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Lesson in liquidity: It’s well worth the cost to take arsenic and other toxins out of the public’s water supply, a new A&M study demonstrates


According to new research led by Texas A&M University scientists, the economic costs of fixing groundwater problems by decreasing pumping and treating drinking water are dwarfed by the overall long-term benefits.

The study, recently published in the American Geophysical Union (AGU) GeoHealth journal and in AGU’s Eos Editor’s Highlights, showed that funding water treatment is a worthwhile financial investment that substantially lowers the long- and short-term costs of low-quality water.

In communities that depend on aquifers for public water supplies, contaminated groundwater sources can affect every part of daily life — from public health, to schooling, to agricultural revenues and long-term environmental impacts.

The team studied an area in central Mexico where arsenic and fluoride are widely present at concentrations above the drinking water reference values in well water. Falling water tables in such semiarid agricultural regions can be disastrous, driving up energy costs and making the water toxic for human consumption. The scientists used real-world data to simulate future outcomes of various scenarios of water-pumping rates.

“Agriculture has an expansive footprint on the planet; no other industry is as important to the nourishment and growth of humans while simultaneously having the potential to limit human development through negative impacts to the environment,” said Peter Knappett, associate professor in the Texas A&M Department of Geology and Geophysics and lead author of the paper.

“This study explores how aggressive pumping of aquifers in semiarid regions for irrigation depresses economic growth and human development by driving up energy costs and reducing human cognitive abilities from exposure to rising concentrations of the naturally occurring neurotoxins arsenic and fluoride,” he said.

The research found overexploiting aquifers increases human exposure to geogenic neurotoxins. They compared the revenue generated from irrigation to the energy and human development costs of pumping over a 100-year future time period.

“The good news is that the cost of removing these neurotoxins is small compared to the gains from a more productive population owing to greater cognitive abilities,” Knappett said. “The bad news is that without this wide-scale intervention, the total revenue generated by all the crop sales in the region will be smaller than the costs imposed on the population.”