Groundwater depletion is causing wells to run dry, affecting food production and domestic water access. Drilling deeper wells may stave off the drying up of wells—for those who can afford it and where hydrogeologic conditions permit it—yet the frequency of deeper drilling is unknown. Here, we compile 11.8 million groundwater-well locations, depths and purposes across the United States. We show that typical wells are being constructed deeper 1.4 to 9.2 times more often than they are being constructed shallower. Well deepening is not ubiquitous in all areas where groundwater levels are declining, implying that shallow wells are vulnerable to running dry should groundwater depletion continue. We conclude that widespread deeper well drilling represents an unsustainable stopgap to groundwater depletion that is limited by socioeconomic conditions, hydrogeology and groundwater quality.
Access optionsAccess options
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $8.67 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
The groundwater-well datasets that support the analyses are available from state and sub-state agencies; some states require consent to share groundwater-well data, some states prefer that requests go through their agency for various reasons and other states require public records requests. Supplementary Table 1 includes websites for direct download and contact information for requesting access to data. Groundwater-level data are available from the US Geological Survey (waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/inventory) and California’s GAMA Program (gamagroundwater.waterboards.ca.gov/gama/gamamap/public).
MATLAB codes that support the analyses are available from D.P. upon request.
Dieter, C. A. et al. Estimated Use of Water in the United States in 2015 Circular 1441 (US Geological Survey, 2018); https://doi.org/10.3133/cir1441
Groundwater Facts (National Groundwater Association, 2018); https://www.ngwa.org/what-is-groundwater/About-groundwater/groundwater-facts
Famiglietti, J. & Rodell, M. Water in the balance. Science 340, 1300–1301 (2013).
Castle, S. L. et al. Groundwater depletion during drought threatens future water security of the Colorado River Basin. Geophys. Res. Lett. 41, 5904–5911 (2014).
Scanlon, B. R. et al. Groundwater depletion and sustainability of irrigation in the US High Plains and Central Valley. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 9320–9325 (2012).
Famiglietti, J. et al. Satellites measure recent rates of groundwater depletion in California’s Central Valley. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L03403 (2011).
Argus, D. F. et al. Sustained water loss in California’s mountain ranges during severe drought from 2012 to 2015 inferred from GPS. J. Geophys. Res.-Sol. Ea. 122, 559–585 (2017).
McGuire, V. L. Water-level Changes and Change in Water in Storage in the High Plains Aquifer, Predevelopment to 2013 and 2011–13 Scientific Investigations Report 2014–5218 (US Geological Survey, 2014); https://doi.org/10.3133/sir20145218
Haacker, E. M. K., Kendall, A. D. & Hyndman, D. W. Water level declines in the High Plains aquifer: predevelopment to resource senescence. Groundwater 54, 231–242 (2016).
Konikow, L. F. Long-term groundwater depletion in the United States. Groundwater 53, 2–9 (2014).
Clark, B. R., Hart, R. M. & Gurdak, J. J. Groundwater Availability of the Mississippi Embayment Professional Paper 1785 (US Geological Survey, 2011).
Konikow, L. F. Groundwater Depletion in the United States (1900−2008) Scientific Investigations Report 2013−5079 (US Geological Survey, 2013).
Russo, T. A. & Lall, U. Depletion and response of deep groundwater to climate-induced pumping variability. Nat. Geosci. 10, 105 (2017).
Perrone, D. & Jasechko, S. Dry groundwater wells in the western United States. Environ. Res. Lett. 12, 104002 (2017).
Alley, W., Beutler, L., Campana, M., Megdal, S. & Tracy, J. Groundwater visibility: The missing link. Groundwater 54, 758–761 (2016).
Womble, P. et al. Indigenous communities, groundwater opportunities. Science 361, 453–455 (2018).
Army Corps of Engineers. National Inventory of Dams (CorpsMap, 2016); https://nid.usace.army.mil
Fan, Y., Li, H. & Miguez-Macho, G. Global patterns of groundwater table depth. Science 339, 940–943 (2013).
Green, D. E. in Land of the Underground Rain: Irrigation on the Texas High Plains, 1910–1970 Ch. 4 (Univ. of Texas Press, 1973).
Sasman, C. Huge water discovery. The Namibian https://www.namibian.com.na/index.php?id=97389&page=archive-read (2012).
Waller, R. M. Ground Water and the Rural Homeowner (US Geological Survey, 1994); https://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/gw_ruralhomeowner/
Feinstein, L., Phurisamban, R., Ford, A., Tyler, C. & Crawford, A. Drought and Equity in California (Pacific Institute, 2017); https://pacinst.org/publication/drought-and-equity-in-california/
Hanak, E. et al. What if California’s Drought Continues? (Public Policy Institute of California, 2015); https://www.ppic.org/publication/what-if-californias-drought-continues
Hales, D. et al. Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment (eds Melillo, J. M., Richmond, T. & Yohe, G. W.) Ch. 14 (US Global Change Research Program, 2014); https://doi.org/10.7930/J01Z429C
Tidwell, V. C. et al. Mapping water availability, projected use and cost in the western United States. Environ. Res. Lett. 9, 64009 (2014).
Gutentag, E. D., Heimes, F. J., Krothe, N. C., Luckey, R. R. & Weeks, J. B. Geohydrology of the High Plains Aquifer in parts of Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming Professional Paper 1400–B (US Geological Survey, 1984); https://doi.org/10.3133/pp1400B
Ranjram, M., Gleeson, T. & Luijendijk, E. Is the permeability of crystalline rock in the shallow crust related to depth, lithology or tectonic setting? Geofluids 15, 106–119 (2015).
Ferguson, G., McIntosh, J. C., Perrone, D. & Jasechko, S. Competition for shrinking window of low salinity groundwater. Environ. Res. Lett. 13, 114013 (2018).
Kang, M., Ayars, J. E. & Jackson, R. Deep groundwater quality in the southwestern United States. Environ. Res. Lett. 144, 034004 (2018).
High Plains Aquifer Evaluation Project: Glossary (Kansas Geological Survey, 2000); http://www.kgs.ku.edu/HighPlains/atlas/glossary.htm
Wilson, C. City of Portales: Review of Water Supply Options (City of Portales, 2013); https://www.portalesnm.gov/egov/documents/1386182798_59198.pdf
Kang, M. & Jackson, R. B. Salinity of deep groundwater in California: Water quantity, quality, and protection. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 113, 7768–7773 (2016).
Meixner, T. et al. Implications of projected climate change for groundwater recharge in the western United States. J. Hydrol. 534, 124–138 (2016).
Niraula, R. et al. How might recharge change under projected climate change in the western U.S.? Geophys. Res. Lett. 44, 407–410,418 (2017).
Taylor, R. G. et al. Ground water and climate change. Nat. Clim. Change 3, 322–329 (2013).
Nolan, B. T., Hitt, K. J. & Ruddy, B. C. Probability of nitrate contamination of recently recharged groundwaters in the conterminous United States. Environ. Sci. Technol. 36, 2138–2145 (2002).
Wakida, F. T. & Lerner, D. N. Non-agricultural sources of groundwater nitrate: a review and case study. Water Resour. 39, 3–16 (2005).
Veatch, A. C. Geology and Underground Water Resources of Northern Louisiana And Southern Arkansas Professional Paper 46 (US Geological Survey, 1906).
Steward, D. R. et al. Tapping unsustainable groundwater stores for agricultural production in the High Plains Aquifer of Kansas, projections to 2110. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 110, E3477–E3486 (2013).
Dalin, C., Wada, Y., Kastner, T. & Puma, M. J. Groundwater depletion embedded in international food trade. Nature 543, 700–704 (2017).
Cotterman, K. A., Kendall, A. D., Basso, B. & Hyndman, D. W. Groundwater depletion and climate change: future prospects of crop production in the Central High Plains Aquifer. Clim. Change 146, 187–200 (2018).
Wood, S. A., Smith, M. R., Fanzo, J., Remans, R. & DeFries, R. S. Trade and the equitability of global food nutrient distribution. Nat. Sustain. 1, 34–37 (2018).
Huang, Z. et al. Subregional-scale groundwater depletion detected by GRACE for both shallow and deep aquifers in North China Plain. Geophys. Res. Lett. 42, 1791–1799 (2015).
Rodell, M. et al. Emerging trends in global freshwater availability. Nature 557, 651–659 (2018).
Al-Naber, M. Jordan-Azraq Basin Case Study Project Report 12 (International Water Management Institute, 2016); http://gw-mena.iwmi.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2017/04/Rep.12-Groundwater-governance-in-Azraq-Jordan-report_final_cover.pdf
Meyer, G. & Wyrick, G. G. Regional Trends in Water-well Drilling in the United States Circular 533 (US Geological Survey, 1966).
Nelson, R. & Perrone, D. Local groundwater withdrawal permitting laws in the south-western U.S.: California in comparative context. Groundwater 54, 747–753 (2016).
Nelson, R. & Perrone, D. The role of permitting regimes in western United States groundwater management. Groundwater 54, 761–764 (2016).
Jasechko, S. & Perrone, D. Hydraulic fracturing near domestic groundwater wells. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 114, 13138–13143 (2017).
Perrone, D., Hornberger, G., van Vliet, O. & van der Velde, M. A review of the United States’ past and projected water use. J. Am. Water Resour. As. 51, 1183–1191 (2015).
This research was completed without external funding. We acknowledge state- and local-level agencies (Supplementary Table 1) for providing groundwater-well construction data for analyses and for their assistance controlling the datasets for quality. We acknowledge D. Nguyen for collecting newspaper reports on the costs of domestic groundwater wells in California. We thank D. Argus, J.W. Kirchner, M. Rodell and J. Salzman for their comments.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
State by state information, Supplementary Figs. 1–43 and Supplementary Tables 1–57.
About this article
Nature Sustainability (2019)