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Fractious Waters

The controversy over fracking finds echoes in 19th-century concerns over groundwater.

A pump and ventilation shaft in operation at Kilsby railway tunnel, Northamptonshire, 1837Groundwater, the water located below the surface of the earth, usually within rock formations, is important in Britain as elsewhere. It supplies over half the drinking water in the densely populated lowland region of England. It is now in the spotlight because of the controversy surrounding ‘fracking’, the use of pressurised liquid to break rock in order to access gas. There are a range of problems associated with fracking: destabilisation of the geological substructure, the industrialisation of the landscape, through the drilling of numerous wells, and between these the potential for pollution of groundwater both by chemicals forced through the wells and the methane released from the rock. Yet the way in which groundwater came to be a vital resource to society was itself a controversial process and its history is instructive.

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.

European and British science was at odds on the matter. The word hydrogeology, meaning the study of groundwater, was borrowed from the French by British scientists in the 1820s and again in the 1850s, but when one geologist claimed to have newly minted the word in the 1870s his claim was accepted. International communication has improved since then, yet contrasting attitudes to fracking, as with groundwater, are apparent. Fracking is widely practised in the US, is being advocated in Britain, yet is illegal in some European countries.

Underlying assumptions are significant. William Buckland, a leading geologist of the early 19th century, referred to ‘that inexhaustible subterraneous supply of water which Providence has laid up in store wherever the earth was habitable’. The idea of providence was still around in 1887 when an engineer called Grover claimed that: ‘It was Nature’s wonderful provision that there should be this subterranean volume of water, kept at a uniform temperature all the year round, ready for the requirements of man.’ While providence now has less hold on our outlook, there remains the modern assumption that if a project makes a profit it must be a good thing, regardless of whether there is net benefit to society.

History is rarely about simple parallels, so no direct lessons are to be learned when we look at the history of the exploitation of groundwater and compare it to the concerns surrounding fracking. But there are some warnings to be heeded: we need to treat technologists pursuing economic aims with caution; we should realise the advantages in keeping informed about a range of overseas experiences and standpoints; and appreciate that, while some opposition may be exaggerated in its appeal to emotion rather than reason, at their core, concerns can be rooted in reality. One argument in favour of fracking is that sucking resources out of the ground will enrich society. There was lots of opposition when the exploitation of groundwater was proposed, but we got on and did it and it continues to keep us supplied with cheap water. There are, however, real physical differences between groundwater use and fracking. The latter entails permanent change to geological structures, works a non-
replenished resource and risks contamination that is a long-term threat. We should proceed with caution.

Raymond Smith is an environmental historian.

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