The Sun's science reporter Scott Dance, on the job there for about six months following work at the Baltimore Business Journal, put a longer perspective on Maryland's effort to grapple with climate and weather changes: a possible looming water woe.
In Sunday's edition he reported on problems hiding in plain sight - especially to hydrologists with an interest in the state's literal (and in this case littoral) plain. It is not a scoop. A USGS press release a month ago called attention to the essential news. A few outlets wrote it then. But last out, best dressed. Dance moves the ball forward with some investigative digging into what if anything public agencies - ones that have long known about the water and geology issues the state faces - are doing about them.
The starting point is a that while Baltimore and much of the state get drinking water from brand new rain collected in reservoirs, a good portion of the state depends on wells. Some of those wells tap a string of world-class aquifers if one ranks such things by age. He writes:
The water flowing in them is tens of thousands to more than 2 million years old, according to recently published research, a fact that had been theorized but never proved. The finding stacks Maryland aquifers up against the few to have been dated so old, including those underneath the Sahara Desert and the Australian outback. And it shows that a resource many take for granted cannot, in fact, be renewed on a human time scale, geologists said.
The news is important. One suggests that if Dance had defined 'age' as the time the water has been in the upper Patapsco aquifer, the one sampled by US Geological Survey and Maryland state geologists, he might have held off a few of the comments from readers. One brayed about silly scientists who don't know water in the ocean and in the rain is old too so what's the big deal? Hmmm - the naysayers, one must recognize, may be habitual scientist bashers, so maybe they would just have found something else as excuses for their jibes. Anyway, Dance dove into isotopic analysis of the water without any hint how the key ones, Chlorine-36 and Helium-4, tell geochemists how long water has been in the ground since it was rain. Don't ask me either. I'd have to look it up. Another thing which may have to do with tight space for it: the story ought to have named the journal (see Grist below) where the newest work appeared.
But such holes aside, what he does add to the news is a history of the issue as it has played out among hydrologists and state planners who are supposed to listen to them. We learn of a local drought 13 years ago that led to a commission on water resources and that called for more research into the renewableness (or lack thereof) of various aquifers, for more staffing, and for a system of reviewing and renewing permits for well digging and use. He tells of the scant funding allotted so far. He tells of the frustration among experts who know ancient aquifers got that way because not much recent rain reaches them. Drain them and your wells go kaput for generations. "But as scientists, there's only so much they can do," he writes. "Their budgeting and legislative affairs colleagues can make pleas for money, but the geologists stick to the science."
And, if they are lucky, the scientists will get a call from a reporter from a major news agency who is willing to take their pleas public for them. Dance did just that.
From last month:
- USA Today (On Deadline Blog) Michael Winter: Million-year-old water found under Maryland ;
- Charlie Petit