Groundwater Contamination

This post was written by Bita Heshmati. She is an undergraduate student studying Philosophy and Economics at SFU. She is interested in learning more about environmental trends and the intersection between Environment and Economics. Also, she is a music lover!



Groundwater accounts for 30% of the world’s source of freshwater and around 2 billion people rely on it. Did you know that about 30% of Canadians rely on groundwater for domestic use? That number includes around 29% of British Columbia, 67% of New Brunswick and all of Prince Edward Island. What these numbers show us is that clean groundwater is of vital importance even to a country like Canada where there is an abundance of clean surface water in most parts of it.

Another reason why clean groundwater is so important is that part of groundwater flows into rivers, streams, and lakes so the pollutants that contaminate it such as leaky tanks, petroleum products, and fertilizers will eventually contaminate surface water, putting human health and the whole ecosystem at risk. Moreover, groundwater generally moves slowly so it usually takes a long time for the problems to appear, making it very costly or impossible to clean. In 2012, there were 126,000 recorded groundwater sites in the United States that were contaminated, ten percent of which might have polluted drinking water. The estimated cost of cleaning them was $110 to 127 billion dollars. Even if we spend billions of dollars to clean the groundwater, the technology is not advanced enough to always do the job.


Due to significant costs associated with restoration of water quality and lack of technology, preventive measures would be the most cost-effective and best protect our water supply. For instance, the cost associated with the removal of a leaking storage tank containing toxic waste is millions of dollars. In 2008, there were roughly 5000 contaminated sites owned or controlled by the federal government and 28,000 contaminated sites on non-federal lands. These numbers reflected the lack of proper regulations and proper disposal methods for waste in the past. A preventive measure would have been to an introduce tighter regulations to push firms to dispose of their toxic waste properly and monitor and repair their wells and other means of operation that may have lead to contamination, more frequently.

Another preventive measure is to inform companies about the implicit costs associated with groundwater pollution such as permanent loss of a groundwater supply or significant financial costs of restoring water quality, infection and death, loss of land and vegetation etc.. Many groundwater related problems that arise are due to a lack of knowledge or care about its value and its effect on our well-being. While knowledge may not be as strong an incentive as a monetary one, it can at least demonstrate that as far as to the effects of pollution on the ecosystem and human health goes, ground and surface water should be considered the same. That, in itself, would be a good starting point for addressing groundwater pollution.


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