Look offshore, a deep subsea well to sink

Todd Jarvis proposes that undersea freshwater aquifers mean that we never need worry about water scarcity.

Water, water everywhere
Nor any drop to drink
Water, water everywhere
Look offshore, a deep subsea well to sink

Apologies to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by English poet Samuel Coleridge, but this passage is a fitting introduction to the future of water supplies as our Earth “ship” slips into uncharted waters in the wake of climate change.  Yes, desalination of sea and brackish waters will likely become ever more popular as the costs per cubic meter continue to decrease. But the real opportunity is not the sea, per se, but rather what lies below the sea.

Researchers located on the driest continent, Australia, posit that 500,000 cubic km of freshwater are stored in subsea aquifers on continental shelves around the world. “The volume of this water resource is a hundred times greater than the amount we’ve extracted from the Earth’s sub-surface in the past century since 1900.” While the Australians are famous for hosting some of the most famous water diviners in the world, this discovery is not wishful thinking, but rather the result of careful examination of offshore drilling data for oil and gas on the continental shelves across the globe.

Oil_platform_in_the_North_Sea
Source: Creative commons/Wikipedia

With so much water at our disposal as we spin towards Life plus 2 Meters (and perhaps then some), why would there be any future talk of water wars? This is where things get deep as the legal arguments for who has access and ownership for sub-seabed water is not crystal clear.  Does “groundwater” fall under the UN Commission on the Law of the Sea where countries can claim ownership to an Exclusive Economic Zone that extends 370 km offshore from its coastal baseline? Or is it possible that a variant such as the Law of the Hidden Sea might apply to deep groundwater that is hydraulically connected to the sea? Perhaps water stored in “fossil aquifers” such as offshore aquifers should be viewed as part of the common(s) heritage of humans? Or, perhaps government should step aside and let business into the world of groundwater governance much like how the US and Mexico are dealing with subsea hydrocarbons in the Gulf of Mexico by “unitizing” maritime transboundary reservoirs?

The underwater village of Atlit-Yam located offshore of Israel provides evidence that there is Life afterplus 2 Meters.  The water supply of the village of Atlit Yam was apparently based in part on groundwater. One of the oldest wells in the world, a 7,500-year-old water well, lies between 8 to 12 meters beneath sea level in the Bay of Atlit.

Samuel Coleridge once said “Common sense in an uncommon degree is what the world calls wisdom.” While climate change may be the “albatross around one’s neck”, the “commons” sense development of offshore aquifers will ultimately lead to more cooperation and wiser use of onshore water resources.


Todd Jarvis is a hydrogeologist with over 30 years of experience. Prior to joining Oregon State University with the Institute for Water & Watersheds and the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, he worked for global water/wastewater engineering and groundwater engineering firms. He blogs on water at Rainbow Water Coalition and wrote Contesting Hidden Waters: Conflict Resolution for Groundwater and Aquifers. He serves as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Oregon Law School teaching Environmental Conflict Resolution and a consultant to UNESCO in their Shared Waters training program.

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