by Colin Miner
A man irrigates his field with an electric water pump in Inida. Some experts argue that with diminishing supplies of groundwater around the world, changes are needed in how it is managed. Todd Jarvis, the associate director of the Institute for Water and Watersheds at Oregon State University, sees parallels between the planet’s dwindling oil supplies and groundwater depletion.
“Groundwater is the oil of this century,” Mr. Jarvis said at a water-use conference last week in Stevenson, Wash. “Much as we saw oil shortages grip the world, we are now seeing that with groundwater.”
Mr. Jarvis said the solution may come from studying how the world reacted to the crisis in the 1970s when the oil industry was thought to have reached its peak production.
“We are draining water from the aquifers faster than they can be replenished,” Mr Jarvis said. “The groundwater that supplies the drinking water for half the world’s population is now in jeopardy.”
Indeed, the United Nations devoted its 2003 World Environmental Day to the theme of water. “One person in six lives without regular access to safe drinking water,” United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Anan said at the time. “Over twice that number — 2.4 billion — lack access to adequate sanitation. Water-related diseases kill a child every eight seconds,” he said.
Meanwhile, a more recent report using NASA data indicated that farmers in India, scrambling to meet the nation’s food demands, have been taking water out of aquifers faster than they can be replenished.
For Mr. Jarvis, solutions lie in moving away from the traditional precedents for establishing water law.
“The race to the pump serves nobody,” he said, referring to standard practice that generally grants unlimited water rights to individual property owners who pull it up from underground stores beneath them — ignoring the fact that wells even miles apart are likely drawing from the same aquifer.
Mr. Jarvis and other advocates suggest following the oil industry’s lead and moving to a method where all property owners over an aquifer would run it cooperatively and agree to divide the costs and profits proportionately.
“It has worked with oil with companies, countries and people working together to make the resource last,” he said. “And it could work with groundwater.”