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U.S. Aquifers Are Running Dry, Posing Major Threat to Drinking Water Supply

StoryAugust 31, 2023
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A major New York Times investigation reveals how the United States’ aquifers are becoming severely depleted due to overuse in part from huge industrial farms and sprawling cities. The Times reports that Kansas corn yields are plummeting due to a lack of water, there is not enough water to support the construction of new homes in parts of Phoenix, Arizona, and rivers across the country are drying up as aquifers are being drained far faster than they are refilling. “It can take millions of years to fill an aquifer, but they can be depleted in 50 years,” says Warigia Bowman, director of sustainable energy and natural resources law at the University of Tulsa College of Law. “All coastal regions in the United States are really being threatened by groundwater and aquifer problems.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: “America Is Using Up Its Groundwater Like There’s No Tomorrow.” That’s the headline to a major New York Times investigation that examines how the nation’s aquifers are becoming severely depleted due to overuse in part from huge industrial farms and sprawling cities.

The depletion of the nation’s aquifers is already having a devastating impact. The Times reports that in Kansas, corn yields are plummeting due to a lack of water. In Arizona, there is not enough water to support the construction of new homes in parts of Phoenix. And rivers across the country are drying up.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going now to Oklahoma, where we’re joined by Warigia Bowman, who has been closely tracking this issue, director of sustainable energy and natural resources law at the University of Tulsa College of Law.

Thank you so much for being with us. Can you start off by just explaining what an aquifer is, why these groundwater resources are under such threat, why they’re so critical not only to the United States but all over the world?

WARIGIA BOWMAN: Well, thank you so much, Amy. It’s really an honor to be on your show. I’ve been listening for years, so I am grateful for the opportunity.

For your listeners, an aquifer refers to, essentially, a container of soil and rock that holds water under the ground. This is not an underground river. Rather, it’s water flowing through porous rock and soil. So, if you have an aquifer very close to the surface, we usually call that artesian, and that’s when you see a spring. So, if you see a spring bubbling out of the ground, that means that the aquifer is very close to the surface. Some aquifers are very deep below the surface, and they were formed by glacial rainwater billions and millions of years ago. So, an aquifer is just a fancy way of saying, you know, the place that holds our groundwater.

Now, aquifers are critical for both the United and the world, because we get so much of our drinking water from groundwater. It’s really a significant percentage. In California, it could go as high as 60% in a drought year.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And so, Warigia, if you could talk about how the federal government and state governments manage public water supplies?

WARIGIA BOWMAN: OK. Well, the federal government does not deal with groundwater. They have the power to. The Supreme Court has said, in Nebraska v. Sporhase, that the federal government has that opportunity. But all water law is done at the state level for the moment. And what that means is that each different state has a different approach to managing its water. So, actually, who manages water at the local level, that’s a municipal issue. That’s a little bit more of an infrastructure issue. But in terms of who owns the water and the legal regime to utilize it, that’s a state law issue.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about how aquifer depletion isn’t solely a problem in the west of the country, how the tap water crisis is emerging in other parts of the country, as well?

WARIGIA BOWMAN: OK, well, I’m not an expert on the tap water crisis, but I will say that all coastal regions in the United States are really being threatened by groundwater and aquifer problems. Some of the hardest hit are going to be Louisiana and Florida. Obviously, New York will eventually be hit.

Let’s take Florida. I’m sure you guys have already heard about how residents in Miami are trying to move their properties or find property on hillier areas, but in places like the Everglade, you have a very delicate balance of freshwater and saltwater. But when we overdraw our aquifers, then you get something called saltwater intrusion, which upsets that balance. And that’s also a serious problem in Louisiana.

And surprisingly, under the Mississippi River between Mississippi and Arkansas, there’s enormous aquifer depletion. It’s hard to believe because the Mississippi is such a big river. But the farmers in that region are withdrawing so much water so fast that actually the aquifers underneath the Mississippi River are one of the most endangered aquifers in the United States.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Warigia, if you could talk about, very quickly, in the last minute we have, how the climate crisis worsens this aquifer depletion and accelerates it?

WARIGIA BOWMAN: Well, there are a few different ways. The first way is precipitation is declining. Snowmelt is declining — I mean, snow is declining. But one thing to understand it that aquifers and groundwater, they recharge incredibly slowly. So, it can take millions of years to fill an aquifer, but they can be depleted, you know, in 50 years. But as surface water supplies, like rivers and streams and lakes, are depleted, farmers and industry are going to draw more from groundwater, and so that accelerates the depletion.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Warigia Bowman, we want to thank you so much for being with us, associate professor and director of sustainable energy and natural resources law at the University of Tulsa College of Law.

That does it for our show. A very happy birthday to Hany Massoud! Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Sonyi Lopez. Our executive director is Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley, Jon Randolph, Paul Powell, Mike Di Filippo, Miguel Nogueira, Hugh Gran, Denis Moynihan, David Prude, Dennis McCormick, Matt Ealy and Emily Anderson.

If you want to sign up for our daily digest, news in your email box, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks so much for joining us.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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