Underground water made visible

Underground water made visible

Underground water is the largest source of freshwater for humans. Groundwater depletion, a term often defined as long-term water-level decline caused by continuous and uncontrolled groundwater pumping, is a key issue associated with groundwater use. Many areas of the United States are experiencing groundwater depletion.


Groundwater pumping can alter how water moves between an aquifer and a stream, lake, or wetland by either intercepting groundwater flow that discharges into the surface-water body under natural conditions, or by increasing the rate of water movement from the surface-water body into an aquifer. A related effect of groundwater pumping is the lowering of groundwater levels below the depth that streamside or wetland vegetation needs to survive. The overall effect is a loss of riparian vegetation and wildlife habitat.


For these reasons, the levels of underground water need to be in check. However, the problem here is how does one continuously keep a check if the water is virtually invisible?


To counter this issue, Michelle Laboy, Assistant Professor of Architecture at the Northeastern University, tried to make groundwater perpetually visible to city officials and residents alike. They came up with the idea to install well caps in neighbourhoods with lower levels of underground water to monitor these changes.

“I’ve always been interested in water’s role in the urban landscape,” said Laboy, a member of the Northeastern University’s Resilient Cities Lab, “and maintaining groundwater levels in Boston is critical to the preservation of old buildings in some of the city’s most historic neighbourhoods.”

The installations in the 7 different parts of Boston were funded by BGwT, the College of Arts, Media and Design, and Autodesk, the 3D design, engineering, and software company. This idea and all its initiatives were coined Project LightWell, in partnership with FieLDworkshop, Laboy’s research-based design practice; Conform Lab, a digital fabrication firm, and Boston Groundwater Trust.

“It also allows the Boston Groundwater Trust to more quickly understand—and react to—fluctuating groundwater levels and their root causes,” said Laboy.

The well caps, being in public, inform locals of their water consumption behaviour. This not only helps in maintaining underground water levels but also helps in creating awareness about water conservation and its sustainable use. Laboy and her team believe that this crowdsourced data will be used to generate interactive maps, with a particular focus on how rain and infrastructure impact the fluctuation of groundwater levels throughout the city’s most historic neighbourhoods.


Devika Mulye

Devika Mulye


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