Nearly all our usable freshwater comes from groundwater, so why is it mostly unregulated in the United States? Yusuke Kuwayama describes a market-based solution to better manage our nation's depleted aquifers.
As California's three-year drought rages on, some communities are on the verge of running out of water. Ranchers are being forced to sell off cattle in fire sales, and the governor has urged residents to cut their water use by 20 percent. The California State Water Project—which has been pumping water from northern California to the arid southern end of the state since the 1960s—announced that for the first time, it would provide no supplemental water to the 25 million Californians and about 750,000 acres of irrigated farmland it normally serves. Instead, these customers will have to rely solely on local sources of water. The situation presents a catch-22 for the state and its residents: water shortages will increase reliance on declining groundwater supplies, but the unsustainable use of this resource has contributed to the severity of the drought.
While extreme, the current drought in California demonstrates the importance of effective water resource management, including the prudent use of critical groundwater resources. Groundwater use is typically unmonitored and unregulated in the United States. Many states allow anyone to drill a new groundwater well, while a few western states have a priority system that ranks pumpers based on when they started pumping from the aquifer. In Texas, the law governing groundwater use is known as the "rule of capture," which allows a person the right to pump whatever groundwater is available. California follows the "reasonable use doctrine," which allows a user to pump an infinite quantity of water as long as the water is put to a "beneficial use." While this prevents many wasteful uses of groundwater, it allows continued pumping even if water tables decline in the underlying aquifer or if flows are reduced in connected streams and rivers.
The Consequences of Unregulated Pumping
On one hand, the lack of attention from policymakers and the general public is not surprising. Groundwater is located beneath the earth's surface in gaps between particles and chunks of soil, as well as spaces in the fractures of rock formations, so it's not immediately visible to us on a daily basis. On the other hand, groundwater is our most important freshwater resource, accounting for 95 percent of our usable freshwater, compared to 3.5 percent contained in lakes, swamps, reservoirs, and rivers.
Substantial pumping has resulted in large water table declines and the depletion of water stored in aquifers, requiring users to deepen their wells to reach increasingly scarce supplies or even shut down productive activities that rely on groundwater. In the Ogallala aquifer underneath the Great Plains, for example, pumping for irrigation since the 1940s has led to declines so large that the aquifer no longer supports irrigated agriculture in vast stretches of Texas and Kansas. According to a 2013 US Geological Survey study, about 32 percent of the depletion of this aquifer since the start of the twentieth century took place between 2001 and 2008.