Implementing Groundwater Extraction in Life Cycle Impact Assessment: Characterization Factors Based on Plant Species Richness for the Netherlands

An operational method to evaluate the environmental impacts associated with groundwater use is currently lacking in life cycle assessment (LCA). This paper outlines a method to calculate characterization factors that address the effects of groundwater extraction on the species richness of terrestrial vegetation. Characterization factors (CF) were derived for The Netherlands and consist of a fate and an effect part. The fate factor equals the change in drawdown due to a change in groundwater extraction and expresses the amount of time required for groundwater replenishment. It was obtained with a grid-specific steady-state groundwater flow model. Effect factors were obtained from groundwater level response curves of potential plant species richness, which was constructed based on the soil moisture requirements of 625 plant species. Depending on the initial groundwater level, effect factors range up to 9.2% loss of species per 10 cm of groundwater level decrease. The total Dutch CF for groundwater extraction depended on the value choices taken and ranged from 0.09 to 0.61 m2·yr/m3. For tap water production, we showed that groundwater extraction can be responsible for up to 32% of the total terrestrial ecosystem damage. With the proposed approach, effects of groundwater extraction on terrestrial ecosystems can be systematically included in LCA.