is a cost-efficient infrastructure for agricultural, industrial, and landscape uses of “gray water.”  Perhaps ideas like Coca Cola’s “the water project” can be expanded.  Doubtless, other creative ideas are worth exploring.

We probably don’t yet have technologies that alleviate our need for massive quantities of fresh water, so we don’t have the freedom to ignore these challenges.  The US has the technical talent to address these challenges and we have some time for the solutions to bear fruit.  What we don’t need are single-issue harpies who hijack our attention into their blame game.

Alan Daley is a retired businessman living in Florida who follows public policy from a consumer’s perspective.