Preventing Groundwater Contamination

July 12, 1985

Report Outline
Threat to Vital Resource
Curbing Contaminants
Turning to Alternatives
Special Focus

Threat to Vital Resource

Increased National Awareness of Need to Act

For every gallon of fresh water flowing in the nation's rivers and confined by lakes, roughly 24 more are hidden underground—enough to fill the Great Lakes at least four times. Groundwater forms a vast natural resource that has grown in importance even as it has become increasingly endangered. U.S. consumption of groundwater rose from 34 billion gallons a day in 1950 to 88 billion gallons a day in 1980. Approximately half the nation now depends on groundwater—often untreated—for drinking water. Yet contaminated groundwater has been reported in every state. Household, farm and industrial wastes are being detected in the nation's underground water supplies with increasing frequency.

Groundwater protection is limited in part because there is no explicit national policy to protect its quality. There are, however, numerous federal and state laws that affect groundwater quality by regulating activities and substances that pollute it. At least 16 federal statutes authorize programs that in some way touch on groundwater protection. All 50 states have ground-water programs of some type; some have tougher regulations than those required under federal laws. Taken together, these programs have made significant strides in detecting, correcting and preventing groundwater contamination, particularly pollution caused by hazardous wastes.

Achievements under these programs have been significant but have not solved the problem. The federal “Superfund” program has cleaned up relatively few of the abandoned hazardous-waste sites scattered across the country. Instead of encouraging waste recycling and incineration, restrictions on land dumping have increased the use of deep-well injection to get rid of hazardous waste. But there is no guarantee that wastes pumped deep into the earth eventually won't pollute nearby groundwater supplies. And scientific uncertainty about the health consequences of waterborne chemicals has turned federal standard-setting into regulatory quicksand, leaving disposal of many known contaminants uncontrolled.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Water Pollution
Jul. 15, 2016  Drinking Water Safety
Oct. 17, 2014  Protecting the Oceans
Jun. 18, 2010  Water Shortages
Aug. 01, 2003  Water Shortages
Nov. 24, 2000  Water Quality
Dec. 15, 1995  Global Water Shortages
Feb. 11, 1994  Water Quality
Apr. 19, 1991  California: Enough Water for the Future?
Jan. 30, 1987  Western Water
Jul. 12, 1985  Preventing Groundwater Contamination
Jan. 14, 1977  Western Water: Coming Crisis
Feb. 15, 1974  Drinking Water Safety
Aug. 11, 1965  Water Resources and National Water Needs
Dec. 08, 1960  Pollution of Water Supplies
Oct. 02, 1959  Water Needs and Resources
Jul. 01, 1955  Water for the Future
Jul. 24, 1953  Water Pollution
Feb. 15, 1950  Water Supply
Oct. 03, 1947  Unclean Waters
Sep. 17, 1935  Stream Pollution and the Disposal of Waste
Hazardous Substances and Nuclear Waste
Recycling and Solid Waste
Renewable Energy Resources and Alternative Fuels