Pumped beyond limits, many U.S. aquifers in decline

Nationwide analysis shows depletion of groundwater widespread and worsening

SUBLETTE, Kansas – Just before 3 a.m., Jay Garetson’s phone buzzed on the bedside table. He picked it up and read the text: “Low Pressure Alert.”

He felt a jolt of stress and his chest tightened. He dreaded what that automated message probably meant: With the water table dropping, another well on his family’s farm was starting to suck air.

The Garetson family has been farming in the plains of southwestern Kansas for four generations, since 1902. Now they face a hard reality. The groundwater they depend on is disappearing. Their fields could wither. Their farm might not survive for the next generation.

At dawn, Jay was out among the cornfields at the well, trying to diagnose the problem. The pump was humming as it lifted water from nearly 600 feet underground. He turned a valve and let the cool water run into his cupped hands. Just as he had feared, he saw fine bubbles in the water.

“It’s showing signs of weakening,” he said sadly, standing in the shoulder-high corn.

“This’ll last another five or 10 years, but not even at the production rate that we’re at here today,” he said. “It’s just a question of how much time is left.”

Time is running out for portions of the High Plains Aquifer, which lies beneath eight states from South Dakota to Texas and is the lifeblood of one of the world’s most productive farming economies. The aquifer, also known as the Ogallala, makes possible about one-fifth of the country’s output of corn, wheat and cattle. But its levels have been rapidly declining, and with each passing year more wells are going dry.

As less water pours from wells, some farmers are adapting by switching to different crops. Others are shutting down their drained wells and trying to scratch out a living as dryland farmers, relying only on the rains.

In parts of western Kansas, the groundwater has already been exhausted and very little can be extracted for irrigation. In other areas, the remaining water could be mostly used up within a decade.

The severe depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer is symptomatic of a larger crisis in the United States and many parts of the world. Much more water is being pumped from the ground than can be naturally replenished, and groundwater levels are plummeting. It’s happening not only in the High Plains and drought-ravaged California but also in places from the Gulf Coastal Plain to the farmland of the Mississippi River Valley, and from the dry Southwest to the green Southeast.

In a nationwide examination of the problem, USA TODAY and The Desert Sun analyzed two decades of measurements from more than 32,000 wells and found water levels falling in nearly two-thirds of those wells, with heavy pumping causing major declines in many areas. The analysis of U.S. Geological Survey data revealed that:

  • Nationwide, water levels have declined in 64 percent of the wells included in the government database during the past two decades.
  • The average decline among decreasing wells has been more than 10 feet, and in some areas the water table has dropped more than 100 feet during that period – more than 5 feet per year.
  • For 13 counties in Texas, New Mexico, Mississippi, Kansas and Iowa, average water levels have decreased more than 40 feet since 1995.
  • Nationally, the average declines have been larger from 2011-2014 as drought has intensified in the West. But water tables have been falling consistently over the years through both wet and dry periods, and also in relatively wet states such as Florida and Maryland.
  • Across the High Plains, one of the country’s largest depletion zones, the average water levels in more than 4,000 wells are 13.2 feet lower today than they were in 1995. In the southern High Plains, water levels have plunged significantly more – in places over 100 feet in just 20 years.

At the same time, falling groundwater levels are bringing increasing costs for well owners, water utilities and society as a whole. As water levels drop, more energy is required to lift water from wells, and those pumping bills are rising. In areas where aquifers are being severely depleted, new wells are being drilled hundreds of feet into the earth at enormous cost. That trend of going deeper and deeper can only go on so long. When groundwater levels fall to precarious lows and wells are exhausted, farming businesses can suffer. And in particularly hard-hit communities, such as parts of California, homeowners have been left relying on tanker trucks to deliver their water.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the United States is estimated to have lost more than 1,000 cubic kilometers of water from the nation’s aquifers – about 28 times the amount of water that can be held in Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir.

That estimate of water losses from 1900 through 2008, calculated by USGS scientist Leonard Konikow, shows the High Plains has accounted for 35 percent of the country’s total depletion. California’s Central Valley accounted for more than 14 percent, and other parts of the country have depleted the remainder, about half of the total.

In places, water that seeped underground over tens of thousands of years is being pumped out before many fully appreciate the value of what’s lost. The declines in groundwater in the United States mirror similar decreases in many parts of the world.

NASA satellites have allowed scientists to map the changes underground on a global scale for the first time, putting into stark relief a drawdown that has long remained largely out of sight. The latest satellite data, together with measurements of water levels in wells, reveal widespread declines in places from Europe to India, and from the Middle East to China.

“Many of these resources are finite,” Famiglietti said. “It took tens of thousands of years to accumulate this water, and we’re burning through it in a matter of decades.”

In parts of the southern High Plains, farmers are feeling the effects. Some counties have seen small decreases in population as people have moved away. Local leaders have been expressing concerns about what sorts of businesses can help sustain their economies as water supplies dwindle.

The Kansas Geological Survey has mapped out how much longer the aquifer can support large-scale pumping. It projects that some places still probably have more than a century of water left, but that large patches of western Kansas will go dry in less than 25 years. Some areas will likely run out faster, within a matter of years.

The Ogallala Aquifer’s decline shows what the world can expect in other areas where groundwater is being quickly depleted, Famiglietti said. “The fact that they’re running out of water means that we will no longer be growing food there, and so where will that food come from?”

Hitting bottom

In Haskell County, Kansas, windswept fields of sorghum and corn stretch to the flat horizon in a swaying sea. The huge farms, many of them in the thousands of acres, still appear lush and productive. But driving along the arrow-straight country roads, Jay Garetson can point out spots where wells have gone dry – both on his family’s land and other farms.

All that’s left at one of his decommissioned wells is a round metal cover on a concrete slab, with a rusty Frigidaire lying on its side next to it. His grandfather once used the refrigerator to store oil for the pump.

Opening the well’s metal lid, Jay dropped in a rock. It pinged off the steel casing. More than five seconds later, there was faint splash.

“Now the only water it finds is a couple three feet at the very bottom of the well that the pumps can’t effectively access anymore,” Jay said, his voice echoing in the empty well.

He and his brother, Jarvis, drilled this well in the early 2000s when a shallower well failed. It lasted less than a decade, and then it went dry in 2012, forcing them to drill again – this time 600 feet deep, down to the bedrock at the bottom of the aquifer. It’s hard to say how long that well might last.

If the water keeps dropping about 5 feet per year, he said, it might be finished in as few as 10 years.

“Very simply, we’re running out, and it’s happening far faster than anybody anticipated,” he said. “And as optimistic as I’d like to be about the future, the window for that optimism is closing very quickly.”

He put the cover back on the old well, pointing out a tag that was placed on it by a state regulatory agency.

“We’re documenting very well the demise of the aquifer, but we’re not making the real-world changes in the way we manage the aquifer to really do the serious things that need to happen,” Jay said. “We seem to be unwilling to take the necessary steps to actually reduce water usage.”

Jay said he and his brother keep trying to gain five or 10 years by using a new crop or new irrigation technologies. He said their father, Jesse, encourages them to “keep pushing” and keep praying.

“We’ll succeed somewhere. I just always thought it would be here,” he said as he pulled into his gravel driveway next to a cornfield.

He stood beside the mud-splattered pickup, petting his dog.

“In spite of everything I do and we do, it’s still not enough,” he said, sniffling softly. “My boys and my nephews will never have the … they won’t have the same opportunity.”

He paused, keeping his composure.

“If they stay here, it’ll be a salvage operation. It won’t be an expansion or a growth or an improvement. It’ll be a salvage operation,” he said. “That’s the mentality they’ll have to have – unless everybody can come together. The problem is everybody won’t come together, in my experience, until it’s too late.”

As he began to cry, he walked away.

Full article: Pumped beyond limits, many U.S. aquifers in decline (USA Today)

Comments are closed.