A week or so ago, on a Sunday afternoon, I flew across Middle America to Colorado for a meeting and was again struck by the crop circles that dominate the landscape west of the Mississippi River. They are everywhere and are a clear sign of unsustainable groundwater use. I recently participated in a fly in event for National Groundwater Association in Washington DC, where several speakers, including myself, talked about dwindling groundwater levels and the impact of agriculture, power and economies. The impact is significant. Dr. Leonard Konikow, a recently retired USGS scientist, noted that he thinks a portion of sea level rise is caused by groundwater running off agriculture and from utilities and making its way to the ocean. He indicated that 5% of SLR each year was caused by groundwater runoff, and has upped his estimates in the past 10 years to 13%. This is because it is far easier for water to runoff the land than seep into rocks, especially deep formations that may take many years to reach the aquifer. And since ET can reach 4 ft below the surface, many of the western, dry, hot areas lose most of this water during the summer months. Hence the impact to agriculture, and the accompanying local communities and their economies will be significant.
It should be noted that the US is a major exported of food to much of the world, including China, so the impact on our long-term economic trade may be significant. Fortunately the power industry has historically preferred surface waters, but must as power demands increase, they have begun to explore groundwater in rural areas without access to surface waters. Keep in mind that air-cooled power plants are 25% or more less efficient than water cooled systems and many of these communities lack sufficient reusable water supplied to substitute for cooling. Hence the projection is a long term negative impact on all of us.
So the question is why isn’t the federal government talking more about this problem? Is it fear of riling up local political officials that see growth at all costs as necessary? It is private rights arguments that may spawn lawsuits? Is it a lack of interest in long-term? Or the idea that “we have always found a way”. Or is it just buried heads in the sand, leaving the next generation to deal with the problem? A big issue, yet we do not talk enough about it. Maybe this is not a surprise since we have not gotten very far with the discussion of limited oil, precious metals, phosphorous or other materials, and unlike them, water appears to be renewable globally. But water is location specific. If you have it, great. If you lose it, a problem. There are several recent journal articles that make the argument that much of the strife in the Middle East and Africa is water depletion related: water depletion kills local economies. So we need to ask –what happens if we ignore the looming crisis? Do we create more “Bundy-type” actions in the rural, dry west because they already lack water? I suggest it is a cause for concern.