A recent investigation from The New York Times, using data from across the country, found the United States is “squandering” its vast supply of groundwater by using it too quickly.
The investigation focuses on areas including the Southwest, parts of Texas and California and, perhaps unexpectedly, Maryland. Monitoring wells show the water level is dropping across Maryland. The water is getting further away from the surface, meaning there’s less water underground than there used to be.
About 75% of the monitoring wells around Maryland have seen water levels drop over the last 40 years, some by as much as 100 feet, according to the Times investigation.
One area of the state seems to be of particular concern: rapidly growing Charles County.
“Most of the water we’re pulling out of the ground is thousands of years old,” Jason Groth, the county’s deputy director of planning and growth management, told The Times. He said the county would be out of groundwater within the decade.
Groth did not immediately respond to The Banner’s request for comment.
Although it sounds concerning, state officials and other experts say the investigation is not a cause for alarm.
“We do recognize that the article pointed out there are declining levels, but a declining level doesn’t mean it’s not sustainable. It just means that water is being used,” said Lee Currey, director of the Water and Science Administration at the Maryland Department of the Environment.
Officials regularly place monitoring wells in aquifers — a body of rock and/or sediment that holds groundwater — that are under stress, meaning the state is not “caught off guard” by the data in the Times story, Currey said. But there is not an imminent threat to Maryland’s supply.
”In Maryland, we’re not at risk of running out of water. I think that needs to be made clear first,” he said.
Joel Moore, a professor of geosciences at Towson University, agreed. He said there are some areas in Maryland where population growth and climate change might put more pressure on groundwater resources. But with some planning and adjustments, Moore said, the state can deal with those concerns.
“It’s certainly not a catastrophic kind of thing,” he said. “We are blessed with water [in Maryland]. Lack of water is not our issue, typically.”
A lot of Marylanders get their drinking water from surface sources, such as the Loch Raven Reservoir, and those refill much faster than underground aquifers do. According to the latest available information from the Maryland Geological Survey, about 2 million people in the state get their drinking water from groundwater. Mostly, they live in Maryland’s coastal plain, generally anywhere that’s east of I-95.
Underground, aquifers can spread for many square miles. However, that does not mean all water that hits the ground will soak into the earth and become groundwater. The area on the surface that water can infiltrate might be only a fraction of the size of the aquifer underground.
Groundwater in Maryland can be as “young” as a few days old, or it can be millions of years old, depending on where in the state it is and how far underground it is, according to the Maryland Geological Survey.
The state environmental department works with local jurisdictions — whether they use groundwater or surface water — to make sure the amount of water required for development does not outpace the available supply.
“We’re looking at the capacity of [Maryland’s aquifers]. We’re recognizing that the aquifers can withstand a certain amount of drawdown. ... We’re not letting it go past a point where we think it would create a sustainability problem,” Currey said.
Even in areas that seem dire when looking at current groundwater levels, such as Charles County, there are options, state officials and Moore said.
Currey acknowledged Charles County has seen greater decline than other areas of the state. But it’s an issue that officials are well aware of, and planning for.
“The county is also looking, long range, is there an opportunity to pull water that’s further downstream, saltier water, and use desalination as a process to bring in additional water?” Currey said. “That’s part of the process to ensure that we don’t run out of water.”
However, that could increase costs tenfold, according to the Times report.
Another solution could be drilling deeper into the ground to reach older aquifers, Moore said. Those, though, could have lower-quality water supplies and require additional treatment.
“To make a somewhat political analogy, it’s like Medicare or Social Security,” Moore said. “In some places there might be a problem on the horizon, but it’s one that, with some kind of planning and adjustments, it can be something we deal with.”