Has American Groundwater Reached The Point Of No Return?
With global record temperatures being hit on an almost daily basis during the summer of 2023, one of the consequences of rising global temperatures is its effect on water security, both for people and businesses in areas affected by water scarcity.
One of the ways in which this manifests is underground, as hotter temperatures increase the demand for water for both individuals and as part of water-intensive industries such as agriculture, which in turn increases the stress of water sources such as groundwater.
A country where this effect is being acutely felt is the US, the richest country in the world, but also one heavily reliant on water sources that are draining at a dangerously high rate.
According to an investigation by The New York Times, 45 per cent of the 80,000 wells they surveyed had demonstrated a decline in water levels since 1940 that was statistically significant, whilst 40 per cent of these groundwater sources had reached a record low level within the last ten years.
This was described by University of Tulsa law professor Warigia Bowman as an objective crisis wherein areas of the USA will no longer have enough drinking water for their populations.
It is also, the report reveals, not merely an issue in the western states, which have always historically been more arid, but also in states such as Arkansas and Maryland which are on the eastern side of the country.
The consequences for what would happen if this were to be the case have been devastatingly seen elsewhere, but to develop a solution, it is important to know why this is happening in the first place, any possible solutions and whether a point of no return has been hit where massive infrastructure changes will be needed.
Why Is This Happening?
Every area with water scarcity has a mix of both universal causes that are affecting water supplies worldwide as well as more local factors which exacerbate these issues.
The primary factor is climate change, which causes more erratic patterns of rainfall, less rainfall and more water to evaporate on the surface of the earth rather than make their way through aquifers towards groundwater reservoirs.
As well as this, whilst droughts are typically followed by heavy precipitation and flash flooding, the baked ground causes water to be carried away on the surface of the ground and into lakes and oceans, doing nothing to help groundwater supplies.
This, alongside higher temperatures, causes smaller, thinner snowpacks, which alongside rainfall would feed rivers that previously served as the primary source of freshwater.
This increases the reliance on groundwater sources that are already strained and not recovering at fast enough rates, and alongside increasing demand for water in general due to increasing population density, the scaling of industrial agriculture and the increasing demand for both, the problem compounds at an alarming rate.
This is known as a climate trap and can create a vicious cycle that causes water scarcity to rapidly escalate.
This problem can also lead to land subsidence which can cause permanently lower storage capacities of underground reservoirs, cut off rivers and lakes that rely on groundwater flows and cause fissures and sinkholes on the surface as the subsoil crashes down to fill the now-empty cavities.
However, water scarcity often has multiple factors, and whilst climate change accounts for many of them, there are also issues of governance, ownership and business practices that are more specific to America.
The Scale Of The problem
The results of the New York Times investigation shocked a lot of people, in part because the situation was far worse than people expected and far more widespread, to the point that some experts believe it has reached a point of no return.
One of the biggest reasons why people did not know of the extent of the issue is also one of the reasons why the richest country in the world has sleepwalked into one of the biggest water crises ever faced.
In most countries, groundwater is publicly owned or strictly relegated by environmental agencies, but in the United States, this is seldom the case.
There is no national-level oversight of water supplies, no comprehensive data on water supplies at a country-wide level and state legislation that is designed to protect the rights of owners of groundwater sources rather than the water itself.
In some states, most notably Texas and Colorado, private groundwater law explicitly allows for it to be used for any reason until it is gone, and in most other states there are limited regulations for how groundwater is used or maintained.
This leads to unregulated pumping and aggressive practices that include, for example, companies such as Nestle pumping millions of gallons of water from aquifers during drought periods and the farming of water-intensive crops such as cotton in arid areas.
It also leads to an increased reliance on already-strained groundwater supplies when urban areas expand without a plan in place to take advantage of alternative water supplies.
The issue has been difficult to track on a widespread level as well; reports from hydrologists only typically have the resources to focus on small regions or single aquifers, which gives the impression that this is a much more local issue than it is.
As well as this, there is an incentive to obfuscate the scale of this issue, given that groundwater supply can affect the value of property in an affected area.
These issues are compounded by climate change in order to create a water crisis on the horizon.
Is It A Point Of No Return?
The bigger question after illustrating the scale of the issue is what can be done about it, and the answer increasingly appears to be that nothing short of a significant change in how the United States uses water will be sufficient to avoid demand far outstripping groundwater supply.
One solution that has been suggested is a “managed recharge” of aquifers, that uses treated urban wastewater and storm flows for irrigation purposes and consequentially refills aquifers over the course of generations.
This is an approach used in southern Spain, a country similarly facing significant water stress in its agricultural industry.
Alternatively, relying on desalination and water recycling will reduce the amount of groundwater that needs to be pumped, and shifting farming practices to be more sustainable will help to conserve the water that is left.