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Are we running out of water?

February 5, 2011
Dr. Pamela C. Dodds

News reports typically emphasize the "breaking news," with television even showing ongoing news about several events at the same time. However, it is important to pay attention to "slow news," also. This includes information about events occurring slowly through time.

For example, a summer drought can cause decreases in the amount of water we have in our streams or in the ground (for our wells). The U.S. Geological Survey has been documenting trends for our water resources for decades.

The results show that our groundwater levels are getting lower and that our streams have increased flows that go, ultimately, toward the ocean.

Oceans cover about 70 percent of the earth. The water cycle within the oceans is mostly separate from the water cycle over land surfaces. So, when water evaporates, then condenses into clouds, and then rains over the ocean, the water simply stays in the ocean, except for about 7 percent that makes it to land. The same water cycle occurs over land, with about 7 percent flowing back to the ocean by streams.

Currently, there is a delicate balance between the water cycle over the oceans and the water cycle over land. But with increased development on land, more water reaches the oceans through stream flow than is replenished to land from the oceans.

As the balance is tipped toward more water going into the oceans, we lose water from the land - permanently.

The U.S. Geological Survey provides maps showing where most precipitation occurs over land. In West Virginia, the greatest precipitation occurs on our mountain ridges. The trees on our forested ridges intercept the rain so that it gently falls to the ground, unlike areas such as grassy fields or roads. In these places where trees intercept the rain and allow it to fall gently to the ground, the water can be absorbed into the ground and recharge the groundwater which supplies water to springs and residential wells. The water that is not absorbed into the ground flows across the ground surface toward streams.

In areas without trees, rain mostly flows across the ground surface toward streams and does not recharge our groundwater. We must protect our forested ridges in West Virginia to guard against running out of water not only in West Virginia, but throughout the region.

The "breaking" slow news is that we must protect our forested mountain ridges in order to protect our water resources.

(Dodds is a local resident and is a registered professional geologist with expertise in hydrogeology. She has a bachelor's degree in geology and a doctoral degree in marine geology, and is a credential in ground water science. Dodds is also certified by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources as a Master Naturalist and participates as a stream monitor in the WVDEP's Save Our Streams program.)



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