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Interiew with Dr. John Cherry

Updated: Aug 7, 2022

Dr. John Cherry is the creator of the academic field 'Contaminant hydrogeology', founder of 'The Ground Water Project' and Recipient of the 2020 Stockholm Water Prize, fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and The Geological Society of America.

Shreya: You are a respected groundwater expert, but did you always know that this was going to be what you wanted to focus on or, how did you get interested in this topic area?

John: Well, when I was 18, I took, an introductory geology class as an undergraduate in geological engineering, and a very enthusiastic guest professor showed up.

And gave one lecture on groundwater, which he was away ahead of his time. And he said, it's a very important field and it's gonna grow and all of that. And he said he had an opening for a summer job in his research group at the Saskatchewan research council. So I applied for that job. And that put me in the company of researchers, who were enthusiastic about this at this little niche at that time, nobody really cared about groundwater. So I got caught early, kind of by accident amongst people who were enthusiastic and believed in its importance. And I was lucky.

Shreya: If you hadn't gone if you hadn't found out about groundwater, is there something else that you think you might have gone on to?

John: Well, I was environmentally inclined. I was in second-year geological engineering and geological engineering kind of allows you to go outside because it's a combination of geology and other things. So, it's very interdisciplinary. My parents were documentary filmmakers. So, at the family meal table, I heard a lot about the environment and all sorts of related things. So I think I would've ended up in something environmental. And that was back in the sixties before the environment really was an issue at all.

Shreya: Interesting. Did the fact that there wasn't already a widespread environmental movement change the way people saw your work or change the way you had to present your work to other people, to get them to pay attention and understand that this was important?

John: Well, it was so early in the environmental movement. Very few people who were in this niche were just a little club of people, you know, across Canada, US, we were just enjoying what we were doing. And life was very simple. It was enough for search money and very little competition. So it was actually a wonderful era as a precursor before it became, you know, known in the 1970s and 1980s.

Shreya: Has the understanding of groundwater management changed significantly over the years?

John: Well, when I first started my career, groundwater pollution was not an issue at all and that's where I made my specialty. So I was very early and in that sense, very, very lucky because I was in the research area than a decade or so before others and could do foundational work. It's always nice to be in a field. Very, very young. water supply, and hydro geology was what was taught in universities, basically wells and pumping water out.

So all the negative impacts really weren't much on the table until the seventies and eighties. And now there are huge amounts of information, but it's almost all tied up in the peer review journals and very little of it actually gets used.

Shreya: Can you tell us a little bit about your journey to that and some of your experiences, some key highlights you think you might want to share?

John: Well, when I discovered this field and got a summer job at the age of 18 or 19, uh, and then I graduated, um, in geological engineering, uh, and, uh, wanted to go on and do a graduate degree. So I opened up all my textbooks, [00:05:00] uh, and at that time, most of them were authored by professors from California several of them professors at UC Berkeley. So I applied to UC Berkeley and went there for my master's degree. And then I changed to the University of Illinois, where they were doing lots of groundwater things from my PhD. So getting into this niche and graduating and set me on a journey. I went to California for a couple of years, I went to Illinois. I went to France as a postdoc and, and got an international perspective. Then I came back to Canada and I was Canada's first groundwater professor.

Shreya: Congratulations. That's really amazing.

John: And that was when it was, it was the the glory years in the sense that there was lots of research money in us and Canada, people believed in research back then. So if you had research ideas, you could get research money with very little, you know, with very little problem.

Now professors have to spend so much of their time writing proposals and, and tending their research money as opposed to actually doing their research. So the era has changed remarkably.

Shreya: And your research focused largely on groundwater pollution, which is becoming a bigger and bigger challenge in many parts around the world. and as you've already mentioned, it's an area that many people don't know a lot about. So if you are going to explain some of what research you've done to a lay person who doesn't know a lot about these topics, what would you say?

John: Well, humanity in our industrial agricultural society emits a lot of different types of pollutants, and of course, there are millions and millions of different chemicals made, you know, to serve, our society and they go into the soil, but only a few leak through the soil into the groundwater. So that's the good news of the millions that go into the soil. Only thousands make their way through, and some of them are, are quite important.

And so the earth mother earth does a marvelous job, of simulating these contaminants in the subsurface, but not if we overload the capacity, which is what we're doing. So put too much sewage in the ground, too many landfills, too many leaks, too many spills. Then, then we create, groundwater contamination and most groundwater.

Now lake rivers and lakes have a few, if not more of these, potentially harmful chemicals. So it's been society's, tendency to think that if water comes out of a well or spring, it's pristine. That's not at all influenced, by human humanity. And that's no longer the case.

So all water needs to be tested, and 99% of the time it's acceptable. but we need much more monitoring and testing. So we know what our independent water is all about.

Shreya: Interesting. And would you be able to provide some examples perhaps of places in the world where you see groundwater pollution happening very rapidly or where it's a really big challenge?

John: Well, the food we choose to eat is our biggest problem. Nobody wants to hear that. , but if you really believe in fighting climate change and in improving the environment, then it's all about what we choose to eat. Mm. So agriculture happens on anywhere from 70 to 80 or more percent of the planet's land surface right off the bat.

Agriculture is what climate change and environmental degradation's role is about. And, so from agriculture, particularly chemical agriculture that uses chemically produced fertilizers then nitrate and pesticides are the biggest contaminants. So for example, in Southern California nitrate contamination is nearly all over the place. It doesn't affect affluent people because their water is all tested and all of that, it affects the poor, the small villages. So if we really wanna fight climate change and fight pollution, we have to, we have to focus on agriculture. Everybody hears about CO2 , you know, well, but it's methane.

That's the most serious, fast-acting, Reno gas, and much of that comes from agriculture. So what you read in the normal media is very misleading. We think that if buying an electric car, which I've done is helpful on climate change, that's not at all the case. Buying an electric car is good for urban air pollution, but has almost nothing to do with combating climate change.

Besides we're gonna have to be all sorts of new minds, opened up to get the materials to build electric cars. So I guess my point here is that almost nothing of what we can read in the normal media relates to the decisions we should be trying to make as a society now in the bay area and whatnot, the coronated solvents are very common in groundwater, and there are all sorts of Superfund sites there.

Several of which I've been involved in studying over the decades. That has, to do with chlorate solvents now in urban areas. That's not the problem because the water's tested and the water's treated, et cetera. But in countries like India and other countries, then these contaminants go untested.

And globalization has been very hard for groundwater and the environment because it means then that much of the food we eat now comes from Mexico and Chile and other places where the environmental standards are almost non-existent. So we, we know we can buy organic agriculture and we know we can buy fair trade, but those designations don't have anything to do with these, the other effects, the pollution effects they're not built in yet.

So in a society that's needed to help us function for a future. Then, then it's all about the products we buy and the food we eat, and the damage they do. That's called fingerprinting and tracking and that's where the emphasis needs to be.

Shreya: That's a really interesting perspective.

And that's, it's definitely something that I agree with you. It. Very well talked about in, when you talk, when you see climate change in the news, you don't really talk about groundwater and you very rarely talk about the connection between climate change and groundwater pollution.

John: and food and food.

That's the key thing, you know, almost everybody wants to help avoid climate change, but if we're not told about the food story, the agriculture story, then, then we're really being given, news that's misleading or superficial. And in essence, damaging

Shreya: Do you think the solution to that is primarily education or maybe having more?

Or is it perhaps, on the flip side, more of a regulatory challenge or maybe a combination of those?

John: Well, at the moment, it's all about regulation. It's all about education. It's all about informing the public because unless the public wants something, regulations don't happen. So for regulations to happen, are there powerful regulations in the United States to combat

industrial contamination of groundwater? And that came from public outrage. so it's all about the information the public gets. I think that can lead to regulations. Nice. And economists would say that all the harm being done to the environment is a sort of external charges. Like we're not paying for it.

Shreya: And that's a wonderful segue into talking about the groundwater project, which you founded a couple of years ago, and which focuses on providing educational materials about groundwater that are publicly available and you've sort of already shared a little bit of your rationale for starting the project. but if you have other things on that topic that you'd like to share, or maybe share how the project has evolved since when you first came up with the. To what you're working on.

John:. Okay. Thank you. So I published, I co-authored a textbook called groundwater in 1979 with a colleague, and it became the standard textbook for undergraduate teaching of groundwater and, and made me quite well known with my colleagues.

And my colleagues kept telling me that it needed to be updated and so we didn't do that, but then the idea came to me in 2016. Something had to be done to get better groundwater information out there. And then that led to the groundwater project which is unique and that it's all done by volunteers with a small staff and we get experts around the world to write books on, on whatever we can get them to write about.

So we have nearly 200 books in progress and 25 published. And the goal then is to get the best expertise in the world to write up their knowledge in books that are designed to be understood. And the problem with science these days is the science gets done and it gets published in peer review journals.

And that's what we academics strive to do. But, the material in the peer review journals isn't understandable except, by the niche. So in this modern world with the internet and all this publishing, we're not actually getting science out to serve humanity because we have the commercial publishing industries. These journals are in the business, they're making money and they have a very good system for, for science, for the advancement of science, but not a good system for, for serving humanity. So the groundwater project is meant to serve humanity and it was kind of my idea, but it's an idea that worked because of the hundreds of colleagues who engaged.

And, and my close colleagues, who are actually making it happen. And what we discovered then is there's an amazing willingness on experts around the world to engage, to contribute their time. Many of them are retired and they're the most, knowledgeable people in the world. So it's an unprecedented, philanthropic, effort that's moving forward that basically has a charity NGO.

Shreya: That's incredible. I definitely agree. It's sometimes very hard, especially if you don't know much about the field to read a scientific paper and actually understand how those results are actionable in the real world. exactly.

so you mentioned that the primary focus is on publishing books, and those are freely available for anyone who's interested in them. Do you do outreach to communities that you think might benefit from your materials?

John: Yes. Well, we've, we've focused on the books to get going and we realized with experience that typical textbooks aren't really designed to be as understandable as possible.

so we've developed a methodology that makes much greater use of figures, simulations, drawings, and sketches to make the material more actionable by a larger for the people. And then we have children's books in the midst and we have books aimed at high school students.

So there's gonna have to be the education of the citizenry in addition to the professionals. It'll take more funding to develop these very short few minutes long multimedia learning modules.

So if you wanna know what the water table is, you can learn it, etcetera, visually. And, and so we're, we're putting together a crew of experts on that to see what we can do. Well, when we, we translate our books by volunteer translation teams and all of that. So we're trying to be the focal point for all things Groundwater. We're hoping that other agencies like UNESCO will rally around us and contribute in their way.

Shreya: Nice. That is really incredible. so, so far you're, it looks like you're expanding into younger audiences, high schoolers. but so far the primary audience has been people who are interested in learning more about groundwater or existing groundwater professionals.

John: Well, most of our books are aimed at university programs. And groundwater isn't given much time in university programs. So in a rational world, it would be given more time and groundwater is 99% of all liquid fresh water. So it's connected to all other fresh waters. If universities are only gonna allocate one or two courses to it, then they're not doing their responsibilities.

So we're producing many, many books so that if universities want to have a larger curriculum, the material would be there. And we're trying to get to the point where students can self-lear across the globe.

Shreya: Amazing. Do you think that the main reason that universities aren't offering more groundwater education is that there's just a lack of instructional materials?

John: In the hierarchy in universities, and in the hierarchy of environmental science, then groundwater is used as being a very small, almost trivial niche. So people don't realize that much of the water and rivers and lakes and wetlands it's groundwater. So because you can't see it. And because the people in the other disciplines don't know anything about groundwater, it just gets ignored. So this is, this is the year of groundwater in March 22nd of this year was, was groundwater day, according to the UN.

And that's finally to try and bring recognition to groundwater. And you're more than a billion poor people around the world. And maybe 2 billion who are in water, poverty. And it's generally understood that at least a billion of them will never get out of water property unless they have more Wells. So the water project we're trying to focus on, well, how would you make those Wells? Exactly. You know, which, which machines and where would you drill 'em and then how would you test them and all of that. And there are many organizations working on that but they need they need a groundwater science basis.

Shreya: Nice. Getting down to the nitty-gritty and providing that information

John: nitty gritty. That's right. Exactly.

Shreya: what are some of the challenges that you've faced since 2016 in terms of getting this nonprofit up and running?

John: Well, 2016. All I had was a vague notion it would that something like this should happen. So it wasn't really an idea. It was just a vague notion. In 2017, I began to invite colleagues to write books, telling them here's a kind of an idea.

And would you contribute? And I had a number of colleagues around the world who said yes. And that was amazing because they didn't know if they'd be wasting their time or not. And then the books began to come in and then I invited more people. And in 2000 and 2020 in August, we published our first book and that proved that we were not just fooling around.

And then the team got on board, some very amazing people five colleagues who then became sort of the board of directors. And much of the heavy-duty lifting is done by women. and, and so some of them retired some not, and they did the heavy lifting to make it happen. So I'm the kind of the vision and the other people are actually doing the really hard work

Shreya: oh my gosh. Yes, it takes a village. and if I mean, this group and organization is continuing to grow. So if there was one thing that you would ask for or one stumbling block that you think like, oh, if I just had this, we could get our resources, have to so many more people. What would that be?

John: Well, right now we are money limited.

We thrive by donations. So if we had more money, we could involve more professionals to help with these self-learning modules, which are so important. and, yes, the heavy lifting on many fronts is done by volunteers, but we need some money to involve professionals who are doing that to put together a team to produce some demonstration modules.

That's what we need. So we're busy designing them and we're getting volunteers on board. But I think at the moment the missing link is more funding.

Shreya: That makes sense. That's a limiting factor for new numerous groups

John: We're just starting then to a program of raising funds because now we know what we, what we would do with the funds.

Shreya: What do you mean by demonstration modules?

John: Well, they would be little modules, maybe two to four minutes long designed to educate anybody about groundwater. So you press a button and you stare at it for two to four minutes. And after that time you've learned something you've learned a basic concept or principle, and then you might have little self-tests and whatnot to see if it has sunk in.

And then, and then you would go on to button number two and work your way up the ladder to get all these little groundwater things understood. Like, where is groundwater? What is it? How do we find it? And there's lots of room for citizen science. Like if you go out the door, groundwaters beneath your feet. Well, how deep is it? How would you find it? Could you find it, if you were a class and you had some tools, could you hand auger down and get a sample grower remains mysterious, you know?

Shreya: Nice. That's really wonderful. And breaking it down like that makes it more accessible or at least less daunting if you're starting out and you have to get through this like giant volume versus if you have a series of guided videos.

John: So greywater, for example, you know, greywater is pretty It shouldn't be going to a sewer sewage treatment system and end up part of that bigger thing. Almost all grey water could go into the ground if we plumbed our houses appropriately. And, and the groundwater environment needs a recharge. So humanity has to figure out how not to pump groundwater out, to use it and dirty it, and then put it into a pipeline to a treatment plant and then release it to, you know, to the lakes and to the oceans.

Shreya: Definitely, Like groundwater, I feel like greywater reuse is something that could have huge positive impacts, but it's just something that no one's talking about.

And it's just an undervalued resource. , 100%. And, you'd mentioned briefly that a lot of the time NGOs and groups that are working on providing clean water to people in disadvantaged communities and people who are looking at drilling wells often turned to the groundwater project for resources. I was wondering if you had any stories or of the impact that the groundwater project has had that you would like to.

John: Well, no, not specifically yet in terms of our producing materials that people can use to help water poverty. We're just getting into that. , spent a lot of time recently talking to people involved in water, poverty reduction, et cetera.

We've got nearly a hundred thousand downloads and we get lots of little messages of people being grateful, from 171 countries. Wow. That's possibly amazing. So, we surmised then, that we're being useful, but to be really useful, we need to get these other things going. Nice. We need to contact all of the appropriate experts across the world and get them engaged.

And then, then there's the business and they can write up material and do stuff that they know how to do. And then we need to figure out how to translate that. So it can be understood by all.

Shreya: That sounds like an important sort of switching topics a little bit.

One other thing that I feel like we haven't really talked about, is about groundwater depletion, which is another growing challenge. So, how do you manage those two dual challenges? Both groundwater, pollution and depletion, of which are happening in the same places.

John: So, the, the biggest need of all is monitoring groundwater and very few countries have good groundwater monitoring networks. Even the United States and Canada don't have what I would say would be good networks.

So, as the saying goes in the business management community, you can't improve what you're not measuring. Then it certainly applies, to water depletion, et cetera. And globalization has been a real problem, cuz people are pumping water, like mad to grow, grow food, to send off, to make a bunch of money, and lots of depletion going on there.

Even in countries like Peru. So a while back, I went to the grocery store here when I'm living at the moment in Nova Scotia, in a very rural area and much to my amazing the grocery store had asparagus in the wintertime from [00:29:00] Peru. And then I read an article, uh, by a very reputable scientist, published in a period.

Good journal, uh, that Peru is depleting. Uh, the crazy rape. So the people in Peru are busy, depleting their groundwater, uh, to serve, uh, wealthy people in the north not realizing what they're doing, uh, to their country and to the future themselves.

Shreya: Okay. So the primary we've got an education. And also monitoring of groundwater in order to tackle these two challenges.

John: Oh. And monitoring should be done in real time realtime. So the public can see it. Ooh. Okay. So they can look at it on their smartphone

Shreya: so easily accessible so that people understand challenges. Do you see? one thing that I was interested in is, in a lot of areas where there is water poverty, and they're building wells because of the lack of knowledge that leads to groundwater depletion very rapidly. So some of the, some solutions or so on the flip side of that, some people indicate like maybe we shouldn't be using groundwater or we shouldn't be drilling a bunch more wells, even though, people in these regions n access to clean water and groundwater is one of the most accessible sources. So I guess you've sort of already talked about this, but how do you manage that?

It's like, we have to make sure that we preserve our groundwater resources, but there's also so much need for them, especially in developing countries.

John: Well, that's a tough one because there's nothing wrong with the depletion of groundwater for a particular need over a particular time. As long as when we do it we realize that the time is, finite and we have to have a plan for rejuvenating it.

It's all about the long-term plan. Nice.

Shreya: That makes sense. Unfortunately, long-term planning is not something that our governments are very interested in or excited about and that proves to be a challenge.

John: Particularly for groundwater cuz you can't see it. And the payoffs are too long, you know it's into the next election cycle. So when a river or reservoir goes dry, it's in this, you know, this election cycle when groundwater's going dry it's in the next one. So that's the problem with groundwork.

Shreya: you don't, you can't see it. So how are you supposed to? Out of sight, out of mind, quite literally.

John: and that's why there needs to be more monitoring so people can see what the water levels are doing and people can engage themselves.

There needs to be citizen science, for example. Nice.

Shreya: And one final question I had is that, what would you say to people who are perhaps interested in water issues, interested in learning about these topics, or maybe even want to work in water, manage. But they don't know where

John: Well, you see water management is so broad. You've got rivers and lakes and, and wetlands. And I think people who might have an interest in that need to get an education that has bits and pieces, but in general, you need to specialize. So it's this whole debate between specialization and generalization.

There certainly is a deficiency of groundwater experts and it's gonna get worse and worse. I advise young people, that groundwater's a good area because it's underpopulated. When drugs come along, the only water available then to keep us functioning agriculturally and otherwise it's groundwater. Where else is it gonna come from? And this hasn't dawned yet on, the whole, water management community.

Shreya: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. I really appreciated it.

John: Well, thank you. I enjoyed it. good luck with your great water project.

Thank you.

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