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Widespread potential loss of streamflow into underlying aquifers across the USA

Abstract

Most rivers exchange water with surrounding aquifers1,2. Where groundwater levels lie below nearby streams, streamwater can infiltrate through the streambed, reducing streamflow and recharging the aquifer3. These ‘losing’ streams have important implications for water availability, riparian ecosystems and environmental flows4,5,6,7,8,9,10, but the prevalence of losing streams remains poorly constrained by continent-wide in situ observations. Here we analyse water levels in 4.2 million wells across the contiguous USA and show that nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) of them lie below nearby stream surfaces, implying that these streamwaters will seep into the subsurface if it is sufficiently permeable. A lack of adequate permeability data prevents us from quantifying the magnitudes of these subsurface flows, but our analysis nonetheless demonstrates widespread potential for streamwater losses into underlying aquifers. These potentially losing rivers are more common in drier climates, flatter landscapes and regions with extensive groundwater pumping. Our results thus imply that climatic factors, geological conditions and historic groundwater pumping jointly contribute to the widespread risk of streams losing flow into surrounding aquifers instead of gaining flow from them. Recent modelling studies10 have suggested that losing streams could become common in future decades, but our direct observations show that many rivers across the USA are already potentially losing flow, highlighting the importance of coordinating groundwater and surface water policy.

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Fig. 1: Local-scale studies of stream–aquifer exchange.
Fig. 2: Comparison of well-water and stream-surface elevations.
Fig. 3: Prevalence of potentially losing and gaining rivers across the USA.
Fig. 4: The prevalence of losing conditions in relation to climatic aridity, topographic slope and groundwater withdrawals.

Data availability

Well water-level datasets are available from state and sub-state agencies. Some states only share their groundwater-well data through requests to their various agencies or through public records requests. We have permission to share state-wide groundwater well construction data for California, Colorado, Idaho, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Washington, and we share these data in the Supplementary Information. Websites for direct download and contact information for requesting access to the original well-completion report data for all states are detailed in refs. 26,27,28 and summarized in Supplementary Table 5. Monitoring well water-level data are available from the US Geological Survey (https://waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/inventory) and California’s GAMA Program (https://gamagroundwater.waterboards.ca.gov/gama/gamamap/public). We have included tables that were used to generate the spatial data shown in Figs. 3 and 4 (see Source data).

Code availability

Requests for code linked to the described geospatial analyses can be directed to H.S. (hansjoerg.seybold@usys.ethz.ch).

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S.J., H.S., D.P., Y.F. and J.W.K. devised methods, discussed results, and contributed to writing the manuscript. S.J., H.S., D.P. and J.W.K. completed geospatial analyses.

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Correspondence to Scott Jasechko.

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Jasechko, S., Seybold, H., Perrone, D. et al. Widespread potential loss of streamflow into underlying aquifers across the USA. Nature 591, 391–395 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-03311-x

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