"Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others." #000000" face="Helvetica Neue, Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif">Jonathan Swift
Groundwater protection is a vague concept to many of us - its implications though, affect our day to day lives. The last time you heard about it was perhaps when studying the water cycle. Time to refresh your learning with today's interview with Mike Jones, Rob Ward and John Tellam; members of the UK Groundwater Forum steering committee.
Last year, the Lanarkshire firm Doonin Plant Ltd buried tons of industrial waste (tyres, carpets, electrical components, metal and timber). Before that, the company had five similar convictions - they were even fined £200,000, the highest fine for an environmental offence in Scotland. Why are criminal activities towards groundwater committed over and over again? How can governments trigger a real change in corporate decisions, when it comes to efficient waste management?
In terms of how governments can trigger real change in corporate decisions – businesses don’t make a decision to contaminate groundwater. These are not crimes directed at groundwater, it is in effect collateral damage, and contamination of groundwater is a consequence of illegal activities, such as the tipping of waste. We hope that by raising awareness through the environmental regulators and other groundwater professionals, businesses can recognise the damage done to groundwater quality by these illegal activities and come to understand the value of this precious resource. And of course we support imposing effective penalties for those who break the law and put groundwater quality at risk.
To what extent are British schools raising awareness about groundwater protection?
The UK Groundwater Forum recognises that schools provide an ideal place to increase public awareness of geology. Schools can enable debate, as well as providing the foundation for developing understanding and expertise in geological science including, of course, groundwater and the need for its protection. One topical example of where much better education on geology and hydrogeology would improve the quality of debate is around shale gas and fracking. Here much of the debate is very poorly informed due to a basic lack of understanding of geology and groundwater. In recent years the UK Groundwater Forum has established a very strong working relationship with the Earth Science Teachers Association and through them the examiners who set examination questions; this has helped to have relevant groundwater issues included in the subject material.
"Through these links we have been very pleased to see geology and in particular, groundwater being formally taught in schools and examined, with members of the Forum working with and supporting examiners to ensure that groundwater and hydrogeology is examined using real world examples."
How is the UK Groundwater Forum encouraging the discussion and teaching of groundwater protection in schools?
We have a range of educational materials that help us raise awareness of groundwater, including books, videos and illustrations, plus articles on a range of groundwater projects. We also have information and FAQs to support students, teachers and members of the public, introducing groundwater together with more detailed information to support a more in depth understanding. Our members also make particular efforts to raise awareness of groundwater in schools through face to face presentations as a contribution to broader STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) initiatives.
According to UK Business and Energy Minister Matt Hancock, shale gas licences are attracting solid interest from investors: "There’s clearly more and more big companies coming into this space with the resources they bring with them, and I warmly welcome that.” (Reuters, 2014) What is the UK Groundwater Forum position on fracking and securing UK's future energy supplies?
The UK Groundwater Forum exists to raise awareness of groundwater and does this in a number of ways (see groundwateruk.org). Our steering group represents sectors with an interest in groundwater management, protection, science and utilisation, and their role is to advise on the Forum's communication activities. We communicate information that is factual, aiming to stimulate thought and discussion, and whilst it highlights issues of relevance to groundwater we do not express a specific view or develop formal technical or policy positions on these issues. Rather, as a Forum, we promote the fundamental principle that groundwater needs to be protected and managed sustainably to ensure that there continues to be sufficient good quality water to meet the needs of both humans and the environment.
"We communicate information that is factual, aiming to stimulate thought and discussion, and whilst it highlights issues of relevance to groundwater we do not express a specific view or develop formal technical or policy positions on these issues."
Although issues such as amenity and air pollution may influence decisions on shale gas development, the UK Groundwater Forum aims to highlight that groundwater is a central issue from the point of view of contamination of water supplies and the water resources required. Our role is to inform the scientific and technological debate, and also highlight the requirement for impact assessment and regulation to ensure groundwater protection. It is important to establish where shale deposits likely to be exploited for gas and/or oil are overlain by significant aquifers. The vulnerability of groundwater to pollution from shale gas exploitation, including fracking, requires determining the separation between groundwater and shale gas reservoirs and the nature of the intervening strata. However, key to ensuring groundwater protection is effective borehole design, rigorous construction standards and policing, all within the framework of over-arching impact assessments. Crucial to a rigorous impact assessment is the need to determine the natural baseline concentrations of methane in these aquifers before any shale gas exploration commences.
Why is there a shortfall in Groundwater Specialists in the UK?
The last UK Groundwater Forum review was in 2007, just before the economic downturn. At the time, there was clear evidence of recruitment challenges; hydrogeological positions were not being filled or recruits had lower levels of skills or experience than employers initially wanted. This was the case across all levels of experience but was a particular problem at more senior levels.
There is perhaps a need for another review of groundwater specialist availability, to update the 2007 information. However, there is evidence that the UK is not so short of groundwater specialists as it was in 2007, at least at more junior levels. However, recently qualified MSc hydrogeologists are generally very readily employed, and the demand appears to be increasing, albeit slowly. Recruitment of experienced hydrogeologists continues to be problematic.
How can we encourage university students to engage in groundwater-related postgraduate degree courses?
A significant threat to sustaining a balance at junior levels is the cost to a student of undertaking an MSc degree; master's course fees are currently around £6.5k but may soon reach at least the £9k per year charged for many undergraduate courses. Living costs, of course, are extra. Such an increase in cost will be significant and may well impact the number of MSc students, particularly as there are no government loan schemes such as are available for students undertaking first degrees. The likely consequence is that many potential students will choose another career for which they either do not need a further degree or can find sponsorship or which is better paid.
“With the ending of government Research Council funding support, and little industry support due to the fragmented nature of the groundwater industry, students have to be very keen or wealthy to undertake an MSc in hydrogeology."
The implications of these issues are that unqualified staff may increasingly be required to carry out hydrogeological work, resulting in poor quality outputs. Possible solutions include more distance learning, but this will likely be to the detriment of the education received. However, as it's unlikely the market forces of a fragmented industry alone will sustain a supply-demand balance of MSc hydrogeologists, renewed government funding, perhaps an extended loan scheme as is available to undergraduates, is essential to secure high quality hydrogeology education.
How and where can I support the UK Groundwater Forum?
Anyone can get involved in the UK Groundwater Forum activities. Our programme is devised by a Steering Committee, with representatives from the water industry, research, academia, consultancy and regulators, but you can influence what the Forum does by contacting us with suggestions.
The Forum aims are to:
- Raise awareness of groundwater, its role in the environment and in water supply
- Provide information on groundwater to groups such as decision makers, policy makers and schoolchildren Improve groundwater education in schools by providing educational resources, or links to existing resources
- Promote careers in groundwater-related professions
- Produce and disseminate information and facilitate discussion on topical groundwater issues within the water and environment community Provide a means for those in the water and environment community to share information