As California suffers its fifth year of drought, much attention is being focused on the state’s groundwater – a critical source and one that is being stretched.
What is happening to it, and how can scientists and policymakers manage it more effectively?
New Era of Water Scarcity
One way to think about groundwater is to compare it to dark matter – which is invisible yet accounts for most of the matter in the universe. Similarly, hidden beneath the surface, groundwater is invisible yet accounts for about 95 percent of all circulating freshwater on earth. While the science of groundwater is mostly well-known and tested, the effective management of it, in concert with management of surface water, remains a frontier, like dark matter.
For an analogy closer to home, consider the world of finance. Imagine all of your money is in two bank accounts. You know the balance, deposits and withdrawals from account A, but they are largely unknown for account B. Here’s the kicker: When the balance in account A gets depleted, uncontrolled, largely unknown amounts of cash are withdrawn from account B. How would this financial strategy work for you? Of course, it would be disastrous, yet this is how we commonly mismanage our interconnected accounts: A, surface water and B, groundwater.
Such mismanagement will cause crises, except when account B is flush with cash or water. Indeed, for the last half-century many groundwater systems have been flush enough to cover for the lack of good management of resources.
Now, however, it is clear that we have moved into a new era of water scarcity driven by a growing world population and increased demand that is exposing more groundwater crises across the globe, including the North China Plain, India, the Middle East, Australia and California.
To further complicate matters, our climate already seems to be fulfilling the projections of models that indicate futures with more extreme dry and wet periods.
The good news is that, as in financial shortages, most water crises are avoidable if we truly manage both surface water and groundwater.
Why is this not really happening? Why has there been so little progress in dealing with water crises? I believe a big part of the explanation lies in the lack of motivation and transparency about the “accounts.”
There is little motivation to live within our means unless the consequences of our over-consumption are made sufficiently clear.
In finance, the obvious consequence is an account overdraft and unsustainable debt. Similarly, we refer to excessive groundwater depletion as overdraft, but unlike the case in finance, there are multiple negative consequences that emerge over time – some of them more or less immediately, and others over decades or centuries.
Unfortunately, the short-term consequences are either not sufficiently damaging or well enough noticed to serve as deterrents. By the time the most damaging, long-term consequences occur, however, it can be too late.
Here is a typical sequence of phenomena as groundwater development and overdraft proceed in the thick, alluvial aquifer systems that are common to California and elsewhere:
- Groundwater levels decline over a period of months to years, leading to higher energy costs to pump the water.
- Groundwater levels continue declining year after year, causing still higher energy costs, drying-up of shallow wells, depleting rivers, lakes and wetlands, and perhaps inducing land subsidence, as any silt and clay beds in the aquifer system depressurize and compact irreversibly.
- In coastal areas, salt water from the ocean intrudes into the fresh aquifer system, contaminating wells near the coast. Meanwhile, most of the wells in the basin are still able to pump large amounts of potable groundwater.
- Similarly, severely depleted inland aquifers may begin to draw in poor-quality groundwater residing in the nonaquifer media (that is, the silts and clays that commonly make up a large percentage of the geologic media that compose what we call aquifers) and from deep, saline groundwater systems that underlie the fresh groundwater.
- After a period of decades, the ongoing overdraft effectively converts the groundwater system into a closed hydrologic basin in which the predominant exit for water is evaporation, resulting in salt accumulation and salinization, likely on a century timescale. (For examples of what happens in closed hydrologic basins, one need look no further than places like Mono Lake and the Salton Sea in California or Great Salt Lake in Utah – all of which are saltier than seawater.)
- Eventual emptying of the fresh groundwater from the basin.
Is Sinking Land Enough to Motivate Change?
Now let us return to the issues of motivation and transparency. The negative consequences often do not prompt change because they unfold somewhat complexly on multiple timescales, and because the links between our land and water uses and these consequences are not too obvious.
For example, the first three items on the above list tend to be the most immediate, unfolding over years or a couple of decades. But with the possible exception of seawater intrusion and excessive subsidence, we are often willing to tolerate these consequences.
Subsidence can be very damaging to surface structures, including buildings, canals, pipelines and railroads, and can increase flood risk in low-lying and coastal areas. A cessation of the overdraft, however, will arrest the subsidence, as happened in the San Joaquin Valley around the 1970s, when importation of surface water and reductions in groundwater pumping halted the dramatic amounts (up to about 33ft [10m]) of subsidence, after which any damage to surface structures was repaired.
Nevertheless, as groundwater production in the San Joaquin Valley and Tulare Lake Basin has increased, alarming levels of subsidence are occurring yet again. (It is a myth, by the way, that subsidence destroys the water-transmitting capabilities of the aquifer system, because nearly all the compaction occurs in the nonaquifer materials, the silts and clays.)
Regardless of concerns about subsidence, mostly freshwater is still being pumped from the aquifer systems. So, everything is still OK, right? It would seem so. Groundwater pumpers can still make withdrawals from the “account,” and any other impacts on surface water resources already happened years or decades ago, of which the users are often unaware. As a result, there is inherently little motivation to curtail pumping, even though it will ultimately cause problems.
Entering a Grand Experiment
Perhaps the area with the least visibility has the biggest consequences – the last three items on our list, which take decades or centuries to play out, but represent a transition toward total nonsustainability. This is where our current water system in places like the western U.S. begins to look like a grand experiment, because we have been intensively pumping groundwater for little more than a half-century, yet the big, nonsustainable consequences typically take longer than that to develop.
The obvious one to avoid is emptying the basin, but because the volumes of groundwater in many of them are vast, I do not know of a single, major groundwater basin where it has happened. Long before it is emptied, however, the degradation in groundwater quality caused by rising salinity and contamination will likely happen. This would represent a point of no return, where most of the freshwater resource of the basin would effectively be destroyed, requiring energy-intensive desalination to treat any future groundwater withdrawals.
The scientific basis for groundwater management lies in averting or mitigating all of the negative consequences. But ultimately the motivation for management is to avoid overdepleting the fresh groundwater. If it gets to that point, we are effectively destroying the resource, not only from emptying of the basin but also due to water quality degradation. Regulation such as California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), passed in September 2014, ultimately seeks simply to keep the resource sustainable. Any regulation works best when those to whom it applies agree with its premises and objectives.
If most of the population deems the measure unnecessary because, for example, they are doing fine and their wells still produce lots of clean water, the regulation is doomed to failure and may generate more resentment than anything else.
A key hurdle in making SGMA effective, then, will be giving the water users greater motivation by making transparent the ultimate consequences of ignoring the laws of groundwater nature. Accomplishing this is not unlike researching dark matter. It requires a concerted effort through the use of measurements and computer models. Fortunately, the technology to do this in groundwater science already exists, although there is much work to be done.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.