How the West will feel groundwater shortages

New research shows stressed water supplies, as demand increases.

 

Drought-stricken water users in California’s Central Valley have compensated for shortages by pumping groundwater at a furious rate. In some parts of the valley, the water table has dropped roughly 60 feet in a single year. Researchers say such practices are moving us toward hydrological bankruptcy.

A new worldwide snapshot of the planet’s largest underground aquifers suggests things are even worse than we thought. Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, released two papers on the topic this week in the journal Water Resources Research. Globally, 13 of the 37 largest groundwater reserves, including the Central Valley, are “overstressed” or “extremely stressed,” meaning they’re being consumed much faster than replenished.

Irrigation canal and fields in California's Central Valley
USGS
“It’s much worse than what we thought, or what we think it is even now,” Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and an Irvine professor, said. Famiglietti notoriously declared this spring that California has only “about one year of water left,” based on his analyses.

Groundwater depletion isn’t a new problem for the West, although it’s literally hidden from view. Arizona’s pumping habits once dried up the Santa Cruz River through Tucson and caused subsidence around other cities. Idaho’s Snake River Plain and Colorado’s Denver Basin have suffered decline, thanks to bustling growth and groundwater pumping. The southern half of the High Plains, or Ogallala, Aquifer, covering parts of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, is dropping so fast it may not be able to support irrigation three decades from now.

Famiglietti and his colleagues used remote-sensing data from NASA satellites to get a detailed understanding of aquifer groundwater levels and recharge rates. The findings challenge past aquifer storage estimates as too large and depletion estimates as too conservative. In other words, to the extent that we’re managing our groundwater systems at all, we are doing so without accurate information. The studies also highlight that many of the largest, overused groundwater basins are critical food-producing areas. Reduced drinking-water supplies and food production could potentially trigger political or social instability.

Map of trends in global groundwater storage
UC Irvine/ NASA
The Middle East’s Arabian Aquifer and the Indus River Basin of India and Pakistan are the world’s two most stressed systems, based on the research. The Central Valley, considered “extremely stressed,” isn’t far behind and has seen sharp declines in recent years. The Ogallala, also included in the studies, rates better than the Central Valley but still show signs of stress.

As in California, many water-stressed areas around the world are exacerbating shortages, as people rely more on groundwater to meet demands. California became the last Western state to enact groundwater-monitoring laws in 2014.

“It’s almost too much for our water managers to have to cope with the lack of available surface water and the declining groundwater,” Famiglietti said, noting that many managers focus on river flows while overlooking connections and impacts to underground aquifers.

Flow shortages and reservoir declines within the Colorado River Basin have resulted in massive regional groundwater losses during the past decade of drought. A 2014 report by Famiglietti and others found that 75 percent of the basin’s water losses since 2004 have come out of underground aquifers.

Famiglietti and other NASA researchers are now taking the satellite data and building a high-resolution computer model to provide better predictions of water availability across the West. That initiative, called Western States Water Mission, should give scientists, managers and policymakers a more complete picture of connections between snowpack, rivers, groundwater and soil moisture, and identify where shortages are occurring.

“The issue comes down to: We don’t include groundwater in our Colorado Basin system of laws and policies,” Famiglietti said. “Groundwater is basically dealt with on a state-by-state level, but we really need to enter into interstate discussions because we’re clearly relying heavily on groundwater to meet allocation demands.”

Joshua Zaffos is an HCN contributing editor. He tweets at @jzaffos.

High Country News Classifieds
  • GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS MANAGER
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a Government Affairs Manager to support our legislative and administrative advocacy efforts in Colorado. This new, mid-level position will report...
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance, a leading grassroots conservation advocacy organization for over 30 years, seeks a passionate, dynamic, organized, and technology-savvy communications professional to help...
  • OPERATIONS AND FINANCE MANAGER
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness, a national grassroots organization led by women, seeks a resourceful, self-motivated, team player to serve as Operations and Finance Manager....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    ORGANIZATIONAL BACKGROUND Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) fosters community stewardship, education and awareness of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...
  • WYOMING STATE DIRECTOR
    Save the World ... or at least a piece of it! Join The Nature Conservancy and make a tangible and lasting impact by creating a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR FOR AN ENVIRONMENTAL ADVOCACY NON-PROFIT NEAR YOSEMITE
    Demanding, but rewarding, advocacy work on forest, water, wildland, and wildlife issues. Applicants should have experience dealing with land management planning, public speaking, grassroots organizing,...
  • NEW AGRARIAN APPRENTICESHIP
    Quivira Coalition's 2020 New Agrarian Apprenticeships in Regenerative Ranching and Farming -Apprenticeships run 4/20 - 11/20 Applications accepted 10/15/19 - 12/1/19 NAP partners with skilled...
  • PHILANTHROPY DIRECTOR AT WILDERNESS WORKSHOP
    Wilderness Workshop seeks a full time Philanthropy Director to raise funds for our team. Learn more: www.wildernessworkshop.org
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT WITH WESTERN RESOURCE ADVOCATES
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks an enthusiastic and organized problem solver to join our growing team as an Executive Assistant. The Executive Assistant is instrumental...
  • WYOMING OUTDOOR COUNCIL
    Two positions: Development Director OR Development Writer, Communications Director. Full job descriptions at https://wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org/careers.
  • CONSERVATION PROJECT MANAGER
    Great Land Trust seeks to hire a Conservation Project Manager. Position is full-time, based in Anchorage, Alaska. First review of applications will be on October...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eagle Valley Land Trust Executive Director Position Description Summary of Position: The Executive Director, working with and reporting to the Board of Directors, has overall...
  • FINANCE & LOGISTICS COORDINATOR
    The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, founded in 1928 as an independent nonprofit organization, is a biological field station located near Crested Butte, Colorado. Our primary...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    See Full Job Description
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Position: Development Coordinator Responsible to: Executive Director Time Commitment: 15-20 hours per week, or as otherwise agreed upon General Description: The Development Coordinator assists the...
  • EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Friends of Cedar Mesa seeks a full-time Education Manager for the Bears Ears Education Center to provide day to day operational and administrative oversight. See...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED SCP SOUTHWEST REGIONAL DIRECTOR
    Seeking to hire an experienced advocate/manager to oversee the organization's sportsmen/women-driven advocacy in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Open until filled
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    for northern AZ collaborative conservation ranchlands group
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Partners are seeking an experienced and energetic Executive Director who is excited about the opportunity to lead our growing organization! A full description of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country News Seeks an Executive Director to advance its mission, grow its audience and influence, and strategically and sustainably guide the organization through a...