Graphic from UN-Water
For quite a while, there has been concerns about groundwater levels. Recently, it seems that the conversation has become even more heightened. In some locations, groundwater levels are too low, stressing supplies of drinking water and irrigation. In other places groundwater levels are too high, damaging infrastructure and threatening contamination. Climate change affects rain and weather patterns and is considered a major driver of these levels. What can be done? How can conservation help? Let’s discuss and see what role The Conservation Foundation plays.
Groundwater is water found underground in the cracks and spaces in soil, sand, and bedrock (most of our bedrock here is limestone, and sandstone appears near the Starved Rock area). Groundwater is held in aquifers, which are permeable water-bearing rock and/or sediment. Groundwater can be extracted through wells or bubbles up naturally through a spring, or is discharged into lakes or streams.
Groundwater is the source of drinking water for half of Illinois residents, including most of its rural residents.
The water from rain and melting snow that infiltrates the soil and is not taken up by plants or flows away as runoff, soaks underground saturating soil and rock. This is called groundwater. Because groundwater comes mostly from precipitation that falls locally, the water table may fluctuate several feet each year due to seasonal changes, droughts, and periods of heavy rain.
Under the force of gravity, groundwater generally moves from higher to lower elevations, through the connected pores and crevices of rocks and sediments, until it discharges to a stream, spring, or pumping well.
Once discharged into a stream, the water begins its journey at the surface. In Illinois, surface water and groundwater flow to the Mississippi River and then to the Gulf of Mexico. During its journey, water evaporates, eventually forming clouds, rain… and the cycle begins again. This is called the water cycle.
Groundwater in Flux
As Earth warms, groundwater – long seen as an immutable resource – is in flux. Most often, climate change is associated with a decrease in groundwater, fueled by worsening drought and evaporative demand. Over the years, several municipalities have requested Lake Michigan water because their groundwater wells are drying up. In 2016, the city of Waukesha, Wisconsin requested Lake Michigan water to address high levels of naturally occurring radium in its groundwater supply. The city was the first community in the country to get a water diversion approved under the Great Lakes Compact. Also in 2016, due to objections of Great Lakes governors and citizens, a permit to export water wholesale from the Great Lakes to Asia was revoked.
But in some areas, this water is creeping higher, thanks to rising sea levels and more intense rainfall, bringing a surge of problems for which few communities are prepared.
Places in the United States where the water table is inching higher – along the coasts, but also inland in parts of the Midwest – are already beginning to experience problems with infrastructure. Cracks in aging and poorly maintained pipes are leaving plumbing unable to carry away stormwater and waste. Pavement is degrading faster. Trees are drowning as the soil becomes soupier, starving their roots of oxygen. During high tides and when it rains, groundwater is even reaching the surface and forming temporary ponds where there never used to be flooding. Near saltwater coastal areas, fresh groundwater can be infiltrated with salt water and become non-drinkable.
Mostly human-caused climate change is a major driver of this depletion and rising phenomena. Depletion is caused by the reduction of the snowpack that flows into rivers and leaves groundwater to make up the deficit for watering lawns and crops – which already requires additional water as temperatures spike. Rising levels are caused by the melting of ice sheets and glaciers as well as by the thermal expansion of seawater as it warms.
Groundwater, Conservation, and The Conservation Foundation
These issues can be addressed by groundwater conservation as well as climate mitigation efforts. Recognizing that conservation in general helps with climate mitigation efforts, conservation can specifically help with groundwater conservation. Groundwater conservation is the practice of preventing and repairing damage from water clogging and depletion.
Ways to conserve groundwater include:
- Store rainwater in rain barrels
- Use watertight materials
- Collect leachate with drains
- Safely store, handle, and use chemicals and fuels
- Use fewer chemicals around your home and yard
- Consider replacing chemicals with more environmentally friendly options
- Use native plants in your landscape
Along with protecting open space, The Conservation Foundation helps with all these efforts and spearheading the use of native plants.
Our entire Conservation@Home
program is the best example. It addresses biodiversity, stormwater, water quality and water conservation, habitat, and pollinators, as well as connecting people to nature right in their yards. We talk a lot about how native plants and native landscapes have deep roots that allow water to soak back down and replenish the groundwater.
C@H is the ultimate everyone-can-do-something program! It starts with you making some earth-conscious choices in your home landscape design. Replace some turf grass with beautiful and drought-resistant native plants, maybe install a rain barrel or two and reduce or eliminate your chemical use. We’d be happy to offer some advice along the way, free of charge.
In addition to C@H, The Conservation Foundation is either involved or supports numerous watershed workgroups working to improve water quality.
And as part of its ongoing efforts to take advantage of the latest technologies, The Conservation Foundation is investigating the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to predict levels and identify where to focus efforts.
So how can you contribute to conservation efforts that help with groundwater? Well, water conservation is something The Conservation Foundation does every day in every season – winter, spring, summer, and fall – and they have been doing that for more than 50 years. We can all do more together than we can alone. Join our collective momentum – become a member today
By Steve Stawarz, Oak Brook
DuPage County Advisory Council Member