Special report: Aquifers shrink, nation digs deeper
By: Mike Lee
San Diego Union-Tribune
Deep underground — far out of sight and out of mind for most people — dreams are turning to dust.
Few places in Southern California is that more evident than the desert sands of Borrego Springs, where residents, farmers and golf course operators are sucking about four times as much water from the ground each year as nature replaces.
Dimming prospects have left residents scared and angry in a town whose name now seems ironic. Resident Ray Shindler fears the worst: “I think that this community is going to run out.”
Similar concerns are bubbling up along San Diego County’s backcountry and across the nation — particularly in places such as the Central Valley and the Great Plains, where residents have dug deep to withstand a drought that has squeezed the nation’s midsection dry.
“It took Mother Nature in some cases thousands of years to accumulate the water in the aquifers, but we are pumping it out in mere decades,” said Robert Glennon, a law professor and water expert at the University of Arizona. “It’s a huge national and international problem. … It is utterly unsustainable and scary.”
Groundwater is hard to manage and measure because it’s mostly invisible. It seeps into the earth from lakes, rain and other sources. Then, it collects in zones called aquifers where the soil becomes saturated to the point where it can support regular withdrawals or even spill water onto the surface. Historically, there have been few limits on wells, creating numerous spots where aquifers have been overtapped by a growing population relying on the same resource.
A 2010 study led by a researcher in the Netherlands said the rate at which global groundwater stocks are shrinking more than doubled between 1960 and 2000. And a more recent report by a U.S. Geological Survey scientist showed that groundwater depletion rates were relatively low before 1950, then spiraled upward starting in the 2000s.
Groundwater is often overlooked in San Diego County because more than 80 percent of local supplies are imported from the Colorado River and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Still, some 41,000 people in dozens of small communities across the county’s rural spine depend on wells because they live beyond the reach of the aqueducts.
Wells also buoy urban supplies in the South Bay, and San Diego city officials in June announced a test well project in the Golden Hill neighborhood as part of their strategy to find new water sources.
Published 9 months, 2 weeks ago under Rivers to Oceans