Innovative Groundwater-Surface Water Interaction Reporting

spider2Unique proof of concept project could support sound water management around the world

It sounds like a straightforward concept, but it’s proved difficult to come up with a user-friendly way to represent the mechanism of how groundwater and surface water interact. So difficult, in fact, that it’s 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, something never before reliably shown.

The approach was jointly created by Victoria-based environmental consulting 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 and Senior Water Scientist at Foundry Spatial.

“The approach we have developed allows users to explore the linkages between surface and groundwater availability and use, in a way that has never before been possible,” says Dr. Tom Gleeson. Now, with the click of a mouse, in just seconds 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 it’s 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 in the fractures of rock formations. Such regions underground are called aquifers when they contain a usable quantity of water for people, livestock and industry. And, of course, groundwater affects – and is affected by – what’s happening with the amount of water on the surface of the ground.

groundwater-pipe-emailThis past March the Province of British Columbia replaced the Water Act with the Water Sustainability Act, a large framework of policies and regulations aimed at caring for BC water resources. Under the new Act, a significant amount of location-specific water information is required 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 and must pay fees and annual water rentals, just like surface water users.

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, whose work, published in Nature Geoscience last year, estimates the quantity of groundwater to cover the surface of the continents to a depth of 180 metres. By contrast, the volume of surface water in lakes, rivers, reservoirs and swamps could be contained in a depth of about one quarter of a metre.

“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 prospective use of the new tool.