Ground Water

The Problem

Much of the planet relies on groundwater. And in places around the world – from the United States to Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America – so much water is pumped from the ground that aquifers are being rapidly depleted and wells are going dry.

Groundwater is disappearing beneath cornfields in Kansas, rice paddies in India, asparagus farms in Peru and orange groves in Morocco. As these critical water reserves are pumped beyond their limits, the threats are mounting for people who depend on aquifers to supply agriculture, sustain economies and provide drinking water. In some areas, fields have already turned to dust and farmers are struggling.

Climate change is projected to increase the stresses on water supplies, and heated disputes are erupting in places where those with deep wells can keep pumping and leave others with dry wells. Even as satellite measurements have revealed the problem’s severity on a global scale, many regions have failed to adequately address the problem. Aquifers largely remain unmanaged and unregulated, and water that seeped underground over tens of thousands of years is being gradually used up.

In this project, USA TODAY and The Desert Sun investigate the consequences of this emerging crisis in several of the world’s hotspots of groundwater depletion. These are stories about people on four continents confronting questions of how to safeguard their aquifers for the future – and in some cases, how to cope as the water runs out.

The Data

Many of the world’s aquifers are being depleted. Using measurements from NASA’s GRACE satellites, a team of scientists led by Professor Jay Famiglietti of the University of California, Irvine and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have found that more than half of the planet’s largest 37 aquifers have declined since 2003.

The satellites take detailed measurements of Earth’s gravity field and have recorded changes in the total amounts of water, both aboveground and underground, since 2002.

Using the data, NASA researchers have mapped regions where water is being overpumped or where drought has taken a toll – among them much of the western and southern United States.

Northern India has been losing vast quantities of water, in large part due to groundwater depletion.

Much of the Amazon basin has gained water, while the satellites have recorded the effects of drought in Brazil, the melting of Andean glaciers, and the depletion of the Guaraní Aquifer in Argentina and neighboring countries.

Across the Middle East and North Africa, groundwater is being rapidly depleted and aquifers are declining.


Sources: Jay Famiglietti, University of California, Irvine and NASA JPL/Caltech; Alexandra Richey, “Quantifying renewable groundwater stress with GRACE,” Water Resources Research.
GRACE, which stands for Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, is a joint U.S.-German mission involving the Center for Space Research at the University of Texas, Austin; NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory; the German Space Agency and Germany’s National Research Center for Geosciences in Potsdam.


Potential Solutions

In dozens of interviews in the United States, India, Peru and Morocco, many ideas for potential solutions emerged – ways people can work toward lessening overpumping and preventing groundwater from being progressively depleted. Some of the proposals are simple. Some are complicated. Some may be costly. And others are already being tried with varying degrees of success.

Here are some of those ideas – shared by scientists, farmers, water managers, government officials and others – about how people and institutions can prevent aquifers from declining further.

Monitoring and measuring: If groundwater isn’t adequately monitored or measured, it’s difficult if not impossible to properly manage it.

Assessing threats: Communities and regions first need to take stock of how seriously in overdraft their aquifers are, and what it would take to prevent further declines. Exploratory drilling and scientific studies, including mapping of aquifers, could help.

Collective involvement, buy-in: Aquifers are common-pool resources that require collective management. It helps if communities engage collectively and across sectors to plan groundwater use. Some regions are using “aquifer contracts.” Others have long-term water management plans.

Producing food with less water: The stresses on groundwater can be lessened if farms adopt more efficient irrigation systems and grow less water-intensive crops. Some areas are trying subsidies to encourage more farmers to invest in water-saving systems.

Regulating and limiting pumping: In many places, preventing aquifers from falling further will require significant reductions in pumping. Rules need to be enforced by water agencies and governments.

Pricing water: Where groundwater is free to pump, some suggest creating a fee structure as an incentive for people and businesses to conserve. The idea can be described as “pumper-payer” – if you pump, you pay for it.

Protecting those most affected: If some can afford to keep drilling deeper and others can’t, the poor will continue to struggle as wells go dry. Some advocate assistance for small farmers and rural residents, as well as stricter rules to prevent big farms from leaving others dry.

Delinking groundwater rights from property rights: Those who own land often can pump as much as they wish. Changing that approach to water rights could help.

Building strong institutions: Conflicts over water erupt when there is a free-for-all of pumping or when regulators fail to establish order or enforce rules. Some say a strong “referee” is critical.

Closing the awareness gap: In many parts of the world, people are using much more water than is available, and that’s leading to falling aquifers. If more people become aware of the seriousness of the problem, they may act with greater urgency to face it.

Have an idea to share about groundwater depletion and potential solutions? Join the conversation using the hashtags #Groundwater or #PumpedDry.