Dear EarthTalk: What is currently being done in the U.S. to ensure the wise use and safety of our nation’s groundwater? -- Kevin Orr, Baton Rouge, LA
Keeping fresh water safe and abundant is a challenge for all societies. In the U.S., about half of the country’s drinking water comes from groundwater sources. Many rural areas derive all of their drinking water from groundwater, which also provides 40 percent of the irrigation needs of American farmers. While underground aquifers may at one point have seemed limitless, huge demand for water (especially in arid areas like the Southwest) means that groundwater reserves are precious and need to be carefully managed with conservation in mind. Also, groundwater is easily contaminated by any number of common man-made products like gasoline, oil, road salts, pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals.
About half of U.S. drinking water
Management of specific water supplies is decentralized—local and regional water authorities manage supplies for municipalities and counties around the country—but oversight comes from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as mandated by the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. Enacted in 1972, the Clean Water Act addresses water pollution in general and requires everyone, but especially large water users including large industrial and agricultural operations, to deal with their water inflows and outflows in a responsible, non-polluting manner. Meanwhile, 1974’s Safe Drinking Water Act requires the EPA to set standards for drinking water quality that the 150,000 public water entities across the country must meet. Third party laboratories provide detailed analyses to ensure that local supplies live up to the EPA’s expectations. These laws work together to keep groundwater supplies safe, but environmentalists would like to see both strengthened substantially in the face of drought-inducing global warming and other threats.
While regulation and enforcement of industry and agriculture are important for protecting our limited groundwater supplies, consumers also must play a role. The Groundwater Foundation, a Nebraska-based non-profit working to educate people and inspire action to ensure sustainable, clean groundwater for future generations, suggests taking short showers, shutting off the faucet while brushing teeth and shaving, running full loads of dishes and laundry, checking for leaky faucets and getting them fixed, and watering plants and the lawn only when necessary. Likewise, the group advocates that consumers recycle used motor oils, limit the amount of fertilizer and pesticides used on plants, lawns and gardens, and generally reduce household chemical use. And leftover chemicals should be disposed of at hazardous waste collection sites (find one near you at earth911.com), not down the drain or into the gutter.
Another way to help is to initiate a Source Water Protection process, which involves locating local groundwater sources and identifying ways to protect and conserve them. Anyone interested in doing so can download the Groundwater Foundation’s free Source Water Assessment and Protection Workshop Guide, which has detailed information about a number of source water protection strategies and additional information on areas where the Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Water Act intersect. Funding for the guide was provided by the EPA’s Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water, which considers it a must-read for officials, policymakers and activists deliberating land use and water quality issues.
CONTACTS: Groundwater Foundation, www.groundwater.org; EPA Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water, www.epa.gov/aboutepa/ow.html#ground.
Dear EarthTalk: What is the Burrowing Owl Conservation Network and why is it so important to put so much effort into saving one species? -- Ginny Bateman, Portland, OR
Once a common species in California
Western burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia) are tiny, long-legged members of the owl family, native to the Americas and preferring open landscapes where they can dig new holes or use existing ones (such as abandoned prairie dog, skunk or armadillo homes) to nest and rear their young. Unlike most other owl species, these small but charismatic birds are more often seen out and about during daylight hours, but they are most active and do their primary feeding at night, preferring a diet of small rodents and large insects.
Once a common species in California and across North America, the Western burrowing owl has become a rarer and rarer sight over the last three decades given habitat loss and other environmental perils the bird faces. Biologists consider the bird an indicator of wider ecosystem health, so if its population numbers are healthy then local ecosystems are likely thriving. But these days the bird is endangered in Canada and threatened in Mexico, is a state endangered species in Colorado, and is considered a “species of special concern” in Florida and most of the western U.S. It is also listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN’s) international “Red List” of endangered and threatened species (albeit as a species of “Least Concern” in comparison with others in more dire straits).
A group of dedicated birders, conservationists, biologists and concerned citizens in San Francisco’s East Bay came together to protect dwindling burrowing owl populations locally but ended up creating a movement that spans the entire North American continent. Their group, the Burrowing Owl Conservation Network (BOCN) believes that burrowing owls are vital to maintaining healthy, functioning ecosystems, and as such is working on several fronts to help protect habitat and reverse the animal’s population slide.
First and foremost, BOCN works to conserve habitat for burrowing owls in California and beyond, including constructing artificial burrows to help re-establish burrowing owl colonies while larger ecosystem restoration efforts are underway. Teaching children and communities about ways they can help protect and improve burrowing owl habitat is another important part of BOCN’s work. Other ways the group helps the owls is by advocating for legislation and policy changes that encourage conservation of habitat, networking with like-minded individuals and institutions, and conducting field and laboratory research to increase understanding about how to help burrowing owls and create habitat conditions ideal for their survival.
The fact that burrowing owl populations in other parts of the world are rebounding gives hope to BOCN and other wildlife advocates and environmentalists. The birds are common and widespread in Central and South America, where they inhabit fields and even sometimes parks in urban areas.
Whether the birds can replicate their success in Latin America up north remains to be seen. As for what readers can do to help, learning about the behavior, biology and habitat needs of wild animals like the burrowing owl is a sure way to develop respect for nature’s inhabitants and a lifelong willingness to protect them. And nothing beats witnessing burrowing owls go about their rounds. Seeing them in the wild is enough to convince anyone that they are worth fighting to protect.
CONTACTS: BOCN, www.burrowingowlconservation.org; IUCN Red List, www.iucnredlist.org.