Groundwater, an often-overlooked resource, is silently slipping away beneath our feet, posing a significant threat to our nation’s future. While we’ve been understandably laser-focused on many other environmental disasters – such as wildfires and heat waves – a less visible but equally critical crisis has been unfolding. A recent investigation by The New York Times brings this quiet catastrophe to the forefront: our underground water, a vital source for our cities and farms, is diminishing at an alarming rate.
Groundwater depletion, the excessive use of underground water, is becoming a significant problem in the United States. The New York Times’ investigation exposes how America's essential groundwater resource – part of what brought so much economic prosperity to the country in the last century – is diminishing in many areas, with little hope of recovery. Massive industrial farms and sprawling cities are draining aquifers, which, in some cases, would take centuries or even millennia to replenish. In fact, four out of every ten U.S. groundwater sites hit all-time lows in 2022.
The consequences of groundwater depletion are already apparent in communities across the country. In Kansas, the major aquifer beneath millions of acres of land can no longer support large-scale agriculture. Corn yields have plummeted, posing a threat to America's food production. The suburb of Long Island faces threats to its drinking-water wells due to over-pumping as well. In Phoenix, one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S., groundwater depletion is so dire that new developments have been halted because the aquifers would be unable to support their water use.
Unfortunately, the repercussions of groundwater depletion extend far beyond the dwindling water supplies. Across the United States, this silent crisis is leaving its indelible mark in various forms, from infrastructure damage to health hazards and agricultural setbacks.
One of the most tangible and immediate impacts of groundwater loss is on infrastructure. As aquifers are drained of their water, the ground above them can sink and compress, leading to a phenomenon known as land subsidence. In many areas, especially those heavily reliant on groundwater, this subsidence is causing streets to buckle, foundations to crack, and even creating dangerous fissures in the earth's surface.
In southwest Utah, for example, the city of Enoch has witnessed the unsettling disappearance of entire neighborhoods as land subsidence takes hold. Streets and sidewalks that once led to thriving communities now wind past abandoned lots filled with debris and overgrown weeds. This phenomenon isn't limited to Utah; in Houston, over-pumping groundwater and oil extraction have led to land sinking more than ten feet in some areas. And in Florida, over-pumping is often linked to the formation of sinkholes.
Groundwater depletion also brings another insidious threat: arsenic contamination. Arsenic, a naturally occurring heavy metal, is commonly trapped in clayey soils. When aquifers are over-pumped, the increased drawdown of water levels can release arsenic into the remaining groundwater. This phenomenon, documented in countries with less-developed water infrastructure, including Mexico and Vietnam, is now manifesting within the United States.
In California's San Joaquin Valley, researchers have established a troubling connection between groundwater depletion and arsenic contamination. As communities drill deeper wells to compensate for diminishing water levels, the likelihood of arsenic contamination rises. The consequences are twofold: not only does arsenic pose health risks given that it is carcinogenic, but addressing it through water filtration imposes an additional financial burden on affected households, especially those with limited resources. Furthermore, private well owners may be unaware of the contamination at all.
Perhaps the most pressing consequence of groundwater depletion is its impact on agriculture, which not only feeds our nation and our livestock, but also contributes massively to the U.S.’s economic stability. The introduction of impressive pump technology post-World War II once transformed arid regions like the western states and the High Plains into thriving agricultural hubs. However, this success came at a cost: farmers began depleting aquifers faster than nature could replenish them. Those communities are already beginning to pay the price.
Take Kansas, a state renowned for its vast corn fields. Here, over-pumping has caused aquifers to dwindle to unsustainable levels. The Ogallala Aquifer, vital for irrigating a significant portion of global food production, has reached its lowest levels in decades. The result? Corn yields have plunged, reversing decades of agricultural progress. Similar scenarios are unfolding in other states, where groundwater depletion threatens the foundation of America's agricultural success.
These three impacts—infrastructure damage, arsenic contamination, and crop loss—paint a dire picture of the state of groundwater usage in the United States.
One of the major obstacles to addressing groundwater depletion is the lack of regulation. The federal government plays a minimal role in regulating groundwater usage, while individual states have implemented inconsistent and often weak rules. Some states even permit groundwater to be pumped until it's entirely depleted. Experts argue that this will need to change, as a growing number of communities risk draining their aquifers completely.
In the time it took to read this article, the United States has used over 280 million gallons of groundwater. Nearly half of monitored groundwater sites in this country have seen significant declines in the past 40 years, and climate change poses additional risks to groundwater in the future. Groundwater depletion is not just a concern for environmentalists; it's a threat to our food security, infrastructure, economy, and the health of our communities. It is time to implement sustainable practices to ensure that the crisis beneath our feet is addressed. Our future depends on it.