Deeper well drilling an unsustainable stopgap to groundwater depletion

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.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

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.

References

  1. 1.

    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

  2. 2.

    Groundwater Facts (National Groundwater Association, 2018); https://www.ngwa.org/what-is-groundwater/About-groundwater/groundwater-facts

  3. 3.

    Famiglietti, J. & Rodell, M. Water in the balance. Science 340, 1300–1301 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4.

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5.

    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).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6.

    Famiglietti, J. et al. Satellites measure recent rates of groundwater depletion in California’s Central Valley. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L03403 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7.

    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).

    Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    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

  9. 9.

    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).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Konikow, L. F. Long-term groundwater depletion in the United States. Groundwater 53, 2–9 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11.

    Clark, B. R., Hart, R. M. & Gurdak, J. J. Groundwater Availability of the Mississippi Embayment Professional Paper 1785 (US Geological Survey, 2011).

  12. 12.

    Konikow, L. F. Groundwater Depletion in the United States (1900−2008) Scientific Investigations Report 2013−5079 (US Geological Survey, 2013).

  13. 13.

    Russo, T. A. & Lall, U. Depletion and response of deep groundwater to climate-induced pumping variability. Nat. Geosci. 10, 105 (2017).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    Perrone, D. & Jasechko, S. Dry groundwater wells in the western United States. Environ. Res. Lett. 12, 104002 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15.

    Alley, W., Beutler, L., Campana, M., Megdal, S. & Tracy, J. Groundwater visibility: The missing link. Groundwater 54, 758–761 (2016).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16.

    Womble, P. et al. Indigenous communities, groundwater opportunities. Science 361, 453–455 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17.

    Army Corps of Engineers. National Inventory of Dams (CorpsMap, 2016); https://nid.usace.army.mil

  18. 18.

    Fan, Y., Li, H. & Miguez-Macho, G. Global patterns of groundwater table depth. Science 339, 940–943 (2013).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19.

    Green, D. E. in Land of the Underground Rain: Irrigation on the Texas High Plains, 1910–1970 Ch. 4 (Univ. of Texas Press, 1973).

  20. 20.

    Sasman, C. Huge water discovery. The Namibian https://www.namibian.com.na/index.php?id=97389&page=archive-read (2012).

  21. 21.

    Waller, R. M. Ground Water and the Rural Homeowner (US Geological Survey, 1994); https://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/gw_ruralhomeowner/

  22. 22.

    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/

  23. 23.

    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

  24. 24.

    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

  25. 25.

    Tidwell, V. C. et al. Mapping water availability, projected use and cost in the western United States. Environ. Res. Lett. 9, 64009 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    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

  27. 27.

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28.

    Ferguson, G., McIntosh, J. C., Perrone, D. & Jasechko, S. Competition for shrinking window of low salinity groundwater. Environ. Res. Lett. 13, 114013 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29.

    Kang, M., Ayars, J. E. & Jackson, R. Deep groundwater quality in the southwestern United States. Environ. Res. Lett. 144, 034004 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  30. 30.

    High Plains Aquifer Evaluation Project: Glossary (Kansas Geological Survey, 2000); http://www.kgs.ku.edu/HighPlains/atlas/glossary.htm

  31. 31.

    Wilson, C. City of Portales: Review of Water Supply Options (City of Portales, 2013); https://www.portalesnm.gov/egov/documents/1386182798_59198.pdf

  32. 32.

    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).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  33. 33.

    Meixner, T. et al. Implications of projected climate change for groundwater recharge in the western United States. J. Hydrol. 534, 124–138 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. 34.

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. 35.

    Taylor, R. G. et al. Ground water and climate change. Nat. Clim. Change 3, 322–329 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    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).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  37. 37.

    Wakida, F. T. & Lerner, D. N. Non-agricultural sources of groundwater nitrate: a review and case study. Water Resour. 39, 3–16 (2005).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  38. 38.

    Veatch, A. C. Geology and Underground Water Resources of Northern Louisiana And Southern Arkansas Professional Paper 46 (US Geological Survey, 1906).

  39. 39.

    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).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  40. 40.

    Dalin, C., Wada, Y., Kastner, T. & Puma, M. J. Groundwater depletion embedded in international food trade. Nature 543, 700–704 (2017).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  41. 41.

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. 42.

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. 43.

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. 44.

    Rodell, M. et al. Emerging trends in global freshwater availability. Nature 557, 651–659 (2018).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  45. 45.

    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

  46. 46.

    Meyer, G. & Wyrick, G. G. Regional Trends in Water-well Drilling in the United States Circular 533 (US Geological Survey, 1966).

  47. 47.

    Nelson, R. & Perrone, D. Local groundwater withdrawal permitting laws in the south-western U.S.: California in comparative context. Groundwater 54, 747–753 (2016).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  48. 48.

    Nelson, R. & Perrone, D. The role of permitting regimes in western United States groundwater management. Groundwater 54, 761–764 (2016).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  49. 49.

    Jasechko, S. & Perrone, D. Hydraulic fracturing near domestic groundwater wells. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 114, 13138–13143 (2017).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  50. 50.

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

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

Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

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

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Debra Perrone.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

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

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Perrone, D., Jasechko, S. Deeper well drilling an unsustainable stopgap to groundwater depletion. Nat Sustain 2, 773–782 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-019-0325-z

Download citation

Further reading

Search

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing