Famine and drought: Water wells are at risk of going dry in the US and around the world

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As the drought outlook for the Western U.S. becomes increasingly bleak, attention is turning once again to groundwater – literally, water stored in the ground. It is Earth’s most widespread and reliable source of fresh water, but it’s not limitless.

Water wells are at risk of going dry in the US and worldwide
Water wells are at risk of going dry in the US and worldwide. Picture: Shutterstock

Wells that people drill to access groundwater supply nearly half the water used for irrigated agriculture in the U.S. and provide over 100 million Americans with drinking water. Unfortunately, pervasive pumping is causing groundwater levels to decline in some areas, including much of California’s San Joaquin Valley and Kansas’ High Plains.

In a recent study, scientists mapped the locations and depths of wells in 40 countries around the world and found that millions of wells could run dry if groundwater levels decline by only a few meters. While solutions vary from place to place, we believe that what’s most important for protecting wells from running dry is managing groundwater sustainably – especially in nations like the U.S. that use a lot of it.

Water wells are at risk of going dry in the US and worldwide
About 75% of global groundwater pumping occurs in India, the U.S., China, Pakistan, Iran, Mexico and Saudi Arabia.

Which countries are using most groundwater today

Humans have been digging wells for water for thousands of years. Examples include 7,400-year-old wells in the Czech Republic and Germany, 8,000-year-old wells in the eastern Mediterranean, and 10,000-year-old wells in Cyprus. Today wells supply 40% of water used for irrigation worldwide and provide billions of people with drinking water.

Groundwater flows through tiny spaces within sediments and their underlying bedrock. At some points, called discharge areas, groundwater rises to the surface, moving into lakes, rivers and streams. At other points, known as recharge areas, water percolates deep into the ground, either through precipitation or leakage from rivers, lakes and streams.

Water wells are at risk of going dry in the US and worldwide
Pumping can remove groundwater from underground faster than it recharges.

Consequences of groundwater decline

Groundwater declines can have many undesirable consequences. Land surfaces sink as underground clay layers are compactedSeawater intrusion can contaminate groundwater reserves and make them too salty to use without energy-intensive treatment. River water can leak down to underground aquifers, leaving less water available at the surface.

Groundwater depletion can also cause wells to run dry when the top surface of the groundwater – known as the water table – drops so far that the well isn’t deep enough to reach it, leaving the well literally high and dry. Yet until recently, little was known about how vulnerable global wells are to running dry because of declining groundwater levels.

There is no global database of wells, so over six years we compiled 134 unique well construction databases spanning 40 different countries. In total, we analyzed nearly 39 million well construction records, including each well’s location, the reason it was constructed and its depth.

The new results show that wells are vital to human livelihoods – and recording well depths helped us see how vulnerable wells are to running dry.

Millions of wells at risk

The new analysis led to two main findings. First, up to 20% of wells around the world extend no more than 16 feet (5 meters) below the water table. That means these wells will run dry if groundwater levels decline by just a few feet.

Second, scientists found that newer wells are not being dug significantly deeper than older wells in some places where groundwater levels are declining. In some areas, such as eastern New Mexico, newer wells are not drilled deeper than older wells because the deeper rock layers are impermeable and contain saline water. New wells are at least as likely to run dry as older wells in these areas.

Underwater wells are going dry in the US

Wells are already going dry in some locations, including parts of the U.S. West. In previous studies we estimated that as many as 1 in 30 wells were running dry in the western U.S., and as many as 1 in 5 in some areas in the southern portion of California’s Central Valley.

Households already are running out of well water in the Central Valley and southeastern Arizona. Beyond the Southwest, wells have been running dry in states as diverse as MaineIllinois and Oregon.

What can you do when the well gives out

How can households adapt when their well runs dry? Here are five strategies, all of which have drawbacks.

Dig a new, deeper well. This is an option only if fresh groundwater exists at deeper depths. In many aquifers deeper groundwater tends to be more saline than shallower groundwater, so deeper drilling is no more than a stopgap solution. And since new wells are expensive, this approach favors wealthier groundwater users and raises equity concerns.

Related: The best DIY water well kit

Sell the property. This is often considered if constructing a new well is unaffordable. Drilling a new household well in the U.S. Southwest can cost tens of thousands of dollars. But selling a property that lacks access to a reliable and convenient water supply can be challenging.

Divert or haul water from alternative sources, such as nearby rivers or lakes. This approach is feasible only if surface water resources are not already reserved for other users or too far away. Even if nearby surface waters are available, treating their quality to make them safe to drink can be harder than treating well water.

Reduce water use to slow or stop groundwater level declines. This could mean switching to crops that are less water-intensive, or adopting irrigation systems that reduce water losses. Such approaches may reduce farmers’ profits or require upfront investments in new technologies.

Limit or abandon activities that require lots of water, such as irrigation. This strategy can be challenging if irrigated land provides higher crop yields than unirrigated land. Recent research suggests that some land in the central U.S. is not suitable for unirrigated “dryland” farming.

Tricks to protect wells from running dry

Households and communities can take proactive steps to protect wells from running dry. For example, one of us is working closely with Rebecca Nelson of Melbourne Law School in Australia to map groundwater withdrawal permitting – the process of seeking permission to withdraw groundwater – across the U.S. West.

State and local agencies can distribute groundwater permits in ways that help stabilize falling groundwater levels over the long run, or in ways that prioritize certain water users. Enacting and enforcing policies designed to limit groundwater depletion can help protect wells from running dry. While it can be difficult to limit use of a resource as essential as water, we believe that in most cases, simply drilling deeper is not a sustainable path forward. [The Conversation]

Is your well dry? Then find if you still have water underground… and dig a new one with this kit

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Hmmm, sounds like a way to scam taxpayers with these permits.

    Our well runs deep. On an aquifer. I still truck water in though. Feed my pond, then I can top off using my hose and well water.

    I don’t like running my well pump too hard as itbis on a solar system, and it uses up energy. Even when irrigating, I use a 30-45 min per area, and give it a rest for an hour or two. Our season just started. What I did the last two weeks was swamp my trees and orchard. Helps water go deep for easy root growth, root ball stays cooler, more 02 uptake. Use mulch, topsoil, bird manure mix. Good for leaf growth. Just water it in. Two handfuls per tree. Works good.

    We had all that snow this Winter too. Rain a plenty. Nature takes care of herself. Always works out ok out here.

  2. Read the book “Let There be Water” to learn how Israel solved their water shortage and now share their ideas and technology worldwide. They pioneered desalination & filtering of sewage for agricultural water supply and turned arid desert into farmable land.

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