Defining renewable groundwater use to improve groundwater  management

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Mark Olaf Cuthbert , Tom Gleeson, Grant Ferguson, Marc Bierkens, Richard Taylor


Groundwater systems are commonly but variously defined as renewable or non-renewable based on natural fluxes of recharge or on estimates of aquifer storage and groundwater residence time. However, the principle of capture challenges simple definitions: groundwater pumping can alter the rates of groundwater recharge and/or discharge over a characteristic groundwater response time related to the hydraulic properties of the subsurface, the length scales of the system and the relative position of the abstraction wells to the hydraulic boundaries. If pumping exceeds the possible capture, continued depletion or the recovery time will then be more strongly determined by the relative rates of pumping and recharge. Hence, we argue here that a groundwater system cannot be renewable or non-renewable in and of itself, but only with reference to how the groundwater is being used. We propose a new definition explicitly focusing on use: renewable groundwater use allows for dynamically stable re-equilibrium of groundwater levels and quality on human timescales (∼50-100 years). The definition combines both ‘flux’ and ‘storage’ based perspectives on renewable use. Further, we show how a matrix of combinations of (1) the ratio of pumping to possible capture along with (2) the response or recovery timescales implicit in this definition, leads to a useful four-quadrant framework for groundwater management. The quadrants, illustrated using case studies from aquifers around the world, are a practical tool for quantitatively assessing the physical limits to the sustainability of a pumped groundwater system alongside requisite environmental and social aspects and potential pathways towards greater sustainability.



Civil and Environmental Engineering, Earth Sciences, Engineering, Environmental Sciences, Physical Sciences and Mathematics


groundwater, sustainability, renewable resources, water resources


Published: 2022-05-19 15:35

Last Updated: 2022-05-19 22:35


CC BY Attribution 4.0 International

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