During intense drought, groundwater depletion in the Colorado River Basin has skyrocketed. For the past 14 years, drought has afflicted the Colorado River Basin, and one of the most visible signs has been the white bathtub rings around the red rocks of Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two biggest dammed lakes on the river. But there is also an invisible bathtub being emptied, below ground. A new study shows that ground water in the basin is being depleted six times faster than surface water. The groundwater losses, which take thousands of years to be recharged naturally, point to the unsustainability of exploding population centers and water-intensive agriculture in the basin, which includes most of Arizona and parts of Colorado, California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and Wyoming.
The study is the first to identify groundwater depletion across the entire Colorado River Basin, and it brings attention to a neglected issue, says Leonard Konikow, a hydrogeologist emeritus at the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Virginia, who was not involved with the work. Because ground water feeds many of the streams and rivers in the area, Konikow predicts that more of them will run dry. He says water pumping costs will rise as farmers—who are the biggest users of ground water—have to drill deeper and deeper into aquifers. “It’s disconcerting,” Konikow says. “Boy, water managers gotta do something about this, because this can’t go on forever.”
To document the groundwater depletion, James Famiglietti, a hydrologist at the University of California, Irvine, and his colleagues relied on a pair of NASA satellites called the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE). The instruments are sensitive to tiny variations in Earth’s gravity. They can be used to observe groundwater extraction, because when the mass of that water disappears, gravity in that area also drops.
In the 9 years from December 2004 to November 2013, ground water was lost at a rate of 5.6 cubic kilometers a year, the team reports online today in Geophysical Research Letters. That’s compared with a decline of 0.9 cubic kilometers per year from Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which contain 85% of the surface water in the basin.
Famiglietti says it makes sense that cities and farmers turn from surface water to ground water during drought. But he is surprised by the magnitude of the loss. The groundwater depletion rate is twice that in California’s Central Valley, another place famous for heavy groundwater use.