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America Is Using Up Its Groundwater Like There’s No Tomorrow

September 4, 2023 by Nicole Mason

The first article in a series on the causes and consequences of disappearing water. The New York Times.

GLOBAL WARMING HAS FOCUSED concern on land and sky as soaring temperatures intensify hurricanes, droughts and wildfires. But another climate crisis is unfolding, underfoot and out of view.

Many of the aquifers that supply 90 percent of the nation’s water systems, and which have transformed vast stretches of America into some of the world’s most bountiful farmland, are being severely depleted. These declines are threatening irreversible harm to the American economy and society as a whole.

The New York Times conducted a months-long examination of groundwater depletion, interviewing more than 100 experts, traveling the country and creating a comprehensive database using millions of readings from monitoring sites. The investigation reveals how America’s life-giving resource is being exhausted in much of the country, and in many cases it won’t come back. Huge industrial farms and sprawling cities are draining aquifers that could take centuries or millenniums to replenish themselves if they recover at all.

States and communities are already paying the price.

Groundwater loss is hurting breadbasket states like Kansas, where the major aquifer beneath 2.6 million acres of land can no longer support industrial-scale agriculture. Corn yields have plummeted. If that decline were to spread, it could threaten America’s status as a food superpower.

Fifteen hundred miles to the east, in New York State, overpumping is threatening drinking-water wells on Long Island, birthplace of the modern American suburb and home to working class towns as well as the Hamptons and their beachfront mansions.

Around Phoenix, one of America’s fastest growing cities, the crisis is severe enough that the state has said there’s not enough groundwater in parts of the county to build new houses that rely on aquifers.

In other areas, including parts of Utah, California and Texas, so much water is being pumped up that it is causing roads to buckle, foundations to crack and fissures to open in the earth. And around the country, rivers that relied on groundwater have become streams or trickles or memories.

“There is no way to get that back,” Don Cline, the associate director for water resources at the United States Geological Survey, said of disappearing groundwater. “There’s almost no way to convey how important it is.”

But despite the importance, the view of the predicament has often been fragmented. Until now.

This analysis is based on tens of thousands of groundwater monitoring wells that dot the nation. The Times collected data for these wells, which are widely scattered and often poorly tracked, from dozens of federal, state and local jurisdictions.

That database reveals the scope of the crisis in many ways. Every year since 1940, for example, more wells have had falling water levels than rising levels.

One of the biggest obstacles is that the depletion of this unseen yet essential natural resource is barely regulated. The federal government plays almost no role, and individual states have implemented a dizzying array of often weak rules.

The problem is also relatively unexamined at the national scale. Hydrologists and other researchers typically focus on single aquifers or regional changes.

All of this helps enable and reinforce practices that have drained aquifers, such as growing water-intensive crops like alfalfa or cotton in dry areas and overreliance on groundwater in fast-growing urban areas.

Several states including Texas, Oklahoma and Colorado have rules that allow groundwater to be pumped from some regions until it’s gone. Some areas have even set official timelines for how quickly they plan to use up groundwater over the next few decades.

Oklahoma is working to determine how much water remains in its aquifers, information that state lawmakers could use to set limits on pumping. But Christopher Neel, the head of water rights for the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, said people might not necessarily welcome the government telling them that their land is running out of groundwater.

“If we start showing that kind of data, that kind of goes into your property values,” Mr. Neel said. “If we show an area may be depleted in, let’s say, two years, well, if someone tries to sell that property, they’re not going to be able to.”

To get the clearest picture possible of the state of groundwater in the United States, The Times interviewed scientists, policymakers and hydrological experts in addition to building its national database of millions of measurements from wells used to measure groundwater depth.

The analysis of that data, some of it collected from wells that have been tracked for a century, enabled The Times to cross-reference water levels over time with crop cover and population patterns. Results were also compared against readings from sophisticated satellites that can estimate groundwater changes from space by measuring subtle shifts in gravity.

Recent data from those satellites, which are operated by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and funded by NASA, also show aquifers in decline.

Two major California and Arizona aquifers recently matched or exceeded their lowest levels since NASA began collecting data two decades ago, according to research by Bridget Scanlon and Ashraf Rateb at the University of Texas at Austin. And parts of the vast Ogallala Aquifer beneath Kansas, eastern Colorado and the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles, an aquifer that irrigates a huge share of the global food supply, last year reached their lowest levels since the start of NASA’s program. The gravity-measuring satellites are part of NASA’s mission to study the workings of the planet.

Climate change is amplifying the problem.

Global warming is shrinking the snowpack that feeds rivers, increasing the reliance on groundwater to sustain communities, lawns and crops, even as rising temperatures mean that plants need more water. A warmer world also causes more surface water to evaporate, leaving less to seep through the ground to replenish overstressed aquifers.

Even in places experiencing more violent rainstorms because of climate change, the heavier rainfall only helps so much. That’s because much of the water from extreme downpours races away quickly to the ocean, before it can sit and soak into the aquifer below.

It adds up to what might be called a climate trap. As rising temperatures shrink rivers in much of the country, farmers and towns have an incentive to pump more groundwater to make up the difference.

Experts call that a self-defeating strategy. By draining aquifers that filled up over thousands or millions of years, regions risk losing access to that water in the future when they might need it even more, as climate change makes rainfall less predictable or droughts more severe.

“From an objective standpoint, this is a crisis,” said Warigia Bowman, a law professor and water expert at the University of Tulsa. “There will be parts of the U.S. that run out of drinking water.”

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