Visualizing Respect for Groundwater

Like Rodney Dangerfield, groundwater gets no respect. So says Michael ‘Aquadoc' Campana. Groundwater is being depleted at an unsustainable rate and since many people don’t know where their water comes from they're not aware that this is a problem. Visualizing.org wants to change that with its latest data visualization contest, called HeadsUP.

In case you've never heard of Visualizing.org, they are a community of creative people working to make sense of complex issues through data and design. They've held contests to visualize data from such complex global topics as water footprinting, growing food consumption and food needs, even the future of Facebook. Now, they've announced a contest to create a visualization of groundwater trends. The winning entry will be prominently displayed on 19,000 square feet of signboard as a 30-second motion graphic on the TS2 signs in New York City’s Times Square for one month, beginning on March 22, 2012, World Water Day.

Contestant modelers can use data from either Leonard Konikow of the United States Geological Survey and/or James Famiglietti of the University of California Center for Hydrologic Modeling. Famiglietti’s research was recently featured in a NYTimes article and he’s a featured speaker in the forthcoming documentary about water, Last Call at the Oasis, produced by Participant Media. You might remember the production company from such films as An Inconvenient Truth, Food, Inc. and Waiting for Superman. It’s a good time to be Famiglietti.

So why should groundwater get a prominent space in Times Square? Because of all the billions and billions of gallons of water on our planet, only three percent is freshwater and, of that, a full 30.1 percent of freshwater is groundwater. Only 0.3 percent is surface water, yet it’s surface water that gets all the attention (the rest is locked away in glaciers and icecaps). Currently, groundwater withdrawals only account for 23 percent of all freshwater withdrawals. Clearly there is a big, relatively underused water resource sitting below our feet. As we struggle with surface water shortages, we will increasingly rely on groundwater to meet our water needs. This will be a blessing and a curse.

Groundwater contamination is a real and sometimes dire problem for people who rely on drinking water wells and live near a pollutant source. According to the EPA, “Approximately 15 percent of Americans rely on their own private drinking water supplies, and these supplies are not subject to EPA standards, although some state and local governments do set rules to protect users of these wells.” Groundwater contamination can come from a number of sources including storage tanks, septic systems, natural resource extraction, hazardous waste sites, landfills and the widespread use of road salts, fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals.

That lack of groundwater oversight extends to withdrawals as well, with no one entity regulating across the United States. This is problematic in arid areas like the southwest and especially in states like California where so much groundwater has been pumped that many parts of the Central Valley have reached a state of ‘overdraft' (think of writing too many checks without enough money in your checking account).

Famiglietti’s data set, obtained from the GRACE satellite (no relation to us) indicates that groundwater “is being pumped for irrigation at rates that are not sustainable if current trends continue…leading to declining water tables, water shortages, decreasing crop sizes and continued land subsidence.” These findings have major implications for the U.S. economy and agriculture.

Displaying a visualization of groundwater depletion in Times Square will have the multiple benefits of raising awareness about the topic and (hopefully) getting people to talk about why we all need to be smarter about how we manage groundwater. It may also help bring groundwater some national attention, giving water planners and policymakers a nudge to add it to their agendas more frequently. As populations soar and we face increasing pressures on freshwater, groundwater will increasingly become the go-to water source. It would be wise to start planning for this now.

Now that is how you show groundwater some much needed respect.

Update (Dec. 16, 2011): The winner as well as a couple of runner ups. Look for the display in Times Square on March 22, 2012.

Responses to "Visualizing Respect for Groundwater"

  1. Robin Madel

    Thanks for your comment Daniel. There is a great need for water managers to take both groundwater and surface water-on watershed-sized scales-into account when considering management of their resources. Further, data such as that obtained from the GRACE satellites point to a strong need for more integrated planning between water, energy and agriculture planners and managers.

  2. Daniel Collins

    In terms of the sustainability of groundwater resources, it’s not a matter of the volume of water present, it’s how fast that water is replenished by the water cycle. Groundwater moves and is replenished much more slowly than rivers. Pumping it up too fast, even if there’s a lot of it there, leads to depletion - Ogallala Aquifer, anyone? More water is in fact abstracted annually from rivers globally than is contained in them at any one time. While this doesn’t detract from groundwater’s importance and people’s ignorance of it, it is not as usable sustainably as you might think.

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