Improving Groundwater Monitoring In America

For almost a century, the United States has been collecting and processing
data about the state of the nation’s surface water. Lakes, rivers, streams,
and ponds are observed, measured and sampled to check for water quality,
contamination and water levels. From this data, a fairly robust picture of the
nation’s surface water can be had. Satellite imagery has made this task more
efficient enabling seasonal changes in water levels to be observed on a grand
scale. Without diminishing the value of these efforts, one critical area of water
monitoring has been left behind.

Groundwater, which makes up a significant amount of the fresh water on the
planet, is more difficult to measure and understand than surface water. The
obvious issue is visibility, while it is readily apparent to even a casual observer
when a lake level begins to drop; the same is not true of a ground water aquifer.
To appropriately measure and sample ground water, monitoring wells must be drilled
and water extracted from those wells.

Until 2009, this monitoring effort was left squarely in the hands of the states.
Some states, like California, New York and Ohio have had extensive groundwater
monitoring networks containing hundreds of wells that are sampled yearly – some
even more often than that. Other states had minimal monitoring systems that
were comprised of only a handful of wells; still other states, like Massachusetts
had no program in place, at all. In fact, as of 2007, a total of 11 states have no
state or regional monitoring program. With the passage of the
SECURE Water Act of 2009, the US Congress is seeking to eliminate that disparity.

Water level and aquifer health monitoring

Among other its other aspects, the SECURE Water Act directs the United States
Geological Survey (USGS) to pull together the data from monitoring sites
nationwide. The USGS will take the data from the states that are already
actively monitoring their groundwater and incorporate this into a national
database. Additionally, the USGS offer grants to states and will teach best
practices for groundwater monitoring, thereby ensuring a national standard for
monitoring and reporting. Using the data that it collects from the states, the
USGS will build a model of the nation’s groundwater supply.

Specifically, the bill directs the USGS to do the following:

  • Work with federal, state, and local entities to implement a systematic groundwater
    monitoring program for major aquifer systems in the United States and to support
    the Groundwater Climate Response Network
  • Work with appropriate state and local entities to conduct a study
    identifying significant brackish aquifers in the United States
  • Implement a National Water Use and Availability Assessment Program
    to provide better information on the water resources in the United States;
    identify trends in use and availability; and help forecast water availability
    for future needs
  • Maintain a national inventory on water and provide grants to states
    to enable locally generated data to be integrated with national data sets.

The model that will be constructed from the data is expected to show what effects
seasonal variations in rainfall have on the aquifer, how long it takes water to migrate
from the surface to the aquifer in various regions of the country, and what
contaminants might be present in the groundwater. Beyond this, the model
will help regional planners understand if water is being diverted or consumed
faster than it can be replenished. This task is critical to water planning and
management and, while relatively easy to accomplish at a reservoir or
single-well field, it becomes significantly more complex when it is applied to an
area such as the Colorado River Basin in the southwestern United States.

While citizens can certainly take advantage of the information that will be available
in the USGS database, another more-practical outcome will be that many individual
home owners and farm owners can start to understand the health of the aquifer
they use every day. A significant portion of the nation’s homes and even more of its
farms are supplied with water coming from individual wells. These wells are
independently maintained by the property owner and have no requirement for
monitoring. By utilizing the anticipated USGS information, these individual
landowners can better understand how their well level might fluctuate over
time and what, if any, contamination might be present. This information should
lead to better decision making on all levels.

For a better understanding of the United States ground water monitoring efforts,
please visit the National Groundwater Association at and examine
the results of their 2007 survey of the states. The survey is available

American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, ’09

American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, ’09 – H2bid’s Overview

A great deal of publicity has been focused on the American Recovery and
Reinvestment Act of 2009 or the “Stimulus” bill as it is more popularly known.
Chief among its priorities, the stimulus was aimed at jump starting an economic
recovery in the United States; similar to other government efforts worldwide,
the plan aimed to begin work on a number of domestic initiatives that could put
large numbers of people to work. Among the spending priorities was water and
sewer infrastructure. This article will examine the funding allocated in the stimulus
plan targeted at water and sewer system upgrades, repairs and new construction,
seeking to understand how much of the total program will go toward these projects,
when it is likely to be spent and how.

A scan of the bill reveals that of the $787 billion (US) total, over $6.8 billion is
earmarked for water or sewer projects . Additionally, there are earmarks for the
US Army Corp of Engineers totaling over $4 billion and earmarks for the
Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture; these
three agencies have typically had a role in water conservation, diversion and
ecology efforts, so it is safe to assume that the overall spending will be well
above the $6.8 billion baseline. Some estimates have put the total as high as
$19 billion, but details supporting this sum were not found during research for this
article .
Water Spending

Further complicating the matter of arriving at a total for water projects is that
some of the money in the bill was allocated to states to use at their own
discretion – within appropriate spending guidelines, of course. Many of these
state grants are intended to put people to work while addressing infrastructure
needs simultaneously. For that reason, many projects were selected because
they were “shovel ready”, a term meaning that the planning phases are complete
and the physical work can begin as soon as funding permits. These projects range
from highway and bridge repair to energy infrastructure and, of course, water and
sewer system upgrades and repair .

While the stimulus monies are slated to be spent over the next 10 years, however
the vast majority of the funds are scheduled to be spent in the next four years.
In fact approximately $599 billion of the $787 billion total is projected to have
been spent by 2012. The two main drivers behind this rapid spending pace are
a desire to jumpstart the US economy and, to be certain, politics; 2012 is the
next major election year. While that may seem cynical, it is, in fact, a highly
practical motivator. Politicians who desire re-election want to make certain that
the economy recovers on their watch.

Stimulus Over Time

Total Stimulus

There has been a certain degree of controversy over which projects were funded.
Some have argued that the hardest hit areas of the United States, that is those
who have lost the most jobs in the current recession and those areas which have
a chronically higher unemployment rate, should have a greater share of the stimulus
monies. In fact, the “shovel ready” concept works against these areas. In previous
eras, it may have been possible to start construction on a new road or begin to lay
new sewer pipe quickly but ask any city or regional planner and they will tell you
that there is a significant amount of work that must happen prior to the first shovel
touching the earth. Most modern projects require significant up-front planning
including traffic studies, environmental impact studies as well as detail design and
drafting of the project and site, among others. When this is taken into account,
it is understandable that the cities and states in the worst financial shape going
into the recession would be the ones who were least situated to have completed
all of the up-front work needed to have a long list of “shovel ready” projects.

Though some agencies such as the Department of Energy have had to come up
with new ways to contract projects, it appears that most of the water infrastructure
work will pass through traditional bid-contract scenarios. The states will contract
directly in most cases, though some projects will be funded through the US
Department of the Interior, in particular those that relate to drinking and waste
water upgrades on Native American reservations.

Remember that is an excellent source for notices relating to
these and other projects!