A New York Times investigation has found that America is depleting its invaluable reserves of groundwater at a dangerous rate.
The practice of overpumping water from vast aquifers is already having consequences nationwide. The majority of U.S. drinking-water systems rely on groundwater, as does farming, one of the nation’s most important industries.
Despite being essential to American life, the health of the country’s aquifers is hard to gauge. The Times spent months collecting data on tens of thousands of wells to conduct one of the most comprehensive examinations of groundwater depletion nationwide.
Here are five takeaways.
Aquifer water levels are falling nationwide. The danger is worse and more widespread than many people realize.
Some 45 percent of the wells the Times examined showed a statistically significant decline in water levels since 1980. Four in 10 sites reached record-low water levels during the past decade, and last year was the worst yet.
“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.”
The declines threaten the long-term survival of communities that depend on groundwater and lack alternatives.
We know this because we built a database of more than 80,000 wells nationwide.
The available data on America’s aquifers is patchy and dispersed among many different federal, state and local agencies.
So the Times reached out to dozens of those agencies to collect millions of groundwater-level measurements for tens of thousands of sites, some of which have been tracked for a century. The analysis of that data provided a foundation for one of the most thorough examinations to date of the groundwater crisis in the United States.
Overpumping is a threat to America’s status as a food superpower.
Pulling water out of the ground made it possible for America to become an agricultural superpower and one of the world’s largest exporters of corn, soybean, sorghum and cotton. Groundwater depletion is threatening that status.
The change is already happening in parts of Kansas, where 2.6 million acres of land no longer have enough groundwater to support large-scale agriculture. The western part of the state has seen some of the worst declines yet in groundwater levels. Corn yields have plummeted to levels last seen in the 1960s, erasing decades of gains.
Other states risk following a similar path.
It’s not just a problem in the West or for farmers. It’s a tap water crisis, too.
Aquifers are in decline far from the arid West. Arkansas, which produces half the nation’s rice, is pumping groundwater from its main agricultural aquifer more than twice as fast as nature can replace it. In some places, the aquifer has fallen to less than 10 percent of its capacity.
In Maryland, almost three-quarters of monitoring wells have seen water levels drop since 1980, some by more than 100 feet. Charles County, which includes fast-growing suburbs of Washington, relies on groundwater, but within a decade, that groundwater will no longer meet its needs.
As groundwater gets pumped up, the emptied-out space can collapse under the weight of the rock and soil above it. Once that happens, the aquifer loses the ability to hold water, permanently diminishing groundwater storage.
The Times visited one neighborhood in Utah that had to be permanently abandoned after a fissure split open the ground due to overpumping.
Weak regulations allowed the overuse. Now, climate change is leading to even more pumping.
Weak state regulations, combined with a lack of federal oversight and no comprehensive national data, has made it possible for farms, cities and companies to draw down aquifers, the Times found.
Climate change is adding to that pressure.
Rising temperatures often means reduced snowpack, which in turn means less water flowing through rivers — pushing farmers and cities to lean more heavily on groundwater. But those same rising temperatures also mean plants and lawns require more water.
The result could be called a climate trap that threatens to deprive huge areas of the United States of groundwater supplies. The aquifers will only become more important as surface water becomes harder to get.