USGS Groundwater Depletion study of Aquifer decline in the United States

[ The Ogallala aquifer and many others are depleting rapidly.  Most wont’ be recharged until after the next ice age.

The Ogallala is one of Earth’s largest aquifers, the water used in the 10 great Plains states that provides a third of all groundwater used to irrigate to grow a fifth of our food and 40% of the grain for grain-fed beef .  Over the last century, however, we’ve pumped out two-thirds of the total water, enough to fill Lake Erie.  Many geologists expect most of the Ogallala to run out of water in 25 to 30 years, and perhaps run out of “usable” water as soon as 2020.  The fossil water in the Ogallala is not renewable. Over the years, water levels have fallen by more than one hundred feet in parts of four states. The “tragedy of the commons” is writ large over the Ogallala. Like climate disruption, aquifer depletion is the type of problem that human minds aren’t well designed to handle: The problem spans generations, conditions are only gradually worsening, and most people find it in their short-term interest to behave in ways that benefit them but harm future generations. Underground water ignores property lines, so there’s no way to conserve the water under your land unless all your neighbors do the same. Therefore, it seems logical to pump out as much water as hard and fast as you can, because otherwise your neighbors will pump it out (Hayes 2015).

Cows are polluting the Ogallala (and other aquifers). The aquifer’s water was once of such fine quality that you could drink it unfiltered and untreated. Now, however, the EPA says that pesticides, fertilizers, feedlot wastes, trace metals, and volatile organic compounds have contaminated much of it (Hayes 2015).

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer]

Konikow, L.F. 2013. Groundwater depletion in the United States (1900−2008): U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2013−5079. 63 pages.

According to the USGS Groundwater Depletion in the United States 1900-2008:

  • Groundwater depletion in the United States between 1900–2008 was 240 cubic miles (1,000 cubic km3).
  • That’s twice as much water in Lake Erie (480 km3).
  • For many areas the rate is unsustainable
  • This rate increased dramatically after 1950
  • The consumption rate nearly tripled from 2000-2008 over past rates.  Some of this was due to drought and decreased snowmelt.
  • In 2000-2008 about 25% of all water taken during the previous century was removed. This large volume of depletion represents a serious problem in the United States because much of this storage loss cannot be easily or quickly recovered and affects the sustainability of some critical water supplies and base flow to streams, among other effects
  • The Ogallala aquifer won’t be replenished until after the next ice age and underlies 10 states (175,000 square miles). It is the main source of drinking and agricultural water. In 2000-2008, as much water was taken out as during the entire previous century from 1900 to 1999.
  • Another dark side to depleting aquifers is that the extra water runs into the ocean and adds 2% of the global sea-level rise seen so far. 

GroundwaterDepletion 1900-2008 USAMap of the United States showing cumulative groundwater depletion 1900-2008 in 40 assessed aquifer systems or subareas. Colors are hatched in the Dakota aquifer (area 39) where the aquifer overlaps with other aquifers having different values of depletion (page 16).

GroundwaterDepletion 1900-2008 USA by regionCumulative groundwater depletion in the United States and major aquifer systems or categories, 1900 through 2008

GroundwaterDepletion 1900-2008 USA by decadeDecadal scale rate of groundwater depletion in the United States, 1900 through 2008. Final value represents average rate during an 8-year period, 2001 through 2008.

Agricultural and Land Drainage in the United States

During the 20th century, many agricultural and civil engineering projects were completed for land reclamation, flood control, and agricultural drainage purposes in the United States. This led to significant losses of wetland areas throughout the Nation. On farms, crop yields can be increased by keeping the water table some distance below the land surface, thereby precluding water logging of land and allowing salts to be removed from the soil profile. Drainage projects can result in permanently lowered water-table elevations both locally and regionally. Where the seasonal or average annual position of the water table is permanently lowered, the net decline represents a long-term depletion of the volume of groundwater in storage below the land surface.

The first half of the 20th century was marked by emerging technologies for land drainage. Farmers joined together in drainage organizations to build drainage and flood control measures. Large-scale drainage projects backed by drainage organizations and Federal agencies affected both large and small wetland areas. Agricultural and urban expansion persisted throughout the United States. Use of drained lands usually occurred in a succession, from undrained wetlands to agricultural lands to urban areas. These factors led to the drainage of over 100,000 square miles of wetlands in the lower 48 states during the 20th century, which is about 55 km3 of permanently lost water.

Hayes, Denis and Gail. 2015. Cowed: The Hidden Impact of 93 Million Cows on America’s Health, Economy, Politics, Culture, and Environment.    W.W. Norton & Company.

Konikow, L.F., 2013, Groundwater depletion in the United States (1900−2008): U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2013−5079, 63 p.,
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One Response to USGS Groundwater Depletion study of Aquifer decline in the United States

  1. Elizabeth Howard says:

    Thank you so much, Alice, for bringing this urgent topic to light! The depletion of the Ogallala is not discussed enough. It is one of our most critical environmental issues, and one that will personally affect us all.

    Recently, I have been working with author Julene Bair on publicity for her upcoming memoir, The Ogallala Road, A Memoir of Love and Reckoning, which is scheduled to be released in March 2014 by Viking Penguin. It’s an intimately told story about her family’s relationship to their western Kansas land and the water of the Ogallala beneath it, yet it intersects the political when Julene becomes involved in the politics of the local water board. With this highly personal approach, Julene hopes to reach a broad audience and bring more attention to the crisis facing our nation’s largest aquifer.

    On a larger scale, the book implicates our entire society and political system in the bleeding out of the water we need to live. There was a brief period, post-Dust Bowl, when Julene’s family and other plains farmers learned to work within the limits imposed on them by nature. But in the 1960s, with the encouragement of federal Farm Program price supports on crops such as corn and soybeans, they began mining the irreplaceable groundwater. They also began to use toxic pollutants such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides that seep through the soil and into the water below. With these practices, future generations are being robbed of the water they will need not only to farm, but to survive in that place.

    The more this issue is discussed and brought to public attention, the better! Thank you for being part of that discussion. I hope your interest in this issue will prompt you to read Julene’s book, and to continue to raise your voice and call attention to this mounting crisis. We need a choir of voices. This is the only way I have ever seen true change occur.