The Future of Groundwater: A Report from the 2017 Aspen-Nicholas Water Forum

November 28, 2017  • Energy and Environment Program

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The annual Aspen-Nicholas Water Forum, a collaborative initiative between the Aspen Institute Energy and Environment Program and the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University, serves as a platform for addressing domestic water challenges in the 21st century. Each year, the forum gathers ~50 participants—including thought leaders from the private sector, government, academia, and non-governmental organizations— representing expertise in industry, finance, philanthropy, government, academia, agriculture, food and technology companies, investors and entrepreneurs.

To understand the management opportunities and challenges that groundwater presents, the 2017 forum focused on exploring the present condition of groundwater, the evolution of that condition, and opportunities for transitioning to more sustainable use of groundwater resources.

The Future of Groundwater summarizes the Aspen-Nicholas Water Forum discussions of May-June 2017, offering various approaches to groundwater sustainability.

Key Findings

  • To date, groundwater has been managed for sustained depletion. We need an alternative goal: simultaneously rising aquifers and a growing economy.
  • Proactive groundwater management balances the needs of all users-from ensuring access by domestic households to securing food supply to meeting energy demand to protecting the environment-while accounting for climatic variability and population growth to ensure groundwater is available for use for future generations.
  • Aquifers may span thousands of miles, but the management and impacts of groundwater use are context-specific, given unique geologic conditions and water use characteristics. Although aquifers are complex and unique, the consequences of groundwater contamination and depletion are not. A portfolio of already-developed solution sets (market, technological, regulatory) is available and can be tailored to fit within existing policies and regulations.
  • Groundwater is often locally managed, although the consequences of groundwater depletion can span large regions. Boutique solutions will not suffice to solve large-scale problems, making it important to identify solutions sets, including conservation, markets, and water funds, that are scalable.
  • It is critical to build trust and transparency that leads to collaboration by, and education of, decision-makers and the general public.
  • Those most immediately vulnerable to groundwater problems are often the smallest contributors to the problem, and the government regulatory structures most likely to protect those communities are not well organized to do so.

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