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 snake a hose from a neighbor’s property 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, went dry between 2013 and 2015.

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.
Perrone & Jasechko 2017 / CC

Groundwater accounts for about 20 percent 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.
Perrone & Jasechko 2017 / CC

“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 Eastern Snake River Plain Aquifer, 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 reduce pumping and promote recharge, 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. 

Follow @erbenson1

Republish Print
Comments (3)
NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • ORGANIZING AND TRAINING COORDINATOR
    Live in a spectacular part of the West and work with great people to build power and win! The Western Organization of Resource Councils is...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - MONTANA WATERSHED COORDINATION COUNCIL
    About MWCC: The Montana Watershed Coordination Council (MWCC) is a dynamic network advancing the Watershed Approach to conservation across Montana. The Watershed Approach is a...
  • COALITION FOR THE UPPER SOUTH PLATTE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    http://cusp.ws/jobs
  • MOUNTAIN BIKE HEAVEN!
    Home For Sale $320,000. Apple Valley, UT. It is in a very quiet, peaceful part of the county and has the dark night sky. It...
  • GENTLE WILD HORSES NEED HOMES
    Jicarilla Mustang Heritage Alliance gentles and finds homes for mustangs. With every day, more homes are needed for wonderful loving horses. Can you Save a...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Colorado Conservancy is seeking an innovative and dynamic Executive Director to build on growing regional impact within the current strategic plan. This is a...
  • WESTERN MONTANA FIELD COORDINATOR
    Job Title: Western Montana Field Coordinator Reports to: Programs and Partnerships Director Compensation: $33,000 - $37,000, plus competitive health benefits, retirement savings, and vacation leave....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Please send a resume and cover letter including salary requirements to [email protected] The Madison River Foundation is a fast growing, non-profit that preserves, protects, and...
  • CAMPAIGN OUTREACH ASSISTANT - SALMON AND STEELHEAD
    The Campaign Outreach Assistant will be responsible for grassroots efforts to organize, empower and mobilize supporters to take action in support of ICL's salmon and...
  • OWN YOUR DREAM - TAOS BIKE SHOP FOR SALE
    Gearing Up, well established, profitable, full service bicycle shop. MLS #103930. Contact: 435-881-3741.
  • DIRECTOR, TEXAS WATER PROGRAMS
    The National Wildlife Federation seeks a Director to lead our water-related policy and program work in Texas, with a primary focus on NWF's signature Texas...
  • PLANNING MANAGER - FORT COLLINS NATURAL AREAS
    The City of Fort Collins is seeking an Environmental Planning Manager in the Natural Areas Department. The Department has an annual budget of approximately $13...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Colorado Canyons Association seeks an Executive Director to join a motivated board of directors, an experienced staff, and a strong national following at an important...
  • SPLIT CREEK RANCH
    Spectacular country home on 48 acres with Wallowa River running through it! 541-398-1148 www.RubyPeakRealty.com
  • LOOKING FOR EXPERIENCED FARMER
    for 25-year certified organic vegetable farm. Business arrangements flexible. 7 acres raised beds. Excellent infrastructure. NW Montana. Contact: [email protected]
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM NM MOUNTAIN VALLEY HOME
    Home/horse property on 22.8 acres, pasture & ponderosa pines, near Mora, NM. Views of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Near fishing, skiing, back-country hiking. Taos...
  • CLIMATE EDUCATION & STEWARDSHIP PROGRAM MANAGER
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a wildly enthusiastic person to develop curriculum and educational, stewardship, and ecological restoration goals for a new grant-funded program.
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE, INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES INITIATIVE, NOVO FOUNDATION
    About NoVo Foundation NoVo Foundation acts from the original meaning of philanthropy: the love of humanity. The Foundation is dedicated to catalyzing a global social...
  • SEEKING ORGANIC FARMER/RANCHER TENANT
    Large garden, current garlic production, small cottage, barn cats, small herd of livestock, poultry flock; some experience necessary; Union, OR. Contact: [email protected]
  • PERU: WEAVING WORDS & WOMEN ADVENTURE
    April 2020. A 13-day women-only immersion into the culture of Peru led by Page Lambert and True Nature Journeys. Includes Machu Picchu. Graduate credit available...