Groundwater depletion consequences

Robert. Glennon. 9 Oct 2002. The Perils of Groundwater Pumping. The excessive “mining” of our aquifers is causing environmental degradation on a potentially enormous scale. Issues in Science and Technology. National Academy of Sciences.

Groundwater is more than 25 percent of U.S. water supply, and more than half of the population relies on groundwater for their drinking water supply.

It takes a lot of energy required to lift groundwater

Because water is heavy, about two pounds per quart, more energy is needed to lift water from lower levels.In Arizona, the electric energy to run a commercial irrigation well may cost $2,000 per month.The deeper the well that needs to be drilled, the more expensive it will cost.

Deep groundwater often has arsenic, fluoride, and radon

Pumping from lower levels may produce poorer quality water because naturally occurring elements, such as arsenic, fluoride, and radon, are more prevalent at deeper levels in the earth, and the earth’s higher internal temperature at these levels dissolves more of these elements into solution.

Overdrafting: Saltwater intrusion, land subsidence, lakes & rivers dry up

  • Overdrafting can cause the intrusion of saltwater into the aquifer, rendering the water no longer potable. This problem is quite serious in California, Florida, Texas, and South Carolina.
  • Overdrafting can lead to land subsidence. The land cracks or drops. In California’s San Joaquin Valley, the land surface dropped  25 to 30 feet between 1925 and 1977. Land subsidence has damaged homes and commercial structures and reduced property values. Pumping north of Tampa Bay in Pasco County has cracked the foundations, walls, and ceilings of local residents’ homes, resulting in lawsuits, insurance claims, and considerable ill will.
  • Pumping affects surface water, including lakes, ponds, rivers, creeks, streams, springs, wetlands, and estuaries. In Arizona, groundwater pumping has dried up or degraded 90 percent of the state’s once perennial desert streams, rivers, and riparian habitats

From Tucson to Tampa Bay, from California’s Central Valley to Down East Maine, rivers and lakes have disappeared, and fresh water is becoming scarce. Groundwater pumping–for domestic consumption, irrigation, or mining–causes bodies of water and wetlands to dry up; the ground beneath us to collapse; and fish, wildlife, and trees to die. The excessive pumping of our aquifers has created an environmental catastrophe known to relatively few scientists and water management experts and to those who are unfortunate enough to have suffered the direct consequences. This phenomenon is occurring not just in the arid West with its tradition of battling over water rights, but even in places we think of as relatively wet.

Groundwater pumping in the United States has increased dramatically in the past few decades.

Domestic use alone jumped from 2.9 trillion gallons in 1965 to about 6.8 trillion gallons (of 28 trillion gallons total) in 1995, or 24,000 gallons for every man, woman, and child.

Farmers use 66% of groundwater to irrigate crops.

The mining industry, especially copper, coal, and gold production, pumped about 770 billion gallons.  In 1995, California alone pumped 14,500 billion gallons of groundwater per day. Groundwater withdrawals actually exceeded surface water diversions in Florida, Kansas, Nebraska, and Mississippi.

Groundwater pumping has become a global problem because 1.5 billion people (one-quarter of the world’s population) depend on groundwater for drinking water.

Groundwater is an extraordinarily attractive source of water for farms, mines, cities, and homeowners because it is available throughout the year and it exists almost everywhere in the country. During the various ice ages, much of the country was covered with huge freshwater lakes. Water from these lakes percolated into the ground and collected in aquifers. Unlike rivers and streams, which are few and far between, especially in the West, aquifers exist below almost the entire country.

Recommended reading

William M. Alley, Thomas E. Reilly, and O. Lehn Franke, Sustainability of Ground-Water Resources (U.S. Geological Survey, circular 1186, Denver, Colo.: 1999).

Robert Glennon and Thomas Maddock, III, “The Concept of Capture: The Hydrology and Law of Stream/Aquifer Interactions,” in Proceedings of the Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Institute (1997): vol. 43, 22-1 to 22-89.

Robert Glennon and Thomas Maddock, III, “In Search of Subflow: Arizona’s Futile Effort to Separate Groundwater From Surface Water,” Arizona Law Review 36 (1994): 567­610.

Wayne B. Solley, Robert R. Pierce, and Howard A. Pearlman, Estimated Use of Water in the United States (U.S. Geological Survey, circular 1200, Denver, Colo.: 1998).

Thomas C. Winter, Judson H. Harvey, O. Lehn Franke, and William M. Alley, Ground Water and Surface Water: A Single Resource (U.S. Geological Survey, circular 1139, Denver, Colo.: 1999).

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