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Groundwater in the Hills: A coming crisis?

February 14th,2024 | Valley Voices

By Bruce Stockfish

We seem to take for granted that we have limitless water in this country, and indeed Quebec possesses three per cent of the world’s available drinking water. Most of it is surface water in unpopulated northern areas, however. In the south, over 30 per cent of the population relies on groundwater for domestic use, and the vast majority of these users live in rural areas, small municipalities or First Nations reserves. It is a precious resource. And it is under threat. 

Well-publicized incidents in Walkerton (Ont.), North Battleford (Sask.) and many First Nations reserves have made us aware of groundwater quality issues. Groundwater contamination frequently occurs due to pollution from industrial chemical use, agricultural runoff and inadequate septic systems. Even our Wakefield community spring has recently been challenged with water quality issues.

More and more, however, the challenge is about decreasing levels of groundwater, primarily due to excessive drilling. Excessive drilling contributes to:

  • Depletion of aquifers, the underground reservoirs that store groundwater. When the rate of extraction surpasses the rate of natural recharge, aquifers are unable to replenish adequately. The water table consequently lowers, reducing the amount of available groundwater for both human and ecological needs;
  • Intensification of competition for limited water supply. The growing demand for water, driven by urban population growth and expanding industrial activity, exacerbates the competition for diminishing groundwater, leading to conflicts and challenges in water allocation;
  • Adverse impact on agriculture, a sector heavily reliant on groundwater for irrigation. Diminishing groundwater levels can compromise crop yields, affecting the sustainability of agricultural practices; 
  • Disturbance of the delicate balance of ecosystems that depend on groundwater. Wetlands, rivers and other freshwater habitats may experience reduced water flow, affecting the flora and fauna adapted to specific hydrological conditions; 
  • Land subsidence, a phenomenon where the ground sinks as a result of decreased water levels in the subsurface. Subsidence poses risks to infrastructure, causing damage to buildings, roads and other structures. In extreme cases, land instability may occur, posing additional challenges to urban planning and development;
  • Intrusion of contaminants into aquifers. As groundwater levels drop, the concentration of pollutants may increase, posing risks to both human health and the environment; 
  • Exacerbation of the groundwater supply challenges already posed by climate change, as altered precipitation patterns and increased temperatures affect groundwater recharge rates.

The over-extraction of groundwater clearly has far-reaching consequences that extend beyond the immediate concern of securing water for household consumption. Both the quality and availability of water are impacted by excessive drilling.

Municipalities across Quebec are now facing a long-term problem for which they do not have adequate laws, data or resources to resolve. La Pêche, Chelsea and other municipalities in the Gatineau Valley are not immune. Water security is a real issue for the immediate future, and a more rigorous, holistic approach to groundwater management is now imperative to assure adequate supply.

Next week: What can be done? 

Bruce Stockfish is a guest author for H20 Wakefield. He lives in Wakefield.

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