Deeper well drilling an unsustainable stopgap to groundwater depletion

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Abstract

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.

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Fig. 1: Groundwater wells across the United States.
Fig. 2: Groundwater-well construction depths vary over time.
Fig. 3: Spearman regressions for years 2000–2015.
Fig. 4: Comparison of agricultural and domestic groundwater uses versus well depths.

Data availability

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).

Code availability

MATLAB codes that support the analyses are available from D.P. upon request.

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Acknowledgements

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.

Author information

D.P. and S.J. contributed equally to compiling and analysing the well completion data, and to writing the paper.

Correspondence to Debra Perrone.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

State by state information, Supplementary Figs. 1–43 and Supplementary Tables 1–57.

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