“Profiles in Environmentalism” is a recurring segment on our blog where we shine a light on the dedicated people who are working to preserve the world around them. Big or small, local or national, every environmental organization works towards the same goal: providing a greener world for future generations.

The ground beneath our feet may seem like a solid mass of soil and rock. But nestled between the crevices of the rock, dirt and sand, lays an enormous quantity of water. The ground essentially acts like an all-encompassing sponge, absorbing water and everything it comes into contact with on the surface. As water is absorbed into the ground, it filters down through the soil until it completely saturates the ground. This area of saturation forms an aquifer, a vital water resource utilized by 51% of the US population.

The ubiquity of groundwater allows cities and towns to flourish in areas that have no significant rivers or lakes to draw water from. But the flipside is that as these cities grow and develop the chances of toxins and hazardous waste accumulating in the water table increases. An all too common example of this comes from the use of pesticides. Homeowners who want to keep their garden free of bugs often over apply toxic chemicals to their plants. Those chemicals are picked up by the rain and either seep into the water table or end up being carried away through storm drains. And while these chemicals might not harm common houseplants, they do have the capacity to make both people and wildlife sick.

The threat of contaminated groundwater came to the forefront of one Nebraskan woman’s attention in 1984. An epidemiologist by the name of Dr. Dennis Weisenberger published a report concerning the effects of elevated nitrate levels in the Platte River Valley of Nebraska. He believed that the chemicals in fertilizer used by farms in the Valley could be responsible for the region’s increased rates of Leukemia and Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The report caught the eye of Susan Seacrest, whose own family had been suffering from a variety of illnesses over the years. Intrigued, she met Dr. Weisenberger and soon learned about the inherent dangers of groundwater contamination. He encouraged her to investigate further, emphasizing the importance of gaining the support of her fellow citizens to draw attention to the problem in the Valley.

The desire to protect her family from further harm drove her early research into groundwater contamination, but she soon found that her work could help more than just her own family. A year after reading the article, she founded The Groundwater Foundation, a non-profit organization devoted entirely to protecting the water table of communities across the country.

Students learn about groundwater in the classroom.

In the early years, the Foundation focused on educating the next generation of citizens about the significance of groundwater. One of the biggest outreach events put forward by the Groundwater Foundation was the Children’s Groundwater Festival, an opportunity for Nebraska’s youth to learn about the water that sustains their living. Prior to the festival, many thought that the subject of water would be a non-starter for kids, but the Foundation’s message proved to be a universal one. Over 1,700 children signed up for the festival over the first week, shattering estimates of 50 or so children participating.

Over time, the Foundation established new programs to bring entire communities together to protect their groundwater. Starting in 1994, the Foundation began recognizing individual communities that took steps to minimize groundwater contamination through Resulted Oriented Activities, or ROA’s. Communities are recognized as Groundwater Guardians based on the plans they put forward to protect their groundwater, whether by enacting a protection plan for local aquifers or organizing cleanups in areas that are prone to contamination. As a community makes progress towards its stated goals, they earn their status as a Groundwater Guardian, connecting them with a network of like-minded communities across the country.

The Foundation has also enacted a parallel program called Groundwater Guardian Green Sites. The Green Site program recognizes green space managers who take steps to mitigate or eliminate their impact on groundwater. Eligible green spaces include golf courses, athletic fields, college campuses, residential & office parks, wellhead protection areas, and many other sites.

Outside of their community programs, the Groundwater Foundation advocates for a number of water safety measures that cities can adopt to mitigate groundwater contamination. One of the most prescribed methods of water safety for individual towns is establishing a wellhead protection area. These protection areas are designed to protect the well water that a city relies on for drinking water and industrial activity. Creating a wellhead protection area involves determining the geologic makeup of the aquifer, which informs the flow of groundwater and the physical boundaries of the aquifer. From this information a city can create an accurate map of the areas that can directly impact water quality.

An example of a center pivot irrigation system.

The Foundation also promotes efficient irrigation such as center pivot irrigation, a system designed to increase the efficiency of irrigation systems used by farmers. Traditional irrigation methods are designed to provide water to crops that are arranged in rectangular fields. Providing enough water to these fields is labor-intensive and wastes a lot of water in the process. Center pivot irrigation changes the layout of the field such that each crop is arranged in a circle, at the center of which is a sprinkler system that extends across the radius of the field. Once activated, the sprinkler system revolves around the entire field dispensing just enough water to effectively cover every plant in the crop.

The Groundwater Foundation began with the idea that citizens who work together towards a common goal can achieve anything. The Foundation’s long history bears that idea out. Public awareness of groundwater contamination has never been greater, and cities across the country have adopted their own groundwater protection plans at the urging of their communities. Their efforts have helped protect many people across the country, and their continued advocacy for groundwater protection promises to protect many more.