Osterholm warns of threats to groundwater


Michael Osterholm

In a world with a constantly growing population and an increasing threat of pollution from tens of thousands of chemical compounds, clean water will someday be as valuable as oil, Michael Osterholm predicted in a forum on groundwater sustainability and quality.

Osterholm, an international expert on infectious diseases, was the featured speaker Thursday, Oct. 8, in a forum co-sponsored by the Freshwater Society and three League of Women Voters chapters. To view the presentation, click here to see a video taped by the Lake Minnetonka Cable Commission, Channel 21.

About 100 people listened raptly as Osterholm talked about the world’s reliance on groundwater and the threats groundwater faces from overuse and from chemical contamination. Osterholm, who serves on an advisory group for the Freshwater Society, said he was convinced that  in Minnesota, and around the world, groundwater is being pumped faster than it is being returned to aquifers through recharge from rain and snow.

His major points included:

  • Since 1900, humans’ pumping of fresh water – both from ground and surface sources – has increased significantly faster than the rate of population growth.


  • Currently about 700 million people across the world live in “water stressed” countries, according to a United Nations report. By 2025, 3 billion people will be living under similar conditions.


  • Over the last two generations, groundwater increasingly has been jeopardized by the development of 30,000 industrial chemical compounds. Those chemicals pose a much more serious long-term threat to water than biological contaminants like coliform bacteria.


  • In some parts of Minnesota, residents drink water that thousands or tens of thousands of years old and is free of any human-made contaminants. In other parts of the state, the water is much younger and much more likely to be polluted by industrial and agricultural products.

  • The disposal of pharmaceutical products is a growing problem.

  • Modeling conducted by the Metropolitan Council predicts groundwater declines in parts of Ramsey, Washington, Dakota and Scott counties by 2050 if communities try to serve growing populations at current rates of groundwater use.

  • Minnesota is likely, over the next few decades, to face demands that it share its relatively abundant water with drier areas of the country.


Osterholm’s talk was videotaped by LMCCTV-Channel 21, a Lake Minnetonka-area cable television provider. It will be broadcast at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 13, and Thursday, Oct. 15. The program also will be available to Mediacom cable subscribers.


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