Groundwater monitoring plays a crucial role in measuring the state of the nation’s aquifers. The information it provides can motivate important management decisions, like recent California legislation calling for sustainability measures that could potentially limit groundwater pumping.

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The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is the chief agency responsible for monitoring groundwater levels and quality across the country, but current methods are limited in scope and consistency. That’s because USGS doesn’t have monitoring wells in every state, some states have their own agencies for monitoring groundwater and other states have little to nothing in place to assess aquifers.

As we move into an era of increased water shortages, improving groundwater monitoring efforts is essential in sustaining the beloved resource. At the end of the day, a lot of people depend on its continued existence — namely water well drillers.

Thanks to a recently passed $2.6 million budget, significant improvements to groundwater monitoring efforts are in the works. On Dec. 16, 2014, the president signed the bill that goes toward the implementation of the National Ground-Water Monitoring Network (NGWMN). The network will serve as an aggregation of groundwater monitoring wells from existing USGS, multistate, state, tribal and local groundwater networks. The main goals of the first-of-its-kind network in the U.S. are to create consistent standards for how groundwater monitoring is conducted and reported across state boarders, bring existing data together on a national scale for the public to view, and to fill gaps where no current groundwater monitoring exists. Generally speaking, the data collected will include groundwater levels and quality.

“The hole in my office ceiling is because of jumping up and down and saying hooray,” says Robert Schreiber, co-chair of the Subcommittee on Ground Water (SOGW), which is responsible for writing the NGWMN framework. “I definitely yelled hooray when it finally came to pass. … The $2.6 million is great.”

The money allows USGS to provide cost-share grants to states to upgrade their monitoring networks and incorporate more wells into the network. It will also support USGS in its management of the network and data access to the public through a Web portal.

Bill Cunningham, chief of the USGS Office of Groundwater and co-chair of SOGW, says he looks forward to being better able answer questions about the nation’s groundwater, thanks to the newly funded network. “I think it will provide great insight to the status of the resource beyond what we’ve been able to do before because these data were spread out in a bunch of different places, so we brought it together.”

A Win for Drillers

Cunningham won’t be the only one to benefit from the NGWMN. Water well drillers will too, directly and indirectly, according to Schreiber.

Once gaps in the network are indicated, they will need to be filled and that’ll depend on new monitoring points. “The simple thing would be that there will need to be more wells,” Schreiber says. In addition to potential well drilling jobs, drillers have rehab work to look forward to. This applies to existing monitoring wells that will need to be brought up to NGWMN standards. “There will be work for rehabbing wells that are out there, doing downhole work to make sure that they’re developed properly.”

In a more indirect way, water well drillers can expect to be more informed than ever about the resource they make a living off of. “As an example, the network may illuminate that there are certain water quality issues in certain areas or that there is the likelihood that trends in water levels are showing that wells may need to be deepened,” Schreiber says.

For drillers in areas where monitoring wells are currently lacking, the gap-filling that the NGWMN plans to initiate will make data on groundwater conditions available in localities where it wasn’t tracked before. “They can connect to a website and see what the depth of the water is and see how that compares to yesterday and last week and last year and the last 30 years,” Cunningham says. “That might give them an idea of water level declines, for instance, and the likelihood of increased business as water levels drop, whether they’re out lowering pumps, drilling new wells, deepening wells, whatever.”

A Long Time Coming

The NGWMN lifeline didn’t start with the approval of $2.6 million. The idea and efforts behind the network extend back almost a decade and the National Ground Water Association (NGWA) has played a big role in advocacy efforts.

Laine Glisson Oliver, senior advisor at Baker Donelson, has represented NGWA’s NGWMN advocacy efforts to state representatives in Washington, D.C., over the past several years. “I think we were definitely able to consistently put the message in front of the right people day in and day out, year after year,” she says. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease and we were squeaky. We weren’t going away.”

Glisson Oliver says defining the network, quantifying its capabilities and humanizing it to lawmakers was important to NGWA because it will serve as a tool for groundwater professionals to better understand what they can’t see, and to do their jobs better.

The current spending approval serves as the network’s first-ever federally allotted funding and although it’s just a start, it spurs optimism, according to Lauren Schapker, NGWA’s government affairs director. “I think it is important to note that it is a small amount of money but they finally have acknowledged that it is important and it does require this $2.6 million. … Now we can point to that piece of paper that says you already agreed that this is a good idea and it’s worthy of funding. So we’ve got some extra ammo this year and years down the road to make sure the program continues to get the funding it needs.”

A Long Road Ahead

Speaking of years down the road, there are many to consider because the federal government budgets the network on an annual basis, with new approval needed each year. That’s one of the biggest challenges for NGWMN overseers and advocates. “So there’s a high degree of uncertainty,” Schreiber says. “I know we’re not the only ones that suffer from that anxiety.”

Another obstacle is figuring out how the NGWMN should play out. For example, Schreiber and Cunningham will have to decide at what points to allot funding toward expanding the network with new monitoring wells and at what points to fund improvements for existing monitoring wells.

Ultimately, Cunningham says, cooperation will be key. “Over the intermediate term, I think a nationwide network is only as complete as the weakest link. So if there are some regions or some states that do not want to participate that would be a potential barrier to this effort.”

Overall, those involved with the NGWMN are optimistic about what the network will become because of the hands it’s oversight has been placed in. “What I will tell you is that the USGS folks that are involved and the ones that will be administering the distribution of the money mechanically are very, very good people,” Schreiber says. “So that’s very encouraging.”

In the meantime, NGWA isn’t going anywhere. The association plans to keep plugging along to get funding for the network that will take U.S. groundwater monitoring to a national level for the first time ever.

“It’s going to be a pretty great tool to have access to in the public sphere,” Schapker says. “So we’ve got challenges, but I hope that after a few, hopefully, successful years of getting the money appropriated it will get easier and easier each year to make our case that this is important.”.

Valerie King is associate editor of National Driller.