Is the U.S. running out of well water?

A sign is posted near an almond farm on Feb. 25, 2014, in Turlock, Calif, during the most devastating drought in the state's recorded history.  Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

You don't miss your water 'til the well goes dry, according to the old saying. But recent events have helped draw national attention to how delicate America's water supply can be, while a new study suggests that our national well could indeed run dry without the proper management.

First, the severe ongoing drought in California is creating concerns about the nation's food supplies, while also renewing debate about the costly and complex process of turning sea water into drinking water through desalination.

Second, January's chemical spill in Charleston, W.Va., left hundreds of thousands of people in that state without drinking water, and has raised questions about whether the tap water there remains hazardous.

In another environmental incident, last month's release of tons of toxic coal ash into a river in North Carolina, could have a long-term impact on the region's environment.

Despite efforts at conservation and recycling, community and industrial demand for water continues to rise. There are mounting concerns that demand, coupled with the threat of climate change and a deteriorating infrastructure that wastes billions of gallons of water daily, is putting dangerous pressure on the traditional water resource of well water.

According to data from the U.S. Geological Survey, about 20 percent of the 410 billion gallons of water used daily in 2005 came from groundwater sources.

Some states rely much more heavily than others on groundwater. California was responsible for 13 percent of all national groundwater withdrawn in 2005, followed by Texas at 10 percent.

But a new study, using historic well records rather than computer models, says groundwater levels in the U.S. have declined across much of the country over the past 60 years. It also suggests the current methods used to access and manage groundwater are unsustainable.

The white paper was issued by the Columbia Water Center, part of Columbia University's Earth Institute. Along with the expected ground water depletion in the agricultural areas of Central California and the Great Plains, the study says long-term declines were also seen in groundwater levels along the Atlantic Coast, the Lower Mississippi and much of the southeastern U.S.

Tess Russo, a postdoctoral fellow and the study's lead author, says the declining groundwater levels -- along with concerns about the future of America's fresh water supplies -- are an indication the nation needs a fundamental change in its water management systems.

"We're not proposing a single set of regulations for the country -- that wouldn't work, we understand the local nature of water issues," Russo said in a statement.

"However, in order to improve the way we manage and finance water systems locally," she continued, "we have to start with a comprehensive assessment of utilities, financing, technology evaluation, efficiency, and environmental sustainability of current practices."

  • Bruce Kennedy

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