“A wealth of underground water helped create America, its vast cities and bountiful farmland. Now, Americans are squandering that inheritance.”
The New York Times
In a months-long investigation of America’s aquifers, The New York Times reporters interviewed more than 100 experts on the country’s water resources. They gathered data from millions of records. They studied well readings nationwide that hold decades of water level data. What they found should alarm all Americans.
Most of our country’s aquifers essential to crop production, drinking water, and industry are endangered. If there were an endangered species list for the country’s aquifers, up to 90% of them would be on it. Protections would be rapidly established.
There isn’t such a national list. Meanwhile, some states are pushing their aquifers to extinction. “And around the country, rivers that relied on groundwater have become streams or trickles or memories,” their story said.
“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,” the Times article said.
Aquifer losses aren’t tied exclusively to agriculture. Metropolitan areas with hundreds of thousands, or millions, of people are draining them as well.
Due to declining water reserves, economic development, housing expansion, and agriculture are halted or limited.
Our impact on our aquifers is both visible and unseen. Unless you check well levels reaching in an aquifer, the loss of its reserves isn’t seen. However, there is very visible evidence of the impact of a drained aquifer on the landscape as wide, deep cracks spread across fields. Sinkholes develop in urban areas and swallow homes. Road surfaces are ripped by fissures.
Far-reaching consequences of a warming planet are having a significant impact on our aquifers. Hotter days and extended droughts mean more water must be pumped from the ground to keep crop yields from plummeting.
Those hotter days mean more water evaporates, increasing the demand for the water buried deep below the surface.
Despite the threat facing America’s aquifers and the humans that depend on them, regulation of their use is weak, scattered among agencies at the state and federal levels, and lacking any coordinated effort.
“The federal government plays almost no role, and individual states have implemented a dizzying array of often weak rules,” it says. Another problem is the attitude toward aquifer losses in some parts of the nation.
Here is a hard-to-believe policy, or lack of one, from the Times’ story: “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’s Water Resources Board worries that “people might not necessarily welcome the government telling them that their land is running out of groundwater.” That’s thinking that has to change.
In Kansas, farmers have seen the endgame of unregulated aquifer use. “As recently as the late 1990s, Wichita County farmers produced 165 to 175 bushels of corn per acre…” by drawing water from the vast Ogallala Aquifer. With wells running dry today, their production has fallen to just under 71 bushels per acre.
“We over pumped it,” Farrin Watt, who has been farming in Wichita County for 23 years,” told the Times. “We didn’t know it was going to run out.”
However, all pain is personal and local. Unless your wells are running dry and your land is losing value, today’s reality for someone a thousand miles away has little to do with your future – you reason.
Right now, irrigated farmland has a much higher value than non-irrigated land in those places where aquifers still provide abundant water. This margin will likely widen if a warming climate leads to hotter weather and extended droughts. What happens to that value if restrictions tighten on water use? Those living with dry aquifers are already faced with that reality, one that will one day come here without smart use and regulation.
Improvements to irrigation technology have allowed its use to spread across more acres in the U.S. Improved crop genetics have meant crops can be planted in places once prairie and covered with irrigators that deplete aquifer reserves.
Across America, more water is being drawn from aquifers than rainfall, and runoff from the snowmelt can replenish them. Despite this, we do our best to get the water off our land as quickly as possible. Next to irrigation, drainage provides the best investment to increase crop production.
It’s not just water for agriculture that is endangered. In communities across America, drinking water supplies are threatened due to urban growth. In some cities, such as Phoenix, AZ, housing expansion has been halted because there isn’t enough water to supply the homes already being built.
Many of the aquifers were created and filled as glaciers receded from the northern Plains States. Glacial melt took thousands of years to fill the aquifers, which have been depleted in less than 100 years.
Rather than drain water off the land into ditches that run into streams, rivers, and eventually the Gulf of Mexico, it should be channeled to holding areas. Those holding areas could hold water with some seeping into the ground, replenishing aquifers. Nothing should be wasted, but we are a society that rarely plans for tomorrow.
Aquifers aren’t owned by the people who sink wells into them. They are a regional asset valuable to the residents, businesses, and farms spread across hundreds or thousands of square miles. They don’t belong to one generation.
Yet we see consumption without thought of the consequences. Abuse of resources without thought to future generations. We squander rather than preserve. Profits come before preservation.
Water resources are an inheritance, a gift that must be protected, respected, and passed on to future generations.