One in 30 wells in the West failed in recent years

New research shows just how many wells ran dry between 2013 and 2015.

 

When their taps began spitting out air instead of water a few years ago, one family in Paso Robles, California, was forced to snake a hose from a neighbor’s property into their home for drinking water. They ate from paper plates instead of dishes, could no longer wash their laundry at home and watched their vegetable garden dry up. For households that rely on well water — a common situation across the rural West — the impacts can be severe when a well runs dry.

Stories like that one streamed out of California during the drought that officially ended earlier this year, but the extent of the problem — exactly how many wells were affected — was unclear. Now, new research suggests that one in 30 groundwater wells in the West, wells that supply farms in addition to homes, went dry between 2013 and 2015.

To arrive at that number, California-based researchers Debra Perrone and Scott Jasechko compiled location and depth records for wells constructed between 1950 and 2015 across Western states. Counting the number of wells that were shallower than nearby groundwater levels allowed them to estimate how many had run dry. The scientists identified 3.7 million well records overall, about three-quarters of which supply drinking water; about one-quarter are for agriculture. (Industrial use accounts for the remaining 4 percent.) “The sheer number of dots on our map illustrates the importance of groundwater to millions of people,” says Perrone, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University.

About 2 million well records included the depth of the well. Red dots represent deeper wells. Blue dots indicate shallower wells, which are more susceptible to drying. Data were unavailable for parts of California’s Central Valley at the time of the analysis, yet effective groundwater management requires consistent and reliable information across regions, Perrone says.

Groundwater accounts for about 20 percent of the water used nationwide, but in many places, it’s being sucked up from aquifers faster than it’s being replenished. According to U.S. Geological Survey data from 2010, the most recent year for which data are available, pumping rates in the West were highest in California’s Central Valley, Idaho’s Snake River Plain, and the High Plains of Nebraska, Kansas and Texas.

Over-pumping intensifies during droughts, when dwindling rivers and reservoirs mean water users rely more heavily on groundwater. That can disrupt ecosystems, collapse overlying ground, buckle roads and canals, allow seawater to infiltrate aquifers — and dry up wells.

Colored portions of the map show the estimated percent of wells that were shallower than the nearby water table between 2013 and 2015; in other words, wells that likely ran dry.

“Drought highlights how important groundwater resources are,” Perrone says, but combating declining groundwater levels requires management during both wet and dry periods. Because aquifers often cross state lines and other political boundaries, region-wide groundwater policies are necessary, Perrone says. Such policies might include things like permitting water withdrawals, collective fees designed to reduce groundwater use, water markets, and aquifer recharge programs.

Some regions where Perrone and Jasechko identified many dry wells are improving. During last year’s wet winter, for example, a recharge program in Idaho added 317,000 acre-feet of water to the Eastern Snake River Plain Aquifer, which spans nearly 11,000 square miles. “The trick is being able to do that over the long term,” says Wesley Hipke, the Idaho Department of Water Resources employee who manages the program. It’s especially important to add as much water as possible during wet years, he says, to make up for years when water is less abundant.

Idaho’s program is still relatively new — last winter was the third year of full-scale operation — but, combined with a 2015 agreement to reduce pumping and promote recharge, officials hope to keep boosting the aquifer. Lessons learned from Idaho’s program could be a model for other places. “Every state needs to grapple with this,” Hipke says, “especially in the West.”

Emily Benson is an editorial fellow at High Country News. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST
    Idaho Walk Bike Alliance seeks a lover of bicycling, walking, and all modes of active transportation who willingly puts the car in the garage and...
  • COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Friends of Inyo - the Communications Director is a full-time permanent position that reports to the Executive Director and utilizes communication strategies and production skills...
  • INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS EDITOR
    High Country News seeks an editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk. This individual will lead a team of passionate journalists...
  • HIKING TO THE EDGE:
    Confronting Cancer in Rocky Mountain National Park. Poetry and photos on survival thinking. E-book and paperback available at Amazon.com.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • IPLC RIGHTS AND EQUITY PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    A LITTLE ABOUT US Founded in 1951, the Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FUTURE WEST
    Future West seeks an executive director to lead this dynamic organization into the future. Based in Bozeman, MT this well-respected nonprofit provides communities in the...
  • PART-TIME EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mitchell Museum of the American Indian Location: Evanston, IL Salary Range: $45,000 @ 24 hours per week. send resume: [email protected] www.mitchellmuseum.org
  • COMMUNICATIONS LEAD
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • SENIOR POLICY ADVISOR
    Since 1989, The Nature Conservancy in Alaska has been doing work you can believe in protecting the lands and waters that all life depends on....
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...
  • PUBLIC LANDS DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a dedicated advocate for conservation and public lands Public Lands Director a "make a difference" position Conserve Southwest...
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & MARKETING
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is seeking a full-time Director of Development & Marketing. This is a senior position responsible for the development of all marketing...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR
    The Legal Director will work closely with the Executive Director in cultivating a renewed vision at NMELC that integrates diversity, equity, and justice. Black, Indigenous,...
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    The Vice President for Landscape Conservation leads Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing on four program areas: federal public lands management; private lands...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.
  • EARTH CRUISER FX FOR SALE
    Overland Vehicle for travel on or off road. Fully self contained. Less than 41,000 miles. Recently fully serviced Located in Redmond, OR $215'000.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    identifies suspect buried trash, tanks, drums &/or utilities and conducts custom-designed subsurface investigations that support post-damage litigation.