Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken

Dutch Diplo Talk

Groundwater: The invisible part of the cycle

2 Nov 2015

photo: The Dutch ‘Polderlandschap’

Almost all parts of the natural water cycle are visible: clouds, rain/snow, surface water in rivers and oceans. People are able to connect flooding and drought to those visible parts. An essential part of the water cycle is invisible: groundwater. Therefore it is much more difficult to connect an empty or contaminated well to problems with the groundwater. Last week the Verge Conference in San Jose tried to make our subsoil a bit more transparent. I was invited to take part in a panel and a VIP-lunch dealing with this topic.

There are immense differences between California and the Netherlands. The first one is that Californian farmers own their groundwater, while Dutch farmers need permits to extract it. As a result, the second difference is that California still has to start mapping its groundwater, while the Dutch have finished the job with placing 20,000 observation pipes and modeling groundwater transfer. Linked to this, American water consultants see a market for scarce data, while the Dutch mostly work with public data and open sources. Understanding these differences can lead to cooperation between our states with regard to governance, consulting and finance.

Why didn’t I mention lack of groundwater in California versus a surplus of groundwater in the Netherlands? Because I think the facts do not support this. In California the farmers indeed extract more groundwater than is infiltrated by rivers and rain. In some areas the groundwater tables went down by 10 feet each year, because of thirsty crops like almonds, oranges and tomatoes. The clay and sandy soils sunk a feet each year, ruining houses, roads and bridges.

The Netherlands is in a better position, but is also loosing fresh water, both in a quantitative and qualitative meaning. The quantitative losses are: (1) farmers dewater their parcels to have a solid soil for their heavy machinery, (2) two-third of our drinking water is extracted from the groundwater and (3) roofs and asphalt block the way for rain supplementing the groundwater. The qualitative losses are: (1) extraction of fresh water leads to infiltration of salt water in the coastal areas and (2) intensive use of fertilizers leads to high levels of nitrates in the groundwater. The groundwater is still a renewable resource, but only for a few per cent.

Groundwater is invisible and therefore as difficult to approach as climate change. As long as disasters do not present themselves, other priorities prevail. But after the disaster, the costs are always ten times higher. I see a great opportunity for California and the Netherlands to exchange best and worst practices.

This blog was posted earlier in Hugo’s Weekly.

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About the author

Hugo Von Meijenfeldt
Written by Hugo Von Meijenfeldt

Consul-General in San Francisco

Hugo von Meijenfeldt was appointed as representative for the Kingdom of the Netherlands in the 13 westernmost United States in August 2013.

Prior to his current position, Hugo was Deputy Director General at the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment. He also served as Special Envoy for Climate Change at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2009 until 2013. In this capacity, he led Dutch participation in global diplomatic activities to reach a climate agreement.

Previously, Hugo was Director for Soil, Water and Rural Environment. For several years he held the position of Deputy Director for International Affairs, Chairman of the Committee on Environmental Policy of UN-ECE Geneva, and Head of the European Policy Division (including the EU Presidency in 1997). From 1982 until 1991, he was Legal Counsel to the soil clean-up division.

Hugo earned his Masters in Public Law and Policy at the Free University in Amsterdam in 1981. He is member of the WorldConnectors and the Sustainability Challenge Foundation.