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Environmental Problems Associated With Groundwater

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  • 0:07 Groundwater Is Vulnerable
  • 0:58 Pollution
  • 2:00 Overdrawing
  • 3:17 Subsidence
  • 4:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Groundwater is an important natural resource, but like many of our other resources, it's affected by the surrounding environment and human activities. In this video lesson, you'll learn about some of the environmental problems associated with groundwater and why groundwater is especially vulnerable to them.

Groundwater Is Vulnerable

Groundwater is one of our most important natural resources. It provides us with much of the water that we use for drinking water, household uses, crop irrigation, and many other things. In fact, over 1/3 of Earth's population relies on groundwater for its needs, including 99% of the rural population in the U.S.

But, just because it's underground doesn't mean that groundwater is safe from many of the same environmental issues that surface water faces. In fact, being underground makes it more vulnerable to environmental issues because we can't easily access it for testing, regulating, and cleaning. Groundwater also moves around a lot, not only underground, but also as a source of discharge into Earth's streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans.

Pollution

Pollution is one of the main environmental issues that groundwater faces. Groundwater pollution comes from many sources, and this happens when harmful substances get into the soil. When it rains, water washes over the substances in the ground and carries them down into aquifers below, much like hot water does when you pour it over a filter full of coffee.

Agriculture pollutes groundwater as fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides soak into the ground. Nitrates from the fertilizers are especially dangerous in drinking water because they've been linked to various cancers, miscarriages, and birth defects. Manufacturing industries are also major culprits. There are often many different toxic chemicals involved in manufacturing the products that we use, and if not properly disposed of, they may leach into the ground, soaking down into the groundwater below. Underground storage tanks, like septic tanks, can also leak sewage waste, oil, and toxic chemicals into the ground.

Overdrawing

Groundwater can be depleted much faster than surface water because aquifers take a very long time to refill. Groundwater is pumped from wells for drinking water, but it's also pumped for large-scale uses like agricultural irrigation. This water is removed from the ground at a very fast rate and then moved to another location to water large areas of crops. The water doesn't get returned to the ground in the same place, so even as it slowly sinks back down into the soil, it doesn't go directly back into the aquifer it came from.

You can think of the world's aquifers like a bank account. You can take out as much as you like as long as you're making deposits that cover your withdrawals. Unfortunately, we're not depositing nearly as much water as we're withdrawing, so our account is quickly dwindling down to a dangerously low balance.

Overdrawing groundwater not only means that we may run out of water to pump, but it also allows saltwater to intrude into aquifers along coastal areas. Have you ever accidentally swallowed some sea water? Imagine that your aquifer has become salty from ocean water intruding. Still want to use it for your drinking water? Probably not!

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