Friday, December 27, 2013

19th-century controversies over groundwater

The new issue of History Today has an article by Raymond Smith, "Fractious Waters", on historical precedents of current controversies over "fracking". Smith writes:
Pump and ventilation shaft in operation,
Kilsby railway tunnel, Northamptonshire, 1837
(History Today)
Although springs have been used from pre-human times and wells since pre-history, the intense exploitation of water supplies is less than two centuries old. Part of the impetus for using groundwater was the sheer quantity of water that had to be disposed of from some railway cuttings and tunnels, which helps to explain the interest of the engineer Robert Stephenson, who commented in 1840 on the ‘enormous reservoir which nature has supplied us with in the Chalk’. Not surprisingly the chalk aquifers around London were a focus for the early discussion. London was the hub for the new railways and had a growing demand for water due to  its rapidly swelling population and the demands of sanitation.
The advocates of the use of groundwater emphasised unlimited opportunity. The initial attempts to exploit it were often founded on unthinking enthusiasm and many early schemes were abandoned. By the 1870s, however, scientific understanding and the use of technology was sufficiently advanced to establish a groundwater industry.
Opposition to the exploitation of groundwater often came from watermill owners, who feared the loss of water in the rivers that drove their mills. One Reverend Clutterbuck, a leading opponent, dismissed groundwater use as ‘artificial’. He had chastised Stephenson for a ‘presumptuous interference with this process of nature’. Yet, as is the way, Clutterbuck’s opposition led to greater understanding and he was credited with the discovery that the surface of water tables rises upwards under hills. It did not stop Stephenson, who had described the related concept of the ‘cone of depression’ around pumped wells, ridiculing Clutterbuck’s ideas.
Much opposition to the water industry was based on exaggerated fears. The 19th-century geologist David Ansted claimed that: ‘The whole of the Chalk might be practically dry at the top for a considerable depth, and yet evaporation would go on steadily and continue to remove the water from the bottom.’ In the long term, however, the widespread concern with resource depletion was justified and problems became obvious at the end of the 20th century, when the headwaters of some rivers dried up because the groundwater that fed them had been gradually siphoned off.

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