Han D, Currell MJ, Cao G. Deep challenges for China’s war on water pollution. Environ Pollut. 2016 Sep 6. pii: S0269-7491(16)31036-3. doi: 10.1016/j.envpol.2016.08.078.
China’s Central government has released an ambitious plan to tackle the nation’s water pollution crisis. However, this is inhibited by a lack of data, particularly for groundwater. We compiled and analyzed water quality classification data from publicly available government sources, further revealing the scale and extent of the crisis. We also compiled nitrate data in shallow and deep groundwater from a range of literature sources, covering 52 of China’s groundwater systems; the most comprehensive national-scale assessment yet. Nitrate pollution at levels exceeding the US EPA’s maximum contaminant level (10 mg/L NO3N) occurs at the 90th percentile in 25 of 36 shallow aquifers and 10 out of 37 deep or karst aquifers. Isotopic compositions of groundwater nitrate (δ15N and δ18ONO3 values ranging from -14.9‰ to 35.5‰ and -8.1‰ to 51.0‰, respectively) indicate many nitrate sources including soil nitrogen, agricultural fertilizers, untreated wastewater and/or manure, and locally show evidence of de-nitrification. From these data, it is clear that contaminated groundwater is ubiquitous in deep aquifers as well as shallow groundwater (and surface water). Deep aquifers contain water recharged tens of thousands of years before present, long before widespread anthropogenic nitrate contamination. This groundwater has therefore likely been contaminated due to rapid bypass flow along wells or other conduits. Addressing the issue of well condition is urgently needed to stop further pollution of China’s deep aquifers, which are some of China’s most important drinking water sources. China’s new 10-point Water Pollution Plan addresses previous shortcomings, however, control and remediation of deep groundwater pollution will take decades of sustained effort.