Unique proof of concept project could support sound water management around the world
It sounds like a straightforward concept, but coming up with a user-friendly way to represent the mechanism of how groundwater and surface water interact has proved to be difficult. So difficult, that it has never been satisfactorily done — until now.
This month a unique scientific reporting approach is being quietly announced to hydrological scientists and practitioners as an important proof of concept. The approach will drive an online map-based tool to clearly show how local groundwater availability is affected by new wells drilled in an area, and how surface water and groundwater interact.
The approach was jointly created by Victoria-based environmental tech firm, Foundry Spatial, and the research group of University of Victoria’s Tom Gleeson, a hydrogeologist in the civil engineering department and a world-leader in the study of groundwater sustainability.
“Most people think of Canada as a land of pristine lakes, rivers and glaciers. Groundwater, which exists everywhere under the surface of the land, is not usually considered, even though more than a quarter of Canadians rely on groundwater,” says Ben Kerr, CEO at Foundry Spatial.
“The approach we have developed allows users to explore the linkages between surface and groundwater supply and demand in a way that has never before been possible,” says Dr. Tom Gleeson.
Now, in mere seconds with just the click of a mouse, hydrological data is retrieved and presented, allowing users to:
- Click on a stream to see the current impacts on water flow from existing water withdrawals (e.g. water taken by industry, agriculture, communities, homesteaders, etc.);
- Click on an existing groundwater well to learn which streams are affected by the well;
- Click on the site of a proposed groundwater well site, enter a pumping rate, and see the impact on the local aquifer and nearby streams; and
- Click on an aquifer to see its current state.
Groundwater is present beneath the Earth’s surface in porous soil spaces and the fractures of rock formations. Such regions underground are called aquifers when they contain a usable quantity of water for people, livestock, industry, and the environment. Surface water, on the other hand, encompasses any body of water found above ground. That includes rivers, wetlands, reservoirs, creeks, streams, and lakes. Groundwater and surface water are hydrologically connected, meaning they affect and are affected by one another.
This past March, the Province of British Columbia replaced the Water Act with the Water Sustainability Act, a framework of policies and regulations aimed at caring for BC water resources. The new Act requires a significant amount of location-specific water information when applying for a water use licence. For the first time, users of BC groundwater for non-domestic purposes like irrigation, industry, water bottling, and municipal water systems require a water licence. Just like surface water users, these users must also pay fees and annual water rentals.
The joint Foundry Spatial-UVic research and development project was funded in part by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), whose mandate is to invest in scientific discovery for the benefit of Canada.
“Groundwater is complex and difficult to understand, but it is very important all over the world,” says Gleeson. His work, published in Nature Geoscience, emphasizes that point, estimating that, if you piled all the groundwater in the world on top of the continents, it would be 180m deep. By contrast, the same action performed with all the fresh surface water would result in a depth of only 0.25m.
“Our model used hydrological data from British Columbia and Alberta because we live and work here,” says Kerr, “But the science is sound and universally applicable. The tool can be employed anywhere in the world — any place where sound decisions need to be made to balance the competing needs for natural water resources.”
Hydrogeologists and other water practitioners, along with government decision-makers responsible for natural resource management, are encouraged to contact Foundry Spatial and the University of Victoria for more information on the details and use cases of the new tool.