WaterUnderground

water stress

Update on the groundwater situation in Cape Town

Update on the groundwater situation in Cape Town

Post by Jared van Rooyen, PhD student in Earth Science at Stellenbosch University, in South Africa.


When the Cape Town water crisis first emerged it took almost a year before active contingencies were put in place. Four major ideas were proposed: (1) Intense water restrictions for municipal water users, (2) greywater recycling facilities, (3) groundwater augmentation of water supplies, and (4) desalination.

Although not all the proposed ideas came to fruition, there was a significant increase in the installation of well points and boreholes for municipal and private use. The national and provincial governments began the investigation and development of three major aquifers in the Western Cape. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the initial estimates for extraction were never realized as a result of poor water quality in the Cape Flats aquifer, power struggles between government parties and typical delays in service delivery in South Africa. In contrast, private groundwater consultants are benefiting from the high demand for groundwater use by residents installing private wells to alleviate the pressures of stringent water restrictions.

There are now two plausible scenarios for the groundwater use situation in the Western Cape: either we have not yet begun to abstract any significant amounts of groundwater, or we lack the data to show if we have. It is difficult to provide empirical evidence on whether groundwater levels are indeed declining and if it is a result of the drought (or abstraction or both). The trouble is that, unlike surface water storage where we can see the direct evidence of the drought, how much water is in an aquifer cannot be directly observed and must be estimated via an indirect method.

Estimating changes in groundwater availability usually requires detailed baseline data to be available, meaning that the state of a resource is relative to the baseline data available and can be over/underestimated as a result. One example of this was the subject of a controversial string of news articles released in the first months of 2019.

The Department of Water Affairs (DWS) released an interactive map of monitoring boreholes across South Africa which includes a record of normalized water levels (0% being the lowest measured water level in meters above sea level (masl) and 100% the highest measured water level) averaged over a province (Figure 1) . The graph shows a decline in average water levels in the last three years, but the record only goes back to 2009 and it is difficult to say if this a drought signal, a result of abstraction, or simply a natural fluctuation over a longer timescale.

Figure 1: Plot showing the severity of groundwater levels in the Western Cape of South Africa, averaged groundwater levels are plotted as a normalized percentage of the lowest and highest recorded levels in the borehole history. Credit: NIWIS DWA South Africa

Respected researcher and geochemist Dr. Meris Mills investigated historical data from the national groundwater archive and found that much of the data before 2015 were too sparse to be considered representative of the groundwater level. Data density and availability still is a major limiting factor in groundwater studies in South Africa.

Dr. Mills found that 55% of boreholes show statistically significant declining water levels and 63% of boreholes recorded an all time low water level after 2015 to late 2018 (since 1978). She concluded that fractured rock aquifers were the least affected and that 37% of boreholes with falling water levels were, in fact, not related to the recent drought. The cause for these declines in water levels are still unknown.

It is still difficult to quantify how much groundwater contributed to the recovery of Cape Town’s dam levels, if at all, but the resultant interest in long term groundwater supply has sparked debate surrounding local groundwater resources.

It is also clear that the effects of the drought on groundwater resources remain to be fully realized, however our groundwater, in general, is more resilient to change than we may think. Depending on the angle you look at it, initial findings may either indicate that groundwater is potentially a lifeline to cities crippled by a water supply crisis, or a time bomb with a delayed fuse.

Socio-hydrology meets Broadway: Can we survive drought if we stop using the toilet?

Socio-hydrology meets Broadway: Can we survive drought if we stop using the toilet?

Post by Samuel Zipper, postdoctoral fellow at both McGill University and the University of Victoria, in Canada. You can follow Sam on Twitter at @ZipperSam.

___________________________________________________________

How can society best cope with water scarcity?

With Cape Town on the verge of being the first major city to run out of water (a topic for a future post here on Water Underground), this is a question on the minds of many water managers and scientists within the emerging fields of socio-hydrology and socio-hydrogeology.

Low levels in Cape Town, South Africa’s reservoir system. Image source: University of Cape Town News.

Recently, my wife & I had the opportunity to see a more musical exploration of this question at the Langham Court Theatre’s production of Urinetown here in Victoria. This satirical musical envisions a future in which severe droughts have limited water supplies to the point that government (controlled by a corporation) decides the best way to conserve water is to charge people to use the restroom, thus limiting both direct and indirect human consumption (by people drinking less and flushing the toilet less, respectively).

As a scientist, I naturally found myself wondering: how effective would this tactic be?

Fortunately, the data exist to give us at least a rough approximation. Globally, only about 10% of water is used in households; the vast majority (about 70%) goes to agriculture. Once the water reaches your household, however, Urinetown may have a point; in an average US household, toilets are the largest water user, averaging ~1/4 of domestic water use (33 gallons per household per day). Since the US has among the largest per-capita water use of any country, we can use this number as an upper bound for a back-of-envelope calculations: globally, if we collectively stopped flushing toilets today, we’d reduce water use by a maximum of 2.5%.

In contrast, switching to diets with less animal protein (particularly beef) can have a far greater impact, saving well over 10% – it takes 660 gallons of water to make a burger, equivalent to about 180 flushes of a standard toilet (see the water footprint of various foods here). However, water is inherently a local issue – most of the water that goes into your burger was used to grow crops, potentially far away from wherever you live, and does not consume local water resources. Also, the numbers we used for the above calculations have a lot of local variability, with up to ~1/3 of total water use in Europe and Central Asia in the household.

Percentage of indoor water use by different fixtures. Source: Water Research Foundation.

So overall, does the math add up for Urinetown? At a global scale, reducing agricultural water use through improvement in irrigation practices and changes in diet is going to have a much bigger impact. Locally, however, toilets do use a lot of water and restricting their use during times of crisis is a smart approach – and Cape Town has had an “If it’s yellow, let it mellow” recommendation since September. Replacing your toilet with a high-efficiency fixture can help as well – many cities and states have rebate programs to help reduce the costs of this switch.

And how does it turn out for the residents of Urinetown? To answer that question, you’ll have to see the show yourself. Urinetown had a three year run on Broadway, including winning three Tony Awards, and is now a popular choice for theatres all around the world.

___________________________________________________________

 

Sam Zipper is an ecohydrologist. His main research focuses broadly on interactions between vegetation and the water cycle, with a particular interest in unintended or indirect impacts of land use change on ecosystems resulting from altered surface and subsurface hydrological flowpaths. You can find out more about Sam by going to his webpage at: samzipper.weebly.com.

Good groundwater management makes for good neighbors

Good groundwater management makes for good neighbors

Post by Samuel Zipper, postdoctoral fellow at both McGill University and the University of Victoria, in Canada. You can follow Sam on Twitter at @ZipperSam.

___________________________________________________________

Dedicated Water Underground readers know that this blog is not just about water science, but also some of the more cultural impacts of groundwater. Keeping in that tradition, today’s post begins with a joke*:

Knock, knock!

Who’s there?

Your neighbor

Your neighbor who?

Your neighbor’s groundwater, here to provide water for your plants!

Figure 1. Typical reaction to joke written by the author.

Ahem.

Perhaps this joke needs a little explanation. As we’ve covered before, groundwater is important not just as a supply of water for humans, rivers, and lakes, but also because it can increase the water available to plants, making ecosystems more drought resistant and productive. However, we also know that groundwater moves from place to place beneath the surface. This means that human actions which affect groundwater in one location, like increasing the amount of paved surface, might have an unexpected impact on ecosystems in nearby areas which depend on that groundwater.

Imagine, for example, two neighboring farmers. Farmer A decides retire and sells his land to a developer to put in a new, concrete-rich shopping center. Farmer B continues farming her land next door. How will the changes next door affect the groundwater beneath Farmer B’s land, and will this help or hurt crop production on her farm?

In a new study, my colleagues and I explored these questions using a series of computer simulations. We converted different percentages of a watershed from corn to concrete to see what would happen. Our results showed that the response of crops to urbanization depended on where the land use change occurred.

Figure 2. Conceptual diagram showing how urbanization might impact crop yield elsewhere in a watershed. From Zipper et al. (2017).

In upland areas where the water table was deep, replacing crops with concrete caused a reduction in groundwater recharge, lowering the water table everywhere in the watershed – not just beneath the places where urbanization occurred. This meant that places where the ecosystems used to be reliant on groundwater could no longer tap into this resources, making them more vulnerable to drought. However, places where the water table used to be too shallow saw boosts in productivity, as the lower water table was closer to the optimum water table depth.

In contrast, urbanization happening in lowland areas had a much more localized effect, with changes to the water table and yield occurring primarily only in the location where land use changed, because the changes in groundwater recharge were accounted for by increased inflows from the stream into the groundwater system.

So, what does this mean for the neighboring farmers we met earlier?

For Farmer A, it means the neighborly thing to do is work with the developers to minimize the effects of the land use change on groundwater recharge. This can include green infrastructure practices such as rain gardens or permeable pavement to try and mimic predevelopment groundwater recharge.

For Farmer B, the impacts depend on the groundwater depth beneath her farm. If the groundwater beneath her farm is shallow enough that her crops tap into that water supply, she should expect changes in the productivity of her crops, especially during dry periods, and plan accordingly.

*Joke written by scientist, rather than actual comedian.

___________________________________________________________

For More Information:

Zipper SC, ME Soylu, CJ Kucharik, SP Loheide II. Indirect groundwater-mediated effects of urbanization on agroecosystem productivity: Introducing MODFLOW-AgroIBIS (MAGI), a complete critical zone model. Ecological Modelling, 359: 201-219. DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolmodel.2017.06.002

___________________________________________________________

 

Sam Zipper is an ecohydrologist. His main research focuses broadly on interactions between vegetation and the water cycle, with a particular interest in unintended or indirect impacts of land use change on ecosystems resulting from altered surface and subsurface hydrological flowpaths. You can find out more about Sam by going to his webpage at: samzipper.weebly.com.

What is the difference between ‘water withdrawal’ and ‘water consumption’, and why do we need to know?

What is the difference between ‘water withdrawal’ and ‘water consumption’, and why do we need to know?

Post by Inge de Graaf, University of Freiburg, Environmental Hydrological Systems group

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Last week I had to teach my first class in global hydrology. When I showed the global trend on increasing demands and withdrawals (see Figure) I needed to explain the different terms as sometimes the term “water use” gets, well, misused.

The term “water use” often fails to adequately describe what happens to the water. So I told the students; if you see or hear to term ‘water use’ always ask yourself what’s actually being said. The term is often used for water withdrawals or water consumption, and it’s important to understand the difference.

Water withdrawal describes the total amount of water withdrawn from a surface water or groundwater source. Measurements of this withdrawn water help evaluate demands from domestic, industrial and agricultural users.

Water consumption is the portion of the withdrawn water permanently lost from its source. This water is no longer available because it evaporated, got transpired or used by plants, or was consumed by people or livestock. Irrigation is by far the largest water consumer. Globally irrigated agriculture accounts for 70% of the total water used and almost 50% is lost either by evaporation or transpiration.

Understanding both water withdrawal and consumption is critical to properly evaluate water stress. Measurements of water withdrawal indicate the level of competition and dependence on water resources. Water consumption estimates help to quantify the impact of water withdrawals on downstream availabilities and are essential to evaluate water shortage and scarcity. For example, most water used by households is not consumed and flows back as return flow and can be reused further downstream. However, water is rarely returned to watershed after being used by households or industry without changing the water quality, increasing water stress levels.

Already more than 1.4 billion people live in areas where the withdrawal of water exceeds recharge rates. In the coming decades global population is expected to increase from 7.3 billion now, to 9.7 billion by 2050 (UN estimate). This growth, along with rising incomes in developing countries, is driving up global food demands. With food production estimated to increase by at least 60% (FAO estimate), predicting water withdrawal and consumption is critically important for identifying areas that are at risk of water scarcity and where water use is unsustainable and competition amongst users exist.

Global trend I showed in my class, published in Wada et al (2016).

Ref:

Wada, Y., I. E. M. de Graaf, and L. P. H. van Beek (2016), High-resolution modeling of human and climate impacts on global water resources, J. Adv. Model. Earth Syst., 8, 735–763, doi:10.1002/2015MS000618.

 

Crop kites

Crop kites

Post by WaterUnderground contributor Mikhail Smilovic. Mikhail is a PhD  candidate in the Department of Civil Engineering at McGill University, in Quebec.

Crops use water for photosynthesis, absorbing nutrients, and transpiration, or the plant-equivalent of sweating. A crop may experience water-stress if the soil surrounding the roots is not adequately wet, and this stress will affect the crop differently depending on the crop’s stage of growth. Irrigation is the watering of plants to ultimately avoid such water-stress.

Non-irrigated crops are more vulnerable to intervals of dry and hot weather, and the increasing unpredictability of a changing climate will further complicate other crop management tools, such as choosing different cultivars (the particular variety of crop, some which may deal with certain stresses in an improved way) or changing planting dates.

Irrigated crops do not experience water stress (they may in fact experience water stress under a non-perfect irrigation system, but forgive this for now), but the water is necessarily derived from somewhere else. This somewhere else may also experience water withdrawals from municipalities, industry, and other agriculture. The source of water may be underground, or water from a river, lake, or spring, but a connection between both underground and surface waters shares with us that water removed from a system somewhere will have a response somewhere. This somewhere may very well be an ecosystem. Irrigation may also be costly related to the abstraction, transportation, and on-farm distribution.

Between non-irrigated and irrigated is a curious place where we can increase the resiliency of our agricultural systems to periods of drought and heat with limited irrigation, while allowing crops to experience well-timed water stress. Agricultural productivity or yield is determined as the amount of crop produced per area of land, say 3 tons/hectare for wheat. When water is a limiting factor, we would be sensible to also consider water productivity, that is the ratio of crop yield and water use, or, the amount of crop produced per drop of water. The practices of limited irrigation, also known as supplemental or deficit irrigation, makes an effort to increase this water productivity.

This space in-between non-irrigated and irrigated, however, has been often poorly explored or simplified. Crop kites is a novel tool to determine and quantify the potential agricultural and water productivity associated with different irrigation practices. This is important for regions interested in shifting investments into or away from irrigation, as well as for researchers interested in evaluating limited irrigation practices as initiatives to establish food and water security, both currently and with changing climates.

A first thought might be, if a crop uses three quarters of the water than it would under ideal conditions, does the crop produce three quarters as much as the crop under ideal conditions? In fact, the answer depends very much on when this water is used.

Let us take the example of winter wheat in northern Africa. Winter wheat can be broadly characterized into five different growth stages. We can illustrate water use throughout the season with the following figure:

Water use is represented by the bottom blue colour, and the associated deficit is represented with the upper orange colour – the top line of the shape is the amount of water the crop would use under ideal conditions on the associated day. This example shows a 0, 10, 20, 30, and 40% deficit occurring in stages 1 to 5 respectively, representing a 78% water use across the entire growing season as compared to ideal conditions. Understanding both the amount of water used and when the water was used, we are able to determine the associated yield, for this example, we reach 68% of potential yield.

Now, what if we were to simulate the yield using all reasonable water uses and all reasonable distributions of the timing of this water use? The resulting shape is our crop kite, with each point associated with a water use distributed throughout the growing season in a particular way:

 

This shape illustrates the incredible range of yields associated with each water use; for example, 80% of potential water use relates to between ~20 and 90% of potential crop yield.

Water distributed through canals are often delivered according to a schedule, and not necessarily related to growth-stage sensitivities or actual weather. From the crop kite we can derive estimates on how the crop yield will be affected by adopting certain irrigation schedules. We elaborate on this with three examples: S1) water use is distributed to optimize yield, S2) the deficit is distributed evenly across all growth stages, S3) water is used preferentially for the earlier growth stages. The resulting crop-water production functions are illustrated in the following figure:

 

Although the first schedule optimizing for crop yield may be in line with the motivations of the irrigating farmer, it is often an unreasonable assumption for farmers delivered water according to predetermined schedules, but may be appropriate for farmers irrigating with a privately owned well. Evaluating the potential of supplemental irrigation necessitates estimating the ability of farmers to manage both the amount and timing of irrigation applications. Otherwise, non-reasonable assumptions may be used to evaluate and over promise estimates for agricultural production, with the fault not in the practice of limited irrigation, but in the criteria used to evaluate the system.

Crop kites demonstrate the wide range of water use-crop yield relationships, and can be used to evaluate the potential of limited irrigation to shift both food and water security.

 

Mikhail Smilovic is a PhD candidate at McGill University and the University of Victoria . Mikhail’s work investigates the interplay between foot security, water resources, and energy, and evaluating and integrating initiatives that increase agricultural production while reducing demands on water resources.

Fantasy Bottled Water Brands of Tomorrow: Ogallala Water

Fantasy Bottled Water Brands of Tomorrow: Ogallala Water

We are peering into the not-so-distant future to imagine what the brand geniuses of the future will be serving up for discerning water consumers!

The Brand: Ogallala
Source: Great Plains
Why? Deep down, you know you love it.

Promotional Copy:

Ogallala Water: GET PUMPED.

Swill waters run deep so we go deep, deep, deep into the Great Plains water table to pipe this ancient, undisturbed water to your table. No raunchy reuse here. Ogallala Water is guaranteed free of questionable recharge sources and serves up 30% less* in every freshly-pumped bottle.

*50% less in some areas. Supplies are limited.

Parody Ogallala Bottled Water

Consume less fantasy and more facts at:

Reposted with permission from thristyinsuburbia.com.

Reducing water scarcity possible by 2050

Reducing water scarcity possible by 2050

Press release from McGill University of our research published yesterday in Nature Geoscience.

Water scarcity is not a problem just for the developing world. In California, legislators are currently proposing a $7.5 billion emergency water plan to their voters; and U.S. federal officials last year warned residents of Arizona and Nevada that they could face cuts in Colorado River water deliveries in 2016.

Irrigation techniques, industrial and residential habits combined with climate change lie at the root of the problem. But despite what appears to be an insurmountable problem, according to researchers from McGill and Utrecht University it is possible to turn the situation around and significantly reduce water scarcity in just over 35 years.

In a new paper published in Nature Geoscience, the researchers outline strategies in six key areas that they believe can be combined in different ways in different parts of the world in order to effectively reduce water stress. (Water stress occurs in an area where more than 40 percent of the available water from rivers is unavailable because it is already being used – a situation that currently affects about a third of the global population, and may affect as many as half the people in the world by the end of the century if the current pattern of water use continues).

The researchers separate six key strategy areas for reducing water stress into “hard path” measures, involving building more reservoirs and increasing desalination efforts of sea water, and “soft path” measures that focus on reducing water demand rather than increasing water supply thanks to community-scale efforts and decision-making, combining efficient technology and environmental protection. The researchers believe that while there are some economic, cultural and social factors that may make certain of the “soft path” measures such as population control difficult, the “soft path” measures offer the more realistic path forward in terms of reducing water stress.

(The details about each of the six key strategy areas are to be found below.)

“There is no single silver bullet to deal with the problem around the world,” says Prof. Tom Gleeson, of McGill’s Department of Civil Engineering and one of the authors of the paper. “But, by looking at the problem on a global scale, we have calculated that if four of these strategies are applied at the same time we could actually stabilize the number of people in the world who are facing water stress rather than continue to allow their numbers to grow, which is what will happen if we continue with business as usual.”
“Significant reductions in water-stressed populations are possible by 2050,” adds co-author Dr. Yoshihide Wada from the Department of Physical Geography at Utrecht University, “but a strong commitment and strategic efforts are required to make this happen.”

Strategies to reduce water stress

“Soft measures”

  1. Agricultural water productivity could be improved in stressed basins where agriculture is commonly irrigated. Reducing the fraction of water-stressed population by 2% by the year 2050 could be achieved with the help of new cultivars, or higher efficiency of nutrients application. Concerns include the impacts of genetic modification and eutrophication.
  1. Irrigation efficiency could also be improved in irrigated agricultural basins. A switch from flood irrigation to sprinklers or drips could help achieve this goal, but capital costs are significant and soil salinization could ensue.
  1. Improvements in domestic and industrial water use could be achieved in water stressed areas through significant domestic or industrial water use reduction, for example, by reducing leakage in the water infrastructure and improving water-recycling facilities.
  1. Limiting the rate of population growth could help in all water-stressed areas, but a full water-stress relief would require keeping the population in 2050 below 8.5 billion, for example, through help with family planning and tax incentives. However, this could be difficult to achieve, given current trends.

“Hard measures”

  1. Increasing water storage in reservoirs could, in principle, help in all stressed basins with reservoirs. Such a strategy would require an additional 600 km3 of reservoir capacity, for example, by making existing reservoirs larger, reducing sedimentation or building new ones. This strategy would imply significant capital investment, and could have negative ecological and social impacts.
  1. Desalination of seawater could be ramped up in coastal water-stressed basins, by increasing either the number or capacity of desalination plants. A 50-fold increase would be required to make an important difference, which would imply significant capital and energy costs, and it would generate waste water that would need to be disposed of safely.

To read the Nature Geoscience article: http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v7/n9/full/ngeo2241.html?WT.ec_id=NGEO-201409

One in four of world’s big cities water-stressed

One in four of world’s big cities water-stressed

From the McGill Newsroom

As more people move to urban areas, cities around the world are experiencing increased water stress and looking for additional water supplies to support their continued grow.

The first global database of urban water sources and stress, published online this week in Global Environmental Change, estimates that cities move 504 billion litres of water a distance of 27,000 kilometers every day. Laid end to end, all those canals and pipes would stretch halfway around the world. While large cities occupy only 1% of the Earth’s land surface, their source watersheds cover 41% of that surface, so the raw water quality of large cities depends on the land use in this much larger area.

An international team of researchers from nine institutions, including McGill University in Montreal, surveyed and mapped the water sources of more than 500 cities, providing the first global look at the water infrastructure that serves the world’s large cities. The study was led by Rob McDonald, senior scientist with the Nature Conservancy in Arlington, Va.

Prof. Bernhard Lehner and PhD student Günther Grill of McGill’s Department of Geography contributed a detailed global map of rivers, lakes and watersheds to help map the water sources of each city, while Prof. Tom Gleeson of McGill’s Department of Civil Engineering conducted analysis for groundwater sources.

The research team used computer models to estimate the water use based on population and types of industry for each city, and defined water-stressed cities as those using at least 40% of the water they have available. Previous estimates of urban water stress were based only on the watershed in which each city was located, but many cities draw heavily on watersheds well beyond their boundaries. In fact, the 20 largest inter-basin transfers in 2010 totaled over 42 billion liters of water per day, enough water to fill 16,800 Olympic-size pools.

There is good news in the findings: Many cities are not as water-stressed as previously thought. Earlier estimates put approximately 40% of cities into the water-stressed category. This analysis has the number at 25%.

The study finds that the 10 largest cities under water stress are Tokyo, Delhi, Mexico City, Shanghai, Beijing, Kolkata, Karachi, Los Angeles, Rio de Janeiro and Moscow. (Neither of the two Canadian cities analyzed — Toronto and Montreal — was water-stressed, according to the definition used in the study.)

The study also makes clear the extent to which financial resources and water resources are intertwined. It is possible for a city to build itself out of water scarcity — either by piping in water from greater and greater distances or by investing in technologies such as desalinization — but many of the fastest growing cities are also economically stressed and will find it difficult to deliver adequate water to residents without international aid and investment.

“Cities, like deep rooted plants, can reach a quite a long distance to acquire the water they need,” says McDonald. “However, the poorest cities find themselves in a real race to build water infrastructure to keep up with the demands of their rapidly growing citizenry.”

The study also reveals that:

  • Four in five (78%) urbanites in large cities, some 1.21 billion people, primarily depend on surface water sources. The remainder depend on groundwater (20%) or, rarely, desalination (2%).
  • The urban water infrastructure of large cities cumulatively supplies 668 billion liters daily. Of this, 504 billion liters daily comes from surface sources, and that water is conveyed over a total distance of 27,000 km.
  • Land use in upstream contributing areas affects the raw water quality and quantity of surface water sources.
  • An estimated one-quarter of large cities in water stress contain $4.8 trillion of economic activity, or 22% of all global economic activity in large cities. This large amount of economic activity in large cities with insecure sources of water emphasizes the importance of sustainable management of these sources, not just for the viability of individual cities but for the global economy.

The research was supported by a grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

———-

“Water on an urban planet: urbanization and the reach of urban water infrastructure,” Robert. I. McDonald, et al, Global Environmental Change, published online June 2, 2014. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2014.04.022