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Groundwater for the 21st Century - Reviews

This book is advertised as a comprehensive primer for people who are not groundwater specialists. Dr. Conners has taught hydrogeology for 30 years and explicitly states that he is not presenting a textbook. Yet, I was happy to find that many of the familiar equations in hydrogeology still managed to escape the censor! There are even a few sample problems to chew on. Personally, I recall taking undergraduate classes in Public Health for which this book would have been ideal.

Chapter 1 is largely a review of an undergraduate Chem 101 course, Chapter 2 of Geo 101, and these may be readily skipped by those having college coursework in these fields. Darcy’s Law is not introduced until page 179, showing that the book is well supplied with introductory material for those who require it. Among the 14 chapters, a strength of the book is its extensive treatment of regional aquifers. The emerging topic of groundwater ecology, on the other hand, seems neglected, and I would have liked to have read more about karst.

As an avid devotee of springs, a minor point is Conners’ classification of springs into Nongravity (thermal) and Gravity springs, which seemed somewhat arbitrary. The USGS hydrologist Myron Fuller (1910) was the first to divide springs into artesian and gravity springs, without regard to temperature, and I think this is more workable than placing artesian springs in the gravity category, as Conners does. (Indeed, ALL springs must be gravity springs in some sense, as the laws of gravity are not suspended anywhere, so even Fuller’s dichotomy is not ideal.)

Epigraphic quotations adorn nearly every section in the book, the one I like best being on page 562, “It is simply unimaginable that American politics as we know it today will deliver the transformative changes needed” (Gus Speth). Some unintentional humor may be found on page 11, where the author claims that hydrogeologists are in great demand, a common assertion among educators. They should be in great demand, but I have friends who have left the field for greener pastures.

For such a thick book, the only typos that I noticed in a first reading are such things as on page 7 where the promoter of the historic Grenelle well in Paris is given as “Arayo” (instead of Arago). The element phosphorus is misspelled “phosphorous” (the adjectival form) throughout the book.

The book is well illustrated, with 280 diagrams, maps, and color photographs. The references are up to date, most of them since the year 2000, including discussions of the impacts of climate change and fracking, yet including the time-honored hydro-classics of our field. Appendix C is a list of the drinking water MCLs. The book does not contain a glossary of hydrogeological terminology, which I think would have been useful, especially considering the intended audience.

What niche does this book fill? According to the author, “this book will help to fill the yawning gap between the advanced texts and the popular science publications.” It is more comprehensive and detailed than Chapelle’s The Hidden Sea (2000) and in a way seems a layperson’s version of Driscoll’s Groundwater and Wells with its good descriptions of well construction and water sampling. Yet its discussion of concepts such as “hydrophilanthropy” carries it beyond a merely technical treatise, into the realm of advocacy. I sensed Malthusian undertones in many passages throughout the book, but which I am in entire agreement with. The population of Planet Earth is reaching its limits.

This book is highly recommended for its target audience, concerned citizens. In that sense it occupies a niche between facile popularization and the more weighty professional tomes such as Driscoll’s “Bible.” -- Reviewed by Greg Brick, Ph.D., in The Minnesota Ground Water Association Newsletter, 32: 4 (December 2013).


“Why learn about water?” asks the first sentence of the first paragraph of the preface of this scholarly and impassioned tome and then for more than 600 pages of dense prose – interspersed with charts, graphs, photographs, and the occasional chemical formula – John A. Connors proceeds to address the question. The simple and concise answer: “The water upon which our survival depends is fresh liquid water, and some 99% of that water exists beneath the land’s surface.” Connors, who has a doctorate in geology from the University of Idaho, further instructs that rarely has so plentiful a resource bee so threatened. The threats include commercial exploitation, contamination and – perhaps the greatest threat of all – by the thirst of a burgeoning human population.

Connor presumes that most “users” of his book will not be professional hydrogeologists. His goal is to provide a resource that will be helpful to those who manage water, study water, write about water, or simply delight in water with all its mysteries and benefits. He strives to be readable and yet avoid the vice of oversimplification; thus along with, for instance, chapters about the hydrologic cycle, aquifers, and contemporary groundwater supply issues, there are also chapters on vadose water and phreatic water and applied hydrogeology.

Connors, in his subtitle, calls his book “a primer.” It is rather more than that, but it will serve anyone involved in the ongoing debate over water use who strives for facts to base an opinion.  -- Foreword Reviews, Spring, 2014


Groundwater is routinely referred to as an invisible resource, on account of its existence underground and because it historically received little or no attention from policy makers and planners. But the importance of groundwater is gaining in recognition along with the increasing pressure on the world’s freshwater resources. There is a rapidly growing dependence on groundwater globally, in all sectors of society, with powerful yet cheap pumps available for various user groups and purposes. The last few decades’ development, however, puts a large share of today’s known and utilizable aquifers under threat when abstractions exceed replenishments. Other, fossil aquifers whose water contents date back thousands of years are unknowingly but efficiently emptied. Natural and human-induced contamination  of aquifers leave groundwater resources unfit in many places. At depths, the mineral content is often too high for the water to even be called “freshwater”. Many of these problems are believed to become aggravated by impacts associated with climate change. Inherent modeling complexities make it difficult to make any closer predictions with regards to groundwater, though.

For a wide audience.  Meanwhile, the global water cycle has intensified, as higher temperatures cause the atmosphere to hold more water vapour. As American geologist John A. Conners points out in his recent book, the extraction of groundwater may be contributing as much as 25 per cent of the total sealevel rise. Less water remaining in aquifers means more water ends up stored in the oceans. Mr. Conners has written “A Primer for Citizens of Planet Earth”, for those who may need an overview of the science as well as the current policy debates surrounding this limited resource. The result is a comprehensive and updated text for a wide audience, from the hydrologist in search of the politics and management discourse to the decision maker who needs a basic understanding of the relevant chemistry, physics, geology, maths and engineering. Professionals and laymen alike will find the language accessible, with pedagogic pointers to those less versed in the field’s terminology: “Water in the zone of aeration is vadose water (think of the ‘va’ as implying many ‘vacant’ pore spaces)” (pp. 42f). The author points to some urgent matters, such as sanitation; while it is largely a surface water problem, “impure surface waters often contaminate the groundwater and many solutions to the inexcusable conditions in which many must live will involve groundwater use” (p. 458).

Guide to a complex reality.  From historical perspectives on the use of groundwater, via a chapter on applied hydrogeology to how we together must face tomorrow’s challenges, this is an ambitious piece of work. Numerous graphs, photos and examples aid our understanding of a complex reality, such as problematising the development of the Nile Delta and the Chinese Haihe River wetlands, and the existence of a bottled brand from water-scarce Fiji. Mr. Conners observes that “[e]ffective governance of water resources is absolutely necessary if fair, intelligent use of water supplies is to be achieved and maintained” (p. 520). As the go-to source on groundwater, Conners’ book has some shortcomings. There is an inevitable American bias in references and statistics. The author only briefly touches on such hot policy-related topics as water being a human right, the need for a holistic approach, enforceable rules, subsidies in management plans, and the need for water conservation (beginning with changed consumer habits). A list of Further Readings would have been welcome. The book lacks a complete table of contents and index, and with many of the topics covered missing in the latter it is difficult to navigate through. The reviewer was thankful for access to a searchable electronic version of this book, which is a laudable effort to increase the groundwater literacy of the world. Dr. Jenny Gronwall, Waterfront, No. 1 March, 2014.


The title describes a topic that is critical to the understanding of fresh water. Whether your interests lie with wetlands, lakes or rivers a deeper understanding will emerge with the consideration of the unseen volumes beneath the surface. There is an intricate articulation of waters between all of these forms, for instance, wetlands deliver water into aquifers and receive waters back. As the growing human population requires more water, the subsurface waters are becoming more important. As industry demands more water the scale of influence upon the earth’s largest reservoirs of useful water is magnified.

The book, reveals the complexity of subsurface waters and the consequences of human interactions with it. To a geologist, the depth of detail will feel very satisfying. To the non-scientist who enjoys non-fiction, the introductory chapters provide a broad background in chemistry, physics and the peculiar properties of water itself. Careful attention is given to the readers need to understand the essentials of earth science from plate tectonics and mineralogy to the water cycle.

The depths of human impacts on surface and sub-surface waters are revealed with historic perspectives and the profound effects of modern technology. Many authors have raised concerns over the damage to surface waters by commerce and industry. Until now, a comprehensive view of the fate of our critical groundwater has not been so clearly and comprehensively revealed. All advocates for the health of our rivers, lakes and wetlands will have a more complete understanding of contemporary water issues from Groundwater for the 21st Century by John A. Conners, a McDonald & Woodward Publication.Ray Stewart, Ohio Wetlands Association, page 6, March, 2014.


Most of us never think about water. We turn on the faucet and it pours out, fresh and clean. But for a sizable portion of humanity, water is scarce and unsafe to drink. We, unthinkably, waste a lot of fresh water, expecting it will always be available like the air we breathe. 

Although the Earth has abundant water, only a tiny portion is fresh, clean water we can drink. As the human population climbs above 7.2 billion, the availability of fresh drinkable water becomes an issue. Ground water is an important source of the fresh water we will need so it is important that we understand what ground water is. As the author states: ”The main reason for learning about ground water, then, is its vital importance as an essential resource for human needs—indeed for all life on Earth—and the rapidly encroaching necessity to manage and conserve fresh water far more effectively than we have ever done before.”

The book includes 14 chapters, three appendices, references, a preface, and an index. The author begins with basic concepts of geology and the hydrologic cycle. He next discusses surface water, vadose water, and phreatic water. He discusses wells, aquifers, and hydrogeolic regions. He focuses the topics of groundwater chemistry, water pollution, and applied hydrogeology. He finishes by discussing contemporary groundwater supply issues, the challenges and future perspectives. He concludes: “Unbridled growth, be it of human population, economic, environmental or material commodities, has led to a depletion of our most precious resources—biodiversity, fresh water, and soil.” The chapters contain numerous diagrams and photos making complex terms clear and understandable. There are many useful sidebars, for example, one describing the impact of drawdowns on the Florida Aquifer leading to possible sea water incursion into the ground water for seacoast communities. This book would be a valuable resource for a course in environmental science. Donald Logsdon Jr., NSTA Recommends, posted 1/7/14.


On returning from the Christmas and New Year break, I found a package on my desk from a publisher in the US. Inside was a copy of “Groundwater for the 21st: A Primer for Citizens of Planet Earth” by Dr John A. Connors.  Full disclosure: they asked for a review and a blog post in return.  As RWSN is all about promoting better understanding and use of groundwater, I don’t see a problem with this, so here we go:

My first question is why does this book exist? Groundwater is a critically important resource and one that is poorly understood. When I started my career as a young water resources officer in the UK, I was constantly amazed that even quite learned folk imagined great caverns and rivers underground.  Yes, you do get pretty, karstic limestone caves full of water, but that is a tiny fraction of the world’s groundwater resource.

Groundwater in the 21st Century claims to fill the gap between maths-heavy text books and narrative-driven popular science books. At over 600 pages, it is hardly a concise primer: for that I would recommend: “Introducing Groundwater” by Michael Price. However, while long it is written is an easy, accessible style.  The book is also well structured and makes few knowledge assumptions of the reader: this must have been tough for the author because the ‘curse of knowledge’ often means that a writer can sometimes leave the audience behind through fear of being seen as patronising (I am frequently guilty of this).

Because the book is well structured I found it easy to dip into and to navigate around. The chapters cover the basics of the properties of water and just why it is such an incredible substance. Even for those who work on this topic everyday, it is a worthwhile reminder:

1. Introduction
2. Geology
3. The Hydrologic Cycle
4. Surface Water
5. Vadose Water
6. Phreatic Water
7. Wells
8. Aquifers and Hydrogeologic Regions
9. Groundwater Chemistry
10. Groundwater Pollution
11. Applied Hydrogeology
12. Contemporary Groundwater Supply Issues
13. Facing the Challenge
14. Perspectives on Tomorrow

As well as being clear and readable, it also goes beyond the the text-book world of the hydrological cycle and porosity values and also talks about the challenges facing the modern hydrogeologist and the skills needed to be effective.  Connors does his best to help the reader navigate through the plethora of technical terms – no mean feat. However, even with the help that the author provides, I wonder who much the technical terms are a barrier to a more lay audience.

So what about the downsides:

• A mention or section of handpumps would have been nice, but that’s my predictable Skat bias!
• Being a US book by a US author there is an understandable US-bias, but not over-powering and the last couple of chapters take a global view.
• Despite the author’s claim that there is a gap between text book and popular science book, I’m not convinced that this book will reach its target audience because of its size and the really dated cover photography, typography and layout. If this book is for the 21st century reader then it should look like it is from 2014 not 1974.  It looks really, really old fashioned. Which is a shame, because the content is broadly up to date with the issues that it deals with, such as climate change and the Human Right to Water and Sanitation.
• Inside, the diagrams are clear and functional, but are perhaps too text booky. The introduction says that it isn’t a text book so why does it look like one?
• For those in developing country contexts, the price of the book could be a barrier (USD 59.95 for the hardcover, USD39.95 for the paperback, but discounts are available from retailers).
Overall, the content and writing style of this book is excellent and was a helpful revision for me on core hydrological principles and broadened my understanding of areas that I am less familiar with. However, it is let down badly by how it is presented and this is a shame, because i think it will put off readers who would otherwise enjoy it and find it useful.  I will certainly keep this copy close to hand.

My recommendation to the publisher is:
1. employ a good graphic designer and redo the cover and some of the illustrations
2. consider publishing some of the chapters as individual publications, or e-books: making them more bite size is more likely to appeal to the busy professional who, of the get the book, is most likely to put on the “that looks interesting, must get around to reading” pile. Yes, I’m sure that you have one of those too. – Rural Water Supply Network, Review by Sean Furey, 13 January 2014


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