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Top Reasons to Support Groundwater Preservation

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

Story at-a-glance -

  • Water scarcity is getting worse around the world as aquifers are drained faster than they can be refilled. The most significant contributor to the problem is industrial farming, due to its heavy use of potable water for irrigation
  • About 80 percent of the U.S. freshwater supply (and more than 90 percent in many Western states) is used for agricultural purposes
  • One-third of the largest groundwater aquifers are nearing depletion. In the Ogallala aquifer in the American Midwest, the water level has been dropping by an average of 6 feet per year, while the natural recharge rate is less than 1 inch
  • Water sources are also threatened by pollution from large-scale monocrop farms and concentrated animal feeding operations; corporate agribusiness is one of the biggest threats to America’s waterways
  • “Pumped Dry: The Global Crisis of Vanishing Groundwater,” reveals the seriousness of the situation, visiting hard-hit areas such as Kansas and California in the U.S., and in India, Peru and Morocco

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Water scarcity is getting worse around the world as aquifers are drained faster than they can be refilled. The most significant contributor to the problem is industrial farming, due to its heavy use of potable water for irrigation.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 80 percent of U.S. consumptive water (and more than 90 percent in many Western states) is used for agricultural purposes1 and, worldwide, groundwater is being used up at a faster rate than it can be replenished.

Many Aquifers Are Nearing Depletion

One-third of the largest groundwater aquifers are already nearing depletion,2 with three of the most stressed aquifers being located in areas where political tensions run high as it is.3 To give you an idea of how quickly groundwater is being depleted, consider what's happening in the High Plains Aquifer (also known as the Ogallala) in the American Midwest.

Here, the water level has been dropping by an average of 6 feet per year, while the natural recharge rate is 1 inch or less.4 Once this aquifer is depleted — and many wells have already run dry in the area — 20 percent of the U.S. corn, wheat and cattle output will be lost due to lack of irrigation and water for the animals.

According to Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the majority of our global groundwaters "are past sustainability tipping points,"5 which means it's only a matter of time until we run out of fresh water.

Pollution Threatens Remaining Freshwater Supplies

Precious water sources are also threatened by pollution from large-scale monocrop farms and concentrated animal feeding operations.6 According to a report7 by Environment America, corporate agribusiness is "one of the biggest threats to America's waterways." Tyson Foods Inc. was deemed among the worst, releasing 104.4 million pounds of toxic pollutants into waterways between 2010 and 2014.

Researchers have warned that many lakes around the world are now at grave risk from fertilizer runoff that feeds harmful blue-green algae (cyanobacteria),8,9 and once established, it's far more difficult to get rid of than previously thought. The answer, according to the authors of this study, is better land-use management that addresses fertilizer runoff. Dramatic reductions in fertilizer use are also recommended.

Indeed, the long-term solution to many of our water quality and water scarcity issues is to phase out the use of toxic pesticides, chemical fertilizers and soil additives, and to grow crops and raise food animals in such a way that the farm contributes to the overall health and balance of the environment rather than polluting it and creating a dysfunctional ecosystem.

Pumped Dry

"Pumped Dry: The Global Crisis of Vanishing Groundwater," a documentary by USA Today and The Desert Sun, shows how people are being rudely awakened to the problem as more and more wells are now running dry. As reported by USA Today:10

"Groundwater is disappearing beneath cornfields in Kansas, rice paddies in India, asparagus farms in Peru and orange groves in Morocco. As these critical water reserves are pumped beyond their limits, the threats are mounting for people who depend on aquifers to supply agriculture, sustain economies and provide drinking water.

In some areas, fields have already turned to dust and farmers are struggling. Climate change is projected to increase the stresses on water supplies, and heated disputes are erupting in places where those with deep wells can keep pumping and leave others with dry wells …

These are stories about people on four continents confronting questions of how to safeguard their aquifers for the future — and in some cases, how to cope as the water runs out."

India's Water Crisis

The twin satellites GRACE, which stands for Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, are able to measure water content on Earth by observing changes in the planet's gravitational pull. Data from these satellites reveal groundwater depletion is occurring all-around the globe.

One of these places is India, which has been edging toward a water crisis for decades. The seriousness of the situation is particularly evident in the northern state of Punjab. The areas' five rivers supply water to a large number of irrigation canals.

Still, this surface water accounts for just 27 percent of the areas irrigation needs. The remaining 73 percent comes from groundwater. As a result, the groundwater table is rapidly declining, as water is being pumped out at a faster rate than it is replenished. The decline began in 1979, and has increased exponentially in the decades since.

An elderly Indian woman recounts being able to hit water simply by digging a foot down into the earth when she was a child. Today, some areas have no groundwater available at all. In some cases, farmers have dug up to 60 bore wells on their property without hitting a single drop. In others, farmers have drilled to a depth of 900 feet without hitting water.

Many farmers that do have functioning wells are forced to deepen them every year, in order to maintain irrigation of their fields. Rice, which is typically the most profitable crop for Indian farmers to grow, also requires more water than other traditional crops, creating a delicate Catch-22.

Lack of water has been the death knell for many Indian farmers, who commit suicide when their bore wells stop yielding water. For without water, nothing can grow and, without a viable crop, they have no income and no way to repay their debts and sustain their families.

According to statistics from the Indian National Crime Records Bureau, an average of 32 farmers or farmworkers commit suicide each day. And, while failing wells aren't the only factor contributing to this tragic trend, it's an important one. The state of Maharashtra has the highest farmer suicide rate in the nation, and here, the lack of water is so severe that in many areas rain is the only source of water available for farmers' crops.

The Situation in Kansas

The filmmakers also visit Kansas, an area of the U.S. where farmers are struggling to keep going due to declining groundwater. As noted by Jay Garetson, a farmer in Sublette, Kansas, "Water is the limiting factor in life in general, but southwest Kansas specifically."

GRACE satellite data confirms well data from the U.S. Geological Survey, showing a dramatic decline in groundwater in the high plains Ogallala aquifer, the largest freshwater aquifer in the Western Hemisphere. In the 1960s, farmers began drilling wells for field irrigation. Since then, the water level has steadily declined.

As mentioned earlier, the groundwater in this enormously important aquifer has been dropping by an average of 6 feet per year. Meanwhile, the annual recharge rate is thought to be around half an inch, but no more than 1 inch.11 As noted by one Kansas farmer, "We're now nearing the bottom of that pool of water that in the 50s and 60s we thought was inexhaustible."

Indeed, in some areas of the state, the groundwater has already dried up entirely. Needless to say, in areas where there is no groundwater, you cannot grow food, and once the Ogallala dries up, the heartland of the United States, where a majority of the nation's food is produced, will become a barren wasteland.

The Moroccan Water Struggle

The next stop is Morocco, where many farms have had to shut down operations due to there being no water left. Here, as in India and the U.S., lack of regulation of groundwater resources has led to overexploitation.

According to Laila Mandi with Cadi Ayyad University, the groundwater level in Morocco is decreasing by nearly 10 feet per year. The Souss-Massa, a heavy agricultural area thanks to favorable climate, is among the hardest hit areas. As noted by one farmer in the area who has had to close down his farm, "The people would like to work, but the water is gone."

Peruvian Desert Farmers Face Extinction

In Peru, at the foothills of the Andes mountains, a desert farming district known as Ica boasts a lucrative farming region. According to the former mayor of Ica, Luis Oliva Fernandez Prada, "Ica is destined to be the California of Peru," thanks to its accelerated economic growth. "This place has generated jobs, money for the country, food for the world," Prada says. But in doing so, they're also draining a resource without which they cannot even sustain their own lives.

Most of the food grown here is destined for export, and the water for irrigation is pumped from wells. Here too, the water crisis is rearing its ugly head. Farmer Memerto Cuya Villagaray says the lack of water "is going to make us disappear … Without water, what are we going to do?"

According to Maria Teresa Ore, a professor at Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, they used to be able to hit water at a depth of 3 meters (less than 10 feet). Today, there's no water even at a depth of 300 meters (985 feet). People are so desperate they keep drilling new wells even though it's prohibited.

Jorge Aparcana with the Ica Human Rights Commission comments on the situation, saying, "We're not only destroying the future of the coming generations, but we're also depleting our resources." Historically, Ica has been a producer of dry-zone crops, but in more recent years, that's changed. Driven by profit potential, farmers began growing asparagus, becoming a leading global producer of asparagus.

"It's a crime to plant asparagus in a desert, because it's a very water-intensive crop," Aparcana says. David Bayer, an Ica resident and water activist agrees, saying the growing of asparagus should have been outlawed before it began to protect groundwater supplies. Ore adds, "Having a crop that demands so much water, although it's true that it's very profitable, the environmental and social costs are not justified."

"What worries me is not only the depletion of our natural resources, which we're already seeing," Aparcana says, "but also the deep social exclusion we're experiencing."

Large landlords from Chile, Lima and other areas have moved into Ica, progressively pushing out small farmers and buying up wells, which they then improve and put behind locked fences, preventing anyone from accessing the water. And, since these improved wells are kept running around the clock, they decrease the flow to other, smaller and less efficient wells nearby.

A few years ago, residents began receiving municipal tap water, but the water is only available for about an hour, twice or three times a week. This is the only drinking water they have.

According to Bayer, one of the owners of a large agribusiness told him, "I fear that when people don't have drinking water, they will come onto my farm and burn it down." Aparcana also fears the lack of water is a breeding ground for violence, both criminal and political.

Is California Headed Toward Another Dustbowl Disaster?

Wells are also running dry in California. Many blame the California water crisis on vineyards that pump groundwater for their grapes. One small farmer says her well went dry a month after a nearby vineyard put down a new 1,000-foot well.

According to "Pumped Dry," the water table in California has dropped about 70 feet in the past 10 years; half of that being in the last three to four years alone. In the California Central Valley, the amount of water being drained from underground is actually causing the land to sink, which further inhibits the ground's ability to retain water.

In Porterville, California, a majority of homeowners rely on well water — and all the wells are drying up. Melissa Withnell, board representative and media officer of Tulare County, says the situation is "an absolute emergency." Fifty-five to 60 percent of all dry wells in California are in Tulare County, and a majority of those dry wells are located in Porterville.

What Are the Solutions?

The common theme throughout this investigation is that there's a "free-for-all" mentality at play where the one who can afford to drill the deepest well wins in the short term, but everyone loses in the long term.

According to the experts interviewed in "Pumped Dry," groundwater as a resource needs proper governance and management, including regulations on use, water pricing, more efficient irrigation systems and engineering solutions to improve the refill rate of aquifers.

We also need to make a collective change in how we use water, and how we grow crops. Selecting the most appropriate crops for any given area would result in more efficient water usage, and reduce the amount farmers would have to draw from our aquifers. In short, we need to grow food with less water.

The good news is we already know how to do that, and it's called regenerative agriculture. Unfortunately, this was not addressed in this film, but it's been well-proven that regenerative agriculture biodynamic farming is far more water efficient than industrial farming. To learn how, see "Regenerative Farming — One Solution That Solves Many Problems," or "The Effects of Biodynamic Farming on the Environment and Food Quality."