In a sign of the ongoing threats to its precious groundwater stores, half a dozen regions in California rank among the world’s most rapidly declining aquifers, according to research published this week.
Globally, lack of local water drives migration, poverty, starvation and violence — while in California, it drives decades-long regulatory battles over how to stop over-pumping by growers.
Aquifers in Spain, Iran, China and Chile top the list of the 100 most rapidly dropping groundwater levels. In California, California’s Cuyama Valley, north of Santa Barbara, ranked 34th worldwide. Its underground basin has been dropping almost 5 feet a year, and residents, farmers and even the school district are locked in a court battle with carrot growers who sued them over groundwater rights.
Four other basins in the San Joaquin Valley and one in northeastern San Diego also netted spots in the top 100, with water levels falling up to almost four feet a year, according to the study, which was led by University of California and Swiss researchers and published in the journal Nature.
Only two other basins in the United States made the top 100: Gila Bend near Phoenix and Mill Creek in Idaho.
“Some of the rates of groundwater level decline occurring in California really are some of the highest in the world,” said Scott Jasechko, a co-author of the study and an associate professor of hydrology, water resources and groundwater at UC Santa Barbara.
“It’s a sobering finding,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do here in California.”
The research revealed that rapidly declining groundwater basins are virtually non-existent in places with no farming. Heavily-farmed regions in drier climates, such as the San Joaquin Valley, Iran and parts of India, are especially hard hit.
Plummeting groundwater levels can cause drinking water wells to go dry. Streams can dwindle and disappear, and the desiccated earth can sink and collapse — shrinking the storage capacity of aquifers and damaging roads, buildings, levees and other structures above ground.
Land in parts of the San Joaquin Valley has subsided so much that it has damaged the California Aqueduct, which carries river water to Southern California, forced at least $187 million of repairs on the Friant-Kern Canal, and required millions more to fortify a levee around the sinking town of Corcoran to protect it from floodwaters.
The researchers analyzed more than 170,000 groundwater wells in more than 40 countries, and reported “widespread acceleration in groundwater level deepening,” which they said “highlights an urgent need for more effective measures.”
The study provides a global database that backs up observations that have long worried water watchers.
“The major contribution is to bring into much sharper focus this global problem of groundwater depletion and over-pumping,” said Graham Fogg, a professor emeritus of hydrogeology at UC Davis who was not involved with the research.
“With groundwater, if it’s left unmanaged and unregulated, it’s going to be abused in many, many cases. And if that abuse goes on long enough, some basins will be exhausted of water.”
Violence over water is flaring around the globe. Water is a trigger, casualty and weapon in hundreds of conflicts just over the past two years — from Russian troops destroying a Ukrainian dam to cyberattacks on Israeli water infrastructure and Israeli military forces seizing or destroying Palestinian water sources. Clashes over water safety and scarcity have led to injuries and deaths around the world.
San Joaquin Valley Growers Are Still Over-Pumping
Ten years ago, alarmed by record declines in groundwater and thousands of dried up wells, California lawmakers passed a law aimed at stopping overpumping. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act requires local agencies to achieve sustainable groundwater use by 2040 for the most critically overdrafted basins, and 2042 for basins considered less depleted.
But wells have continued to go dry and groundwater depletion continues with few protections in place. So far, California water officials deemed plans for six San Joaquin Valley basins inadequate and called for probation hearings.
In addition to the Cuyama Valley, the Nature paper’s top 100 includes the White Wolf Basin in Kern County (52nd), the San Pasqual Valley in northeastern San Diego (55th), the Chowchilla Basin straddling Merced and Madera counties (65th), the Northern Kern Basin (69th) and the Kaweah Basin in Kings and Tulare counties (93rd).
Jasechko and his colleagues set out to understand how groundwater depletion in California compared to other aquifers globally. It took them six years to scour the literature for water level measurements, download it from databases and request it from water managers around the world.
For more than 540 aquifers, the researchers had enough data to compare groundwater levels over 40 years. Of those, about a third showed accelerating groundwater declines. Another 21% percent had increases in the 1980s and 1990s turn to losses over the past 23 years.
But Jasechko found some reasons for hope: 20% of aquifers saw groundwater declines slow down in the 21st century. Another 16% pivoted from groundwater decline to recovery, while 13% saw groundwater levels continue to increase.
“Long-term groundwater losses are neither universal nor inevitable,” the researchers wrote.
Groundwater depletion in parts of Saudi Arabia slowed, for instance — possibly due to policies aimed at curbing agricultural use, including a phaseout of alfalfacultivation that also led to a massive increase in imports from the US. In Bangkok, Thailand, pumping slowed after officials increased fees.
And in the Coachella Valley, groundwater levels improved after the water districtintroduced a new pricing structure, increased recharge and improved access to Colorado River and recycled water supplies.
But UC Davis’s Fogg said that the research also brought clarity to what he called one of the existential challenges for the nexus between food, energy and water: how reining in groundwater depletion will affect the global food system. About 70% of water worldwide is used for agriculture and irrigation.
“We’ve built a food supply system that relies in large part on irrigated agriculture, which in turn relies in many areas…on pumped groundwater,” Fogg said. “So that has to change. That change will likely result in effects on the food supply. So it’s a major challenge to see how civilization can deal with that in the future.”
About the Author
Rachel Becker is a journalist reporting on California’s complex water challenges and water policy issues for CalMatters. Rachel has a background in biology, with master’s degrees in both immunology and science journalism. Before joining CalMatters, Rachel was a staff science reporter at The Verge, and her byline has also appeared in outlets including National Geographic News, Smithsonian, Slate, and Nature. In 2021 she won first place for Outstanding Beat Reporting from the Society of Environmental Journalists, and in 2022 Rachel was the inaugural recipient of the Water Education Foundation’s Rita Schmidt Sudman Award for Excellence in Water Journalism.
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