Western Ground Water Loss “Shocking”

July 25, 2014

News about water shortages in the American West are usually illustrated with pictures like that above, showing the decline in surface reservoirs. Now, a science team has looked below the surface.

Turns out the news is worse than we thought.

NASA Jet Propulsion Lab:

A new study by NASA and University of California, Irvine, scientists finds more than 75 percent of the water loss in the drought-stricken Colorado River Basin since late 2004 came from underground resources. The extent of groundwater loss may pose a greater threat to the water supply of the western United States than previously thought.

This study is the first to quantify the amount that groundwater contributes to the water needs of western states. According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the federal water management agency, the basin has been suffering from prolonged, severe drought since 2000 and has experienced the driest 14-year period in the last hundred years.

The research team used data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite mission to track changes in the mass of the Colorado River Basin, which are related to changes in water amount on and below the surface. Monthly measurements in the change in water mass from December 2004 to November 2013 revealed the basin lost nearly 53 million acre feet (65 cubic kilometers) of freshwater. That’s almost double the volume of the nation’s largest reservoir, Nevada’s Lake Mead. More than three-quarters of the total — about 41 million acre feet (50 cubic kilometers) — was from groundwater.

“We don’t know exactly how much groundwater we have left, so we don’t know when we’re going to run out,” said Stephanie Castle, a water resources specialist at the University of California, Irvine, and the study’s lead author. “This is a lot of water to lose. We thought that the picture could be pretty bad, but this was shocking.”

Water above ground in the basin’s rivers and lakes is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and its losses are documented. Pumping from underground aquifers is regulated by individual states and is often not well documented.

“There’s only one way to put together a very large-area study like this, and that is with satellites,” said senior author Jay Famiglietti, senior water cycle scientist at JPL on leave from UC Irvine, where he is an Earth system science professor. “There’s just not enough information available from well data to put together a consistent, basin-wide picture.”

Famiglietti said GRACE is like having a giant scale in the sky. Within a given region, the change in mass due to rising or falling water reserves influences the strength of the local gravitational attraction. By periodically measuring gravity regionally, GRACE reveals how much a region’s water storage changes over time.

The Colorado River is the only major river in the southwest part of the United States. Its basin supplies water to about 40 million people in seven states, and irrigates roughly four million acres of farmland.

“The Colorado River Basin is the water lifeline of the western United States,” said Famiglietti. “With Lake Mead at its lowest level ever, we wanted to explore whether the basin, like most other regions around the world, was relying on groundwater to make up for the limited surface-water supply. We found a surprisingly high and long-term reliance on groundwater to bridge the gap between supply and demand.”

Famiglietti noted that the rapid depletion rate will compound the problem of short supply by leading to further declines in streamflow in the Colorado River.

“Combined with declining snowpack and population growth, this will likely threaten the long-term ability of the basin to meet its water allocation commitments to the seven basin states and to Mexico,” Famiglietti said.

The study has been accepted for publication in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, which posted the manuscript online July 24. Coauthors included other scientists from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado. The




18 Responses to “Western Ground Water Loss “Shocking””

  1. Gingerbaker Says:

    Nothing to see here. Move along. And keep your eyes straight down at the sidewalk.

  2. jimbills Says:

    Also here :

    It touches on agriculture’s role.

    Here’s an analysis from 6 years ago, but it’s a good overview of what the Southwest is looking at this century:

  3. Andy Lee Robinson Says:

    Well, a well well is, well, well needed.

  4. dumboldguy Says:

    Can’t remember the names, but remember reading several books back around Earth Day that foresaw the water problem. They basically said that projections of growth rates and water use put nearly all of the U.S. west of the Mississippi on a path to water deficit and were unsustainable. Cadillac Desert came later.

    A slightly long read, but one that ties population, immigration, and water together really well. Fairly recent.


  5. One wonders how long we can continue practices like watering the desert. The Colorado River stopped flowing into the Pacific a long time ago. Those not familiar with California water wars might like to view the movie “Chinatown”. Its difficult for people form other areas of the country to imagine the situation in the Central Valley (San Joaquin Valley and River) where a huge portion of residences go unmetered. I thought most of the water for irrigation came from the Sierras, but now I read that ground water pumping is very large. It could be that this situation is unsustainable. Now that there is drought, we may discover how thoroughly the aquifer has been depleted. Truly a mess. Its a huge aquifer, but heavily polluted, a lot of it pesticides and fertilizer.
    Curiously, the biggest crop is cotton, grown in the south, which uses too much water.
    “Because of the heavy demand of water for agriculture and the insufficient flow of the San Joaquin River, groundwater in the San Joaquin Valley’s rich aquifer has been an important source of irrigation supply since the late 19th century.”

    “n some areas, the water table has declined more than 400 feet (120 m) vertically, forcing farmers to sink their wells as deep as 3,500 ft (1,100 m) to hit more abundant pockets of the underground water.[134]”

    • andrewfez Says:

      Hi Christopher,

      Want to see a scary graph? Jim Bills posted this the other day:


      Scroll 1/2 way down to the ‘Cumulative Groundwater Losses’ graph and look at the long term trend since the 1960’s.

      I’m on a 12 month plan to get back to the east coast, but am planning on renting out my place here in LA. I was hoping to hold this property for at least another 15 years, but seems the water situation may at some point start to affect property values, adding another element of risk to the situation.

      If i ever have children I’m going to tell ’em they wouldn’t go wrong going to law school and becoming experts in water rights.

      • Andrew – great reference. Explains it clearly. There probably is no answer to this problem. One answer might be to stop growing cotton on the Carrizo Plain. Its almost desert there. Keeping places like Las Vegas watered has a consequence. It never should have been built in the first place. Ironically, there was a big housing boom there recently, followed by a bust. Unmetered central valley water probably does not help. But this year, its too late. The farmers are suffering. One would hope that people would get together and find some solutions that are sustainable rather than kidding themselves into believing New Jersey suburban lawns lifestyle can exist in Las Vegas or the south San Joaquin Valley can sustain cotton agriculture. Nobody like change. Vested interests the least. But I don’t think Miami can hold the ocean back, or North Carolina. Its ironic. Our use of technology is what allowed us to go to some of these extremes in the first place and caused the very problems we seek to fix. Its not really the technology thats at fault, but ourselves.

  6. anotheralionel Says:

    “If i ever have children I’m going to tell ‘em they wouldn’t go wrong going to law school and becoming experts in water rights.”

    When the lack of water kicks into the ‘Mad Max’ phase nobody except the best armed are going to have any water rights. There are now so many ‘armed to the teeth’ with military grade weaponry, groups in the US that the ol’ Wild West will be compared to a series of muggings.

    A country going down the route of environmental degradation on a pace and scale that is in the US is bond to burst along multiple social lines before long.

    With the pumping up from underground causing subsidence in a zone known for its multiple geological fault lines coupled with the isostatic rebound as glaciers further north vanish lifting the load. And yes I am aware that isostatic rebound is a slow process, dare I say glacial, exemplified by mid-west quakes at New Madrid Missouri in late 1811 which it is now considered to be as the result of fore-bulge movement caused by rebounding further north after the Last Glacial Maximum.

    I find it sad and frustrating that those who have effectively delayed concerted action on mitigation are still using the same tired old tricks and deceptive argument with little sign of consequences for what are ‘crimes against humanity’.

    Judith Curry with her latest foray into “pragmatic ethicist” territory has now without a doubt shown herself to be in that group.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      All so true, and provoked some random thoughts.

      Andrew—-SELL your CA property when you move back east—-most likely it will never again be worth as much as now, and may be worthless when the drought SHTF out there. We have water (albeit somewhat polluted), and home values that are stable or increasing.

      I like the “Mad Max” idea—-this society can go down the tubes in almost no time if certain things happen to disrupt its “normal” functioning, and there are WAY more guns and crazy people in this country now. I’ve been in the middle of some quite small riots and on the fringes of some bigger ones, and they were quite “messy” and hard to deal with, considering that they were localized and “focused”. What’s coming on the food and water front will be so broad that it will need more than a few people with guns to control.

      The subsidence in the San Joaquin valley has been huge in places—-have we all seen the famous picture of the pole with the “high ground level” markings? Similar to the poles in places that flood showing high water marks? It’s in that link I posted. Something like 30 feet of sinking since pumping started. The big problem is not that it will cause earthquakes, which it can, but that the groundwater can NEVER be replenished, even if rains return—-once the loose sand and gravel deposits in the aquifer compact and the ground subsides as the water is withdrawn, the spaces for water disappear, and there’s no “pumping” it back up. If you then can’t get water unless you drill many thousands of feet and there’s none on the surface, it’s game over.

      The combined population of CO, AZ, CA, UT, NV, NM, and WY was around 2-3/4 million in 1900, and it’s pushing 60 million today. Several of those states are among the fastest growing, and only NM has a below average growth rate. Lake Mead illustrates the surface water problem, and now the groundwater problem is rearing up to bite our behinds. It’s just a matter of time.

      BTW, after a period of weeks in which it reported next to nothing significant about climate change and its costs, the WashPost today reported on the western groundwater study and has an editorial from Robert Rubin on the economic costs of climate change denial and inaction. The paper has been undergoing an existential crisis over how to report on AGW—-perhaps it’s coming out of that fog? (In the realm of pure politics, it still can’t seem to decide whether it should return to its liberal roots or compete with the Wash Times and Examiner in spouting ever-more conservative BS). And the WashPost has Charles Krauthammer and the pre-senile George Will to present Curry-type arguments.

      RE: Chris’s comments. It is indeed difficult to imagine that water is unmetered in CA. Here back east where we generally have plenty of water, it is metered and we pay for every drop—-and the pricing in most places is such that it encourages conservation. Looking at that idea of “free water” (coupled with NO effort to really inventory groundwater)—-it seems that folks in CA don’t seem to give a rat’s rear end about dealing with their water problem, so I’m not super sympathetic. Chinatown is a good expose of some of the reasons why the problem developed, particularly the greed of those who wanted to get rich at the expense of the greater good. It’s enough to make one want to say “Dry up and blow away, CA—-you asked for it”

  7. jimbills Says:

    One of the latest stories about water usage and groundwater in the Southwest is a proposed pipeline to suck groundwater off federal lands, depleting water table levels in the surrounding small communities, in order to supply Las Vegas for a few more years. It’s a $15 billion project, funded by bonds and water bill increases, and it’s been approved by the government. The last hurdles are the lawsuits by environmental groups, Native Americans, and rural residents:

    Las Vegas is also doing another thing called the ‘Third Straw’, which is building a pipe to draw water from the deepest part of Lake Mead.:

    All of these engineering feats are meant to supply Las Vegas with its growing water needs in the short-term, but as long as Las Vegas and the surrounding agricultural areas use more water than can be naturally replenished, it also cripples its medium- and long-term capabilities. Now add climate change to the equation.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      The last words of the TV commentator in the third straw clip were “….it’s going to save Las Vegas”. Lots of luck! And a FIFTEEN billion $$$ pipeline to nowhere to tap groundwater? What is wrong with these people? And who got the bright idea to build a city in the middle of the desert anyway?

      Lake Mead is below 40% and still falling pretty rapidly. Although there may be some water left in that deep part by the time the third straw is completed, I wonder how long it will be before they hear that huge sucking sound? You know, the sound that it’s such fun to make as you vacuum up the last bits of a milk shake while your wife looks at you in annoyance?

      (Tell me again why the human species is “worthy”?)

      • jimbills Says:

        Ha ha.

        Again, the human species is no more worthy or unworthy than any other species. We are just more capable because we have a higher intelligence. Instead of using that intelligence for truly worthy purposes, though, we use it to act just like any other organism would if it could – expand and consume as long as it can.

        You mentioned greed on another post, but greed is an aspect of expand and consume on an individual basis, driven by the rewards of selfish interest in a social species. It’s still our animal instinct coming out – the drive to be the alpha male and to out-compete our neighbors.

        Actual ‘progress’ to me is understanding, and action guided by that understanding, which I don’t see in us yet. The ‘progress’ that many think is progress, which includes such things as building water pipelines to bring more water to an inherently unsustainable city, is the lack of understanding. It’s the manifestation of our animal nature.

        You’re mentioning the comment I made here:

        “Our position in history doesn’t change our worthiness as human beings and shouldn’t change our aspirations to build a better place for those that follow us.”

        I’d argue we CAN be better, but there are so many obstacles to doing so. A major obstacle is the multitude of false narratives we have about the world and ourselves. One can point to Las Vegas and see several layers of misunderstanding.

        There is a worthiness in trying to do better, though, even if it results in failure. A lack of trying, due to selfishness, studied rationalization of self-interest, or ignorance, results in the primacy of our animal nature – making us just another organism in a sea of organisms, a particularly destructive one, true, but that destructiveness would be the result of a failed evolutionary branch.

        • dumboldguy Says:

          Ha Ha? What’s funny? The small joke I tried to make about a giant sucking sound? Made in a sardonic-ironic sense since what will happen if Lake Mead gets sucked dry will not be funny at all—-many people WILL die as a result, both in the American West and in other places.

          And asking you to tell us again why the human race is “worthy” was rhetorical., and didn’t need an answer (that I will again reject). Even the bright-sided can recognize that there is real BLAME to be laid—-“It’s not really the technology that’s AT FAULT, but ourselves”. You recognize that also, but seem to have fallen in love with your rhetorical rationalizations and your misinterpretation of what it means to be an “organism” and alive. You oversimplify and overreach.

          From the perspective of the entire biosphere and “Gaia”, any rational value analysis leads to the conclusion that humans ARE a blight on the planet, an ultimate “disease” that will kill every living thing at the rate we are going.

          You talk about us being “just more capable because we have a higher intelligence”, and that we use that intelligence “to act just like any other organism would if it could – expand and consume as long as it can”.

          Animals do NOT expand and consume “as long as they can”. Animals eat when hungry, and stop eating when their hunger is satisfied. There are only a very few documented instances of animals killing for fun and NOT eating what they kill. They do NOT understand population dynamics or make conscious decisions, but simply increase in numbers when food is plentiful and die off when it is not. No animal ever made a conscious decision to become extinct, and all that have done so in the past became extinct because of external forces, most of them due to major planetary environmental upheavals. I’m reading The Sixth Extinction right now, and anyone who has kept up knows that MAN is causing this sixth extinction event.

          Animals do NOT have the “capability” that man has to CHOOSE to deliberately violate the laws of nature in so many ways and on a global basis. Man does things that cause destruction of the biosphere when he KNOWS that they are destructive. THAT is unworthy, and too few humans among those who are rich enough and smart enough to “build a better place for those that follow us” care at all about doing so. They are either all at the mall—-shopping, or rolling in their ill gotten riches in their “money rooms” like Scrooge McDuck.

          Yes, you can argue that man is a “failed evolutionary branch”, in the sense that the species arose, existed for a while, and will likely die off when it can no longer adapt to changing conditions in the future. That’s simple evolutionary science. There have been many “failed evolutionary branches”—-mammoths, mastodons, giant sloths, saber-tooths, etc—-NONE of them caused their own extinction or took the entire biosphere down with them—-they were “worthy” and man is not. And that’s a value judgement that you continue to try to argue against by twisting science.

          • jimbills Says:

            “Made in a sardonic-ironic sense since what will happen if Lake Mead gets sucked dry will not be funny at all—-many people WILL die as a result, both in the American West and in other places. ”

            Oh, they won’t die, at least not from Lake Mead going dry. They’ll prefer to move instead of die, and Las Vegas will be a desert like it was always supposed to be.

            I’ve read ‘The Sixth Great Extinction’, and I’ve kept up with many of the examples used in that book and elsewhere.

            “They (animals) do NOT understand population dynamics or make conscious decisions, but simply increase in numbers when food is plentiful and die off when it is not.”

            What I’m attempting to say is that humans don’t get these things, either, on the group level. We act according to our animal nature. Most of us don’t achieve any realization beyond this animal nature. We use our intelligence to rationalize and defend it. We THINK we’re smart, but we’re not.

            We’re not connecting what I’m trying to say, and I’m not sure how to word it differently. You also insult me in several ways. Plus, after asking me directly twice on separate posts to explain myself, you say that it was a rhetorical question and you didn’t need an answer. Okay.

          • dumboldguy Says:

            People won’t die as one of the results of Lake Mead going dry? They’ll prefer to move? To where? Phoenix? Or back to Oklahoma?—–in a Grapes of Wrath rewind? And Las Vegas will be a desert like it was always supposed to be? Yep, and there will be human skulls scattered among those of the longhorns—-with bullet holes in them. (Remember all those guns and crazy people someone mentioned?)

            You may have read ‘The Sixth Great Extinction’, and are “keeping up” but my concern is with your understanding of population dynamics and evolution. You talk about man on the one hand “acting according to our animal nature” and on the other hand about “thinking” and “rationalizing”. Yes our brains DO set us apart, and they’ve allowed us to develop the technology that is destroying the biosphere, but all that is separate from the concept of “worthiness”, which is a moral and philosophical concept rather than a scientific one like population dynamics and evolution.

            Man invented WAR (killing for reasons other than satisfying hunger), man invented genocide, man kills animals for FUN, man kills 800 pound sharks for only their fins, man harvests and depletes living resources beyond recovery even when he KNOWS he’s doing it, man makes decisions that affect the entire biosphere based on ECONOMICS and PROFIT. I could go on and on about ways in which man’s behavior is not “simple biology”. Man is simply UNWORTHY when compared to all the other living things that have inhabited the Earth.

            You say, “We’re not connecting what I’m trying to say, and I’m not sure how to word it differently”. Perhaps, but IMO it’s the thinking that needs to be different, which will lead to the proper words. I apologize for giving you the feeling that I am insulting you—-that is NOT my intent—-I am attacking your arguments, not you personally. You (and Arcus as well on most things) are among the more astute commenters on Crock, and seldom say anything I don’t agree with. My concern is that because of that credibility, your comments may confuse those Crockers who have less understanding of the science than you do, and that they will use your arguments to in fact rationalize away man’s “unworthiness”.

            You also say, “Plus, after asking me directly twice on separate posts to explain myself, you say that it was a rhetorical question and you didn’t need an answer. Okay.” Yes, the LAST one was rhetorical, and didn’t need an answer. Earlier questions were for information and clarification. I’m sure you really do understand that on some level, and once you pull the perceptual screen labelled “emotional response” out of the communication stream, it will become clearer.

  8. dumboldguy Says:

    Just got the latest image from the NASA earth observatory site. The GRACE satellite is doing great work. Keep digging from this link and you can see some good info about Antarctic ice as well.


  9. […] News about water shortages in the American West are usually illustrated with pictures like that above, showing the decline in surface reservoirs. Now, a science team has looked below the surface. Turns out the news is worse than we thought.  […]

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