One in 30 wells in the West failed in recent years

New research shows just how many wells ran dry between 2013 and 2015.

 

When their taps began spitting out air instead of water a few years ago, one family in Paso Robles, California, was forced to into their home for drinking water. They ate from paper plates instead of dishes, could no longer wash their laundry at home and watched their vegetable garden dry up. For households that rely on well water — a common situation across the rural West — the impacts can be severe when a well runs dry.

Stories like that one streamed out of California during the drought that officially ended earlier this year, but the extent of the problem — exactly how many wells were affected — was unclear. Now, new research suggests that one in 30 groundwater wells in the West, wells that supply farms in addition to homes, .

To arrive at that number, California-based researchers Debra Perrone and Scott Jasechko compiled location and depth records for wells constructed between 1950 and 2015 across Western states. Counting the number of wells that were shallower than nearby groundwater levels allowed them to estimate how many had run dry. The scientists identified 3.7 million well records overall, about three-quarters of which supply drinking water; about one-quarter are for agriculture. (Industrial use accounts for the remaining 4 percent.) “The sheer number of dots on our map illustrates the importance of groundwater to millions of people,” says Perrone, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University.

About 2 million well records included the depth of the well. Red dots represent deeper wells. Blue dots indicate shallower wells, which are more susceptible to drying. Data were unavailable for parts of California’s Central Valley at the time of the analysis, yet effective groundwater management requires consistent and reliable information across regions, Perrone says.

Groundwater of the water used nationwide, but in many places, it’s being sucked up from aquifers faster than it’s being replenished. According to U.S. Geological Survey data from 2010, the most recent year for which data are available, pumping rates in the West were highest in California’s Central Valley, Idaho’s Snake River Plain, and the High Plains of Nebraska, Kansas and Texas.

Over-pumping intensifies during droughts, when dwindling rivers and reservoirs mean water users rely more heavily on groundwater. That can disrupt ecosystems, collapse overlying ground, buckle roads and canals, allow seawater to infiltrate aquifers — and dry up wells.

Colored portions of the map show the estimated percent of wells that were shallower than the nearby water table between 2013 and 2015; in other words, wells that likely ran dry.

“Drought highlights how important groundwater resources are,” Perrone says, but combating declining groundwater levels requires management during both wet and dry periods. Because aquifers often cross state lines and other political boundaries, region-wide groundwater policies are necessary, Perrone says. Such policies might include things like permitting water withdrawals, collective fees designed to reduce groundwater use, water markets, and aquifer recharge programs.

Some regions where Perrone and Jasechko identified many dry wells are improving. During last year’s wet winter, for example, a recharge program in Idaho added 317,000 acre-feet of water to the , which spans nearly 11,000 square miles. “The trick is being able to do that over the long term,” says Wesley Hipke, the Idaho Department of Water Resources employee who manages the program. It’s especially important to add as much water as possible during wet years, he says, to make up for years when water is less abundant.

Idaho’s program is still relatively new — last winter was the third year of full-scale operation — but, combined with a 2015 agreement to , officials hope to keep boosting the aquifer. Lessons learned from Idaho’s program could be a model for other places. “Every state needs to grapple with this,” Hipke says, “especially in the West.”

Emily Benson is an editorial fellow at NewTowncarShare News. 

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • The City of Fort Collins is seeking a Senior Environmental Planner to lead the Nature in the City team. This interdisciplinary position is housed in...
  • The Idaho Conservation League (ICL) is seeking a dynamic community engagement assistant. The individual will work to identify and empower members, supporters, volunteers, and others...
  • May 25 & 26 At the bank of the Colorado River, at Riverbend Park in Palisade, Colorado, the Sacred Fire Community in the Grand Valley...
  • Wyoming Wildlife Federation - collaborates with the Executive Director and staff to ensure the effective implementation of all philanthropic activities. https://wyomingwildlife.org/hiring-philanthropy-coordinator/.
  • HawkWatch International is hiring an Executive Director to lead the organization. The next leader of this growing organization must have: 1. Enthusiasm for conservation, birds...
  • Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • Home Resource is a non-profit community sustainability center. We work with, in, and for the community to reduce waste and build a more vibrant and...
  • Spectacular views of snowcapped Sierras. 15 miles from Kings Canyon/Sequoia Parks. 47 acres with 2 homes/75' pool/gym/patios/gardens. 1670 sq.ft. main home has 3 bdrm/1 bath....
  • Borderlands Restoration Network 501c3 is hiring a full-time Development Director. Description and job details can be found at https://www.borderlandsrestoration.org/job-opportunities.html
  • Beautiful off-the-grid passive solar near the CDT. 9.4 acres, north of Silver City. Sam, 575.388.1921
  • We are seeking an experienced designer to be the team lead for web development and digital media. Part creator and part planner, this person should...
  • at RCAC. See the full description at https://bit.ly/2WJ3HvY Apply at [email protected]
  • The Utah Rivers Council is looking for an energetic individual with strong communication and organizing skills. The Grassroots Organizer works to ensure our campaigns are...
  • Newly refurbished and tuned. Older model, great condition. Gasoline engine. Chains on tires. Heavy duty for mountain snow. Call cellphone and leave message or email.
  • unique custom home in Sangre de Cristo Mountains of CO near La Veta Pass, 3 bed, 2 1/2 bath, private gated park, two hours from...
  • Kaniksu Land Trust, a community-supported non-profit land trust serving north Idaho and northwest Montana, is in search of a new executive director. The ideal candidate...
  • The Flathead Lakers are seeking a dynamic, self-motivated and proven leader to be our next Executive Director (ED).
  • The Blackfoot Challenge, a renowned collaborative conservation org in MT, seeks our next ED.
  • 10-day tour from Los Mochis airport, 2/nyts El Fuerte, train, 2/nyts canyon rim hotel, 5/nyts camping. 520-324-0209, www.coppercanyontrails.org.
  • Earthjustice is hiring for a Staff Attorney