Groundwater Decline and Depletion

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Groundwater is a valuable resource both in the United States and throughout the world. Groundwater depletion, a term often defined as long-term water-level declines caused by sustained groundwater pumping, is a key issue associated with groundwater use. Many areas of the United States are experiencing groundwater depletion.

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Groundwater Decline and Depletion

A dry water well in Morocco.

Pumping groundwater faster than it can recharge can lead to dry wells, especially during droughts. (Credit: Wikipedia, Creative Commons)

Groundwater is a valuable resource both in the United States and throughout the world. Where surface water, such as lakes and rivers, are scarce or inaccessible, groundwater supplies many of the hydrologic needs of people everywhere. In the United States, it is the source of drinking water for about half the total population and nearly all of the rural population, and it provides over 50 billion gallons per day for agricultural needs. Groundwater depletion, a term often defined as long-term water-level declines caused by sustained groundwater pumping, is a key issue associated with groundwater use. Many areas of the United States are experiencing groundwater depletion.

 

Excessive pumping can overdraw the groundwater "bank account"

The water stored in the ground can be compared to money kept in a bank account. If you withdraw money at a faster rate than you deposit new money you will eventually start having account-supply problems. Pumping water out of the ground faster than it is replenished over the long-term causes similar problems. The volume of groundwater in storage is decreasing in many areas of the United States in response to pumping. Groundwater depletion is primarily caused by sustained groundwater pumping. Some of the negative effects of groundwater depletion:

  • drying up of wells
  • reduction of water in streams and lakes
  • deterioration of water quality
  • increased pumping costs
  • land subsidence

 

What are some effects of groundwater depletion?

Pumping groundwater at a faster rate than it can be recharged can have some negative effects of the environment and the people who make use of the water:

LOWERING OF THE WATER TABLE

Chart showing lowering groundwater levels at a well in Oregon.

Pumping has removed water from storage in basalt aquifers and caused declines in many areas of the Columbia Plateau.

The most severe consequence of excessive groundwater pumping is that the water table, below which the ground is saturated with water, can be lowered. For water to be withdrawn from the ground, water must be pumped from a well that reaches below the water table. If groundwater levels decline too far, then the well owner might have to deepen the well, drill a new well, or, at least, attempt to lower the pump. Also, as water levels decline, the rate of water the well can yield may decline.

REDUCTION OF WATER IN STREAMS AND LAKES

There is more of an interaction between the water in lakes and rivers and groundwater than most people think. Some, and often a great deal, of the water flowing in rivers comes from seepage of groundwater into the streambed. Groundwater contributes to streams in most physiographic and climatic settings. The proportion of stream water that comes from groundwater inflow varies according to a region's geography, geology, and climate.

Groundwater pumping can alter how water moves between an aquifer and a stream, lake, or wetland by either intercepting groundwater flow that discharges into the surface-water body under natural conditions, or by increasing the rate of water movement from the surface-water body into an aquifer. A related effect of groundwater pumping is the lowering of groundwater levels below the depth that streamside or wetland vegetation needs to survive. The overall effect is a loss of riparian vegetation and wildlife habitat.

LAND SUBSIDENCE

The basic cause of land subsidence is a loss of support below ground. In other words, sometimes when water is taken out of the soil, the soil collapses, compacts, and drops. This depends on a number of factors, such as the type of soil and rock below the surface. Land subsidence is most often caused by human activities, mainly from the removal of subsurface water.

INCREASED COSTS FOR THE USER

As the depth to water increases, the water must be lifted higher to reach the land surface. If pumps are used to lift the water (as opposed to artesian wells), more energy is required to drive the pump. Using the well can become prohibitively expensive.

DETERIORATION OF WATER QUALITY

One water-quality threat to fresh groundwater supplies is contamination from saltwater intrusion. All of the water in the ground is not fresh water; much of the very deep groundwater and water below oceans is saline. In fact, an estimated 3.1 million cubic miles (12.9 cubic kilometers) of saline groundwater exists compared to about 2.6 million cubic miles (10.5 million cubic kilometers) of fresh groundwater (Gleick, P. H., 1996: Water resources. In Encyclopedia of Climate and Weather, ed. by S. H. Schneider, Oxford University Press, New York, vol. 2, pp. 817-823). Under natural conditions the boundary between the freshwater and saltwater tends to be relatively stable, but pumping can cause saltwater to migrate inland and upward, resulting in saltwater contamination of the water supply.

 

Where does groundwater depletion occur in the United States?

Groundwater Depletion in the United States (1900–2008). A natural consequence of groundwater withdrawals is the removal of water from subsurface storage, but the overall rates and magnitude of groundwater depletion in the United States are not well characterized. This study evaluates long-term cumulative depletion volumes in 40 separate aquifers or areas and one land use category in the United States, bringing together information from the literature and from new analyses. Depletion is directly calculated using calibrated groundwater models, analytical approaches, or volumetric budget analyses for multiple aquifer systems. Estimated groundwater depletion in the United States during 1900–2008 totals approximately 1,000 cubic kilometers (km3). Furthermore, the rate of groundwater depletion has increased markedly since about 1950, with maximum rates occurring during the most recent period (2000–2008) when the depletion rate averaged almost 25 km3 per year (compared to 9.2 km3 per year averaged over the 1900–2008 timeframe).

Map of U.S. showing groundwater levels trends, 1900 to 2008

From Groundwater Depletion in the United States (1900-2008), USGS Scientific Investigations Report 2013-5079.

Groundwater depletion has been a concern in the Southwest and High Plains for many years, but increased demands on our groundwater resources have overstressed aquifers in many areas of the Nation, not just in arid regions. In addition, groundwater depletion occurs at scales ranging from a single well to aquifer systems underlying several states. The extents of the resulting effects depend on several factors including pumpage and natural discharge rates, physical properties of the aquifer, and natural and human-induced recharge rates. Some examples are given below.

 

ATLANTIC COASTAL PLAIN - In Nassau and Suffolk Counties, Long Island, New York, pumping water for domestic supply has lowered the water table, reduced or eliminated the base flow of streams, and has caused saline groundwater to move inland.

Many other locations on the Atlantic coast are experiencing similar effects related to groundwater depletion. Surface-water flows have been reduced due to groundwater development in the Ipswich River basin, Massachusetts. Saltwater intrusion is occurring in coastal counties in New Jersey; Hilton Head Island, South Carolina; Brunswick and Savannah, Georgia; and Jacksonville and Miami, Florida (Barlow).

The chart below shows monthly-mean water levels from 1964 to 2003 for a well in Cook County, southwest Georgia. The well is used for irrigation and public-supply purposes and offers a good visual representation of long-term groundwater declines due to excessive pumping. Periods of drought also have an effect on groundwater levels, as replenishing water infiltrating into the aquifer would be reduced.

Chart showing long-term groundwater levels in a well in Georgia, 1966 to 2004.

WEST-CENTRAL FLORIDA - Groundwater development in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area has led to saltwater intrusion and subsidence in the form of sinkhole development and concern about surface-water depletion from lakes in the area. In order to reduce its dependence on groundwater, Tampa has constructed a desalination plant to treat seawater for municipal supply.

GULF COASTAL PLAIN - Several areas in the Gulf Coastal Plain are experiencing effects related to groundwater depletion:

  • Groundwater pumping by Baton Rouge, Louisiana, increased more than tenfold between the 1930s and 1970, resulting in groundwater-level declines of approximately 200 feet.
  • In the Houston, Texas, area, extensive groundwater pumping to support economic and population growth has caused water-level declines of approximately 400 feet, resulting in extensive land-surface subsidence of up to 10 feet.
  • Continued pumping since the 1920s by many industrial and municipal users from the underlying Sparta aquifer have caused significant water-level declines in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee.
  • The Memphis, Tennessee area is one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world that relies exclusively on groundwater for municipal supply. Large withdrawals have caused regional water-level declines of up to 70 feet.

HIGH PLAINS - The High Plains aquifer (which includes the Ogallala aquifer) underlies parts of eight States and has been intensively developed for irrigation. Since predevelopment, water levels have declined more than 100 feet in some areas and the saturated thickness has been reduced by more than half in others.

PACIFIC NORTHWEST - Groundwater development of the Columbia River Basalt aquifer of Washington and Oregon for irrigation, public-supply, and industrial uses has caused water-level declines of more than 100 feet in several areas.

DESERT SOUTHWEST - Increased groundwater pumping to support population growth in south-central Arizona (including the Tucson and Phoenix areas) has resulted in water-level declines of between 300 and 500 feet in much of the area. Land subsidence was first noticed in the 1940s and subsequently as much as 12.5 feet of subsidence has been measured. Additionally, lowering of the water table has resulted in the loss of streamside vegetation.

These pictures show a reach of the Santa Cruz River south of Tucson, Arizona. In the 1942 picture vegetation is growing in the riparian (river bank) area the river, indicating that sufficient water in the soil existed at a level that plant roots could access it. The same site in 1989 shows that the riparian trees have largely disappeared as a result of lowered groundwater levels.

before
after
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Perennial streams, springs, and wetlands in the Southwestern United States are highly valued as
a source of water for humans and for the plant and animal species they support. Development of
ground-water resources since the late 1800’s has resulted in the elimination or alteration of many
perennial stream reaches, wetlands, and associated riparian ecosystems. As an example, a 1942 photograph
of a reach of the Santa Cruz River south of Tucson, Ariz., at Martinez Hill shows stands of
mesquite and cottonwood trees along the river (left photograph). A replicate photograph of the same
site in 1989 shows that the riparian trees have largely disappeared (right photograph). Data from two
nearby wells indicate that the water table has declined more than 100 feet due to pumping, and this
pumping appears to be the principal reason for the decrease in vegetation.

CHICAGO-MILWAUKEE AREA - Chicago has been using groundwater since at least 1864 and groundwater has been the sole source of drinking water for about 8.2 million people in the Great Lakes watershed. This long-term pumping has lowered groundwater levels by as much as 900 feet.

This map shows contours of water-level declines, in feet, in the Chicago-Milwaukee area from 1864 to 1980.

Map of Chicago-Milwaukee area showing water level decline, 1864-1980.

Source: Alley, William & Reilly, T.E. & Franke, O.L.. (1999). Sustainability of Ground-Water Resources. U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1186.  Public domain.

 

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