News and events
Groundwater in the news: The USA Chapter
Underreporting of Groundwater in U.S. News Media Despite Critical Importance
Groundwater is, without question, a topic of fundamental importance to the continued survival of ecosystems and economies on earth. However, the topic of groundwater is rarely mentioned in American news – despite evidence of shifting climate patterns, intensified extreme events, and the endangerment of groundwater resources. And while the decline of groundwater quality and quantity will impact all people, the UN indicates that the burden will fall heavily on marginalized groups. Per the UN Water Conference Stakeholder Online Consultation Summary Report[i], a highly disproportionate impact of water scarcity and water quality will be towards indigenous peoples, women, and girls.
To enact change and develop impactful groundwater management practices and policy, interactive dialogues are needed to address inclusion and equity in current political focus with regards to water resourcesi. With the news media’s capability to host these dialogues and influence beliefs, attitude, and behavior[ii], it is first necessary to investigate how the topic of groundwater is presented in the United States. This can help us draw conclusions about how Americans see and value groundwater. Climate scientists and activists trying to sound the alarm may very well be hindered by a potential lack of awareness and reporting.
Evidence shows that groundwater is underreported in mainstream U.S. news outlets. Regardless of political leaning or readership audience size, groundwater is not presented to the American public in a provoking or substantial capacity. An analysis of “groundwater” mentioned in reports across CNN, Fox News, and Reuters, reveals that groundwater is rarely the sole focus of news reporting, and only slightly more frequently mentioned as a tangential topic. This lack of reporting directly correlates to the limited discussion and commentary in these news sources as well. The authors of this article therefore hypothesize that the limited messaging of consequential groundwater issues will lead to a lack of civic engagement, advocacy, and finally, a deprioritized response from government and non-governmental agencies.
Groundwater Reporting of 2022
General politicization of reporting and discussion in cable news has increased in the United States[iii]. Fox News and CNN were selected to represent the ideological political leaning of the American conservative and liberal news, respectively[iv]. These sources were also selected due to their wide distribution; according to the Pew Research Center, most U.S. adults consumed Fox News and/or CNN as one of their preferred news sources[v]. A neutral global news source was also selected to examine if the lack of partisanship changes how groundwater is reported. “Groundwater” was queried in each news source’s search engine for the year 2022. Each article mentioning “groundwater” at least once was then compiled, and the total number mentioned in each article was counted. The annual distribution of “groundwater” articles by media outlet is presented in Figure 1. Finally, article topics were broadly categorized into four themes: groundwater policy and politics, groundwater contamination, groundwater and climate change, and/or groundwater and industry. To understand the relative reach of “groundwater” in the news, the authors also selected a trending news topic throughout 2022 with little relative importance to global human health: “Mar-a-Lago” – former U.S. President Trump’s Florida estate.
CNN is a publicly traded cable news network with a global reach of more than 2 billion people and 600 million website visits per month[vi]. Generally acknowledged as having a leftward/liberal political leaning, CNN provides a mix between fact-based reporting and commentary. CNN published a total of 22 articles with “groundwater” mentioned at least once per article. In comparison, “Mar-a-Lago” was mentioned in 2187 articles. On average, CNN released articles containing the word “groundwater” nearly twice per month, with coverage spread relatively evenly throughout the year. The median word count per article was approximately 1080 words. In primary reporting, groundwater was mentioned most often during commentary on climate change with respect to current legislation and water management practices. Management practices were evaluated critically, with interviews from Water Officials and individuals from government science agencies being the primary voice calling for action. Two of the three articles focused on groundwater contamination were factual reports of U.S. Military aquifer contamination, where one article focused on social discrimination towards appropriated funds for access to clean groundwater. Groundwater and industry appeared four times, with legal water rights and water depletion in the Western United States being the sole focus.
Fox News is also a publicly traded news agency, with 332 million monthly visits. While Fox News has a much lower global readership, its domestic readership is on par with that of CNN[vii]. Fox News is generally accepted as a conservative/right-leaning news source, with mixed-type reporting. The authors did note the use of misleading and emotionally loaded headlines on beat reports. Over the course of 2022, Fox published 23 articles with at least one mention of “groundwater” with a median wordcount of just 667 words, over 400 and 200 words shorter than CNN and Reuters, respectively. “Mar-a-Lago” was mentioned in 7860 articles, by far the most of all three news agencies. Groundwater reporting was concentrated heavily in the summer and early fall. Contamination appeared as the primary subject in the Fox News articles 12 times, with groundwater and business as a theme being the runner up. Unlike CNN, Fox News rarely covered the subject of climate change although in several articles it did acknowledge it as a problem. Also of note, Fox News rarely provided sources for their articles. While many articles include hyperlinks to what appear to be external sources, these links are almost always to a keyword query of Fox’s internal database.
Reuters is a private news agency focused on reporting which is frequently republished by other publications[viii], including CNN and Fox News. While Reuters’ monthly website visits are only 88.9 million, it is estimated that more than 1 billion people read Reuters articles per day, including on other news outlets[ix]. In 2022, Reuters published only 19 articles focused on the U.S. in which “groundwater” was mentioned at least once. “Mar-a-Lago” was mentioned in 123 articles. With a median word count of 899, these articles were relatively evenly spread throughout the calendar year, except for July and August, which had none. Groundwater contamination and business impacts of groundwater were reported most frequently (17 of 19 articles) while climate change was only directly discussed once. Generally, Reuters reporters take a very factual and heavily cited approach to these articles, frequently referring to U.S. case law, peer reviewed articles, and official government policy positions. This is likely due in large part to the fact that these articles are featured in news outlets across the globe and across political spectrums.
Media Coverage in the United States and Public Perception of Groundwater
Media coverage plays a critical role in bringing environmental issues to the forefront of public discourse and driving meaningful change. When environmental problems receive high levels of media coverage, it can raise public awareness, generate public pressure, and lead to action by governments, businesses, and individuals. The potential for influence on policy is great, but history indicates that public opinion and policy does not always shift significantly. In the 1960s, the environmental justice movement in Warren County, North Carolina sparked national attention where a predominantly black community became a designated site for a hazardous waste landfill. Despite the national media attention, and the reported connection between historical discrimination and current environmental problems, the community protests failed against the state which did not implement meaningful change[x].
In 2016 the Flint Water Crisis in Michigan gained widespread media attention, bringing the issue of lead contamination in drinking water to the forefront of public discourse. The crisis led to a significant increase in public awareness about the importance of clean drinking water and resulted in a number of state and federal initiatives to improve water quality across the U.S. including: the revision of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Lead and Copper Rule, additional funding for the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, the installation of new water mains, the replacement of lead service lines, and the improvement of water treatment and distribution systems. However, even attention as large as the Flint Water Crisis has not brought immediate action to all state-regulated agencies. Political agenda and frequent administration changes in local government have played a large role in the stagnation or even ignorance of the status of water infrastructure.
Jackson, Mississippi, a city with an 83% black population, is also undergoing a clean-water crisis. As residents reported brown water, leaking sewage, and low water pressure in their pipes, several parts of the city have issued boil-water alerts[xi]. The civil rights organization National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has filed a complaint with the EPA accusing misallocation of federal funds intended for increasing access to clean water and replacement of dilapidated infrastructure. In September 2022, the Mississippi governor declared drinking water as safe in Jackson[xii]. As of mid-January 2023, the investigation by the EPA and boil-alerts are still ongoing, and the decrease in national media attention from August 2022 has subsequently reduced donations and volunteer helpxi.
The California drought received widespread media coverage from 2012 to 2016 bringing attention to the state’s water scarcity crisis. This increased public awareness led to initiatives aimed at reducing water waste, such as mandatory water restrictions and the promotion of drought-resistant landscapes. These initiatives also carried over to adjacent states, including Nevada. However, the drought remains a crisis.
Of the 63 articles from 2022 analyzed for this report, 15 articles focused on California, 4 articles on Nevada, and 4 articles on Arizona. Many families cited in these articles recount never having to worry about whether they have enough water to bathe with or drink, as well as operate their own farms. In these regions, residents blame poor management practices (especially legislative management) of agriculture and industry with regards to over-abstraction and significant reduction in groundwater supply[xiii].
Arizona’s La Paz County has expressed significant frustration and concern over the >400 foot
(~120 meter) drop of groundwater in roughly 60 years due to intensive agricultural water abstractionxiv. Wells operated for personal use are drying up across the state while large-scale farms have the means to drill deeper and access additional water. While not the sole contributor to the drop in groundwater in La Paz County, a Saudi Arabian company, which in its own country has a ban on growing thirsty crops like alfalfa and hay, operates farms and uses groundwater resources on over 10,000 acres in Arizona and 3,500 acres in Southern California. Groundwater is perceived as a vital resource to both residents and industry, including foreign industry, for continued drinking water and agricultural use in America. However, based on the nature of the prior appropriation doctrine of water rights in the Western U.S., public and industry sectors do not agree that a collective effort is needed for the preservation of the already-depleted aquifer resources. According to CNN, “the reason some rural residents feel powerless about the fate of their groundwater is because they say [Arizona’s] state lawmakers have thus far not acted to protect it”[xiv].
Perception and media coverage of groundwater varies depending on the region and the specific circumstances surrounding its use. In some areas, groundwater is seen as a reliable source of clean and abundant water. In many others, it is viewed as a scarce resource that is being depleted by over-abstraction or contaminated by pollutants. The geographic distribution of article topics in 2022 heavily favored discussions about water scarcity in California over other regions in the country. While California’s severe drought conditions are incredibly important and must be addressed, the rest of the nation is facing equally severe risks to groundwater resources, including access to clean water.
As people become more aware of environmental issues and the importance of sustainable resource management, the public perception of groundwater is likely to shift towards a more critical and conservation-minded view. An active nation-wide discussion of the impending risks to water security should be at the forefront of the latest 24-hour news cycles across the country’s largest news sources so that we can continue to build our capacity to deal with these issues. An added benefit would likely include an increase in compassion and collective problem-solving of these risks, especially to marginalized groups.
It is evident that despite groundwater’s importance to American society, this importance is not currently reflected in news media coverage of the issue. Not only do the number of news reports discussing groundwater pale in comparison to other – less impactful – topics, but the coverage is not comprehensive in the slightest. Despite climate change having a major impact on groundwater resources, two of three selected news agencies nearly ignored the topic. Groundwater merits greater discussion and coverage in media across the U.S. to educate and mobilize the public and their policy leaders. Otherwise, government and industry are not held accountable and will continue to fail to meet even their minimum sustainability targets.
[i] Riggi, Eliana, Jordan Friedman, Wang Schrijver, Marie Sophie Mayer, and Yunxiao Long. 2022. “United Nations 2023 Water Conference, Global Online Stakeholder Consultation: Themes for Interactive Dialogues: SUMMARY REPORT.”
[iv] Where Do News Sources Fall on the Political Bias Spectrum? – ‘Fake News,’ Lies and Propaganda: How to Sort Fact from Fiction – Research Guides at University of Michigan Library.” n.d. Accessed January 13, 2023.
[x] Khalsa, Indra. 2022. “The Impact of Water Infrastructure Inequality on Marginalized The Impact of Water Infrastructure Inequality on Marginalized Communities Communities Part of the Natural Resources Management and Policy Commons, and the Water Resource Management Commons The Impact of Water Infrastructure Inequality on Marginalized Communities.” https://scholar.utc.edu/honors-theses.
2023 UN Water Conference
The 2023 UN Water Conference will be held in New York City from March 22nd to March 24th. This global conference, co-hosted by the governments of the Netherlands and Tajikistan, is the first of its kind in almost 50 years and aims to address the urgent water crisis around the world by providing a platform for game-changing initiatives through the Water Action Agenda. The present of groundwater specialists in the conference is very important to use the momentum gained in the last year to hold discussions that foment groundwater as an adaptive solution for water crisis.
Have a look on the event if you wish to engage in some of these discussions. The youth participation is also highly welcomed!
MSc students from IHE Delft will hold an online Dialogue entitled “Building Youth Leadership for Accelerating Change” on the World Water Day, March 22, 2023, at 5:30 PM – 6:30 PM (CET). For more information about this event, please follow this link and don’t forget to register!
Additionally, the New York Water Week, March 18th to March 24th, offering various hybrid and online events. Join the community of water professionals around the world by participating in this week’s events. Some of the events are: World Water Film Festival (WWFF), The SDG 6 Research and Innovation Marathon Relay, Women and Water, Does Water Have a Gender, Valuing our Water – Investing in the Next Generation, Water: An Indigenous Perspective.
Groundwater and climate change: threats and opportunities
An essay of threats and opportunities to groundwater in a fast-changing climate has been recently published by our commission. There, the authors review how aquifers dive into the processes and complex feedback mechanisms between aquifers, climate change, the hydrological cycle, and the anthropical influence. Please, find the essay here.
Groundwater in the spotlight in 2022: an overview of the recent publications (2021)
In the last year, groundwater was at the summit. The advancements in groundwater sustainability were many. With World Water Day 2022 and the campaign “Groundwater: Making the invisible visible”, groundwater has also been in the spotlight of important discussions about water sustainability.
Whilst encompassing around 98% of the freshwater reservoirs, aquifers take an important place in regulating climate change. Aquifers are a reliable asset for near-natural solutions for water and energy storage. We are sharing an outlook of the publications in 2021 that relate to climate change and groundwater. Please find it available here.
Luís Ribeiro, 1955 – 2020
We are sad to report that our colleague and friend Luís Ribeiro passed away day 3 April 2020. He was 64 years old. Luís was a beautiful, brilliant and inspiring person, and his sudden loss comes as a huge shock to his family and friends, as well as the academic, groundwater and other communities worldwide who knew him very well.
Luís was Associate Professor at the Instituto Superior Técnico, in Lisbon, and had an intense activity in the field of hydrogeology, forming new generations of Portuguese and international hydrogeologists. He also upheld strong international engagement, particularly in several Latin American countries, where he dedicated himself to social aspects of water management and use. The co-oordinator of many projects at national and international level, Luís left an extensive collection of scientific publications published in the most prominent international and national scientific journals.
An IAH member for more than 20 years, Luís was President of the IAH Portuguese Chapter (AIH‑GP) from 2008 to 2015 and Chair of the Scientific Committee of the XXXV IAH Congress in Lisbon 2007
The global race for groundwater speeds up to feed agriculture’s growing needs
The need for groundwater is still increasing. In Arizona wells are considered to be drilled to tackle the water-shortage for agricultural use. However, there is a limit to the availability of fresh groundwater at depth …
Read more here.
For more news regarding groundwater see www.iah.org/news