Byline: Ian James and Steve Reilly
About the four-part series
In places around the world, supplies of groundwater are rapidly vanishing. As aquifers decline and wells begin to run dry, people are being forced to confront a growing crisis.
USA TODAY and The Desert Sun of Palm Springs, Calif., spent nearly a year investigating the consequences of the emerging crisis. Using a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, our journalists traveled to the world's hot spots of groundwater depletion on four continents.
In this four-part series, they tell the stories of people forced to confront questions of how to safeguard aquifers for the future -- and in some cases how to cope as the water runs out.
SUBLETTE, KANSAS - Just before 3 a.m., Jay Garetson's phone buzzed on the bedside table. He picked it up and read the text: "Low Pressure Alert."
He felt a jolt of stress, and his chest tightened. He dreaded what that automated message probably meant: As the water table dropped, another well on his family's farm was starting to suck air.
The Garetson family has farmed in the plains of southwestern Kansas for four generations, since 1902. Now they face a hard reality. The groundwater they depend on is disappearing. Their fields could wither. Their farm might not survive for the next generation.
At dawn, Garetson was out among the cornfields at the well, trying to diagnose the problem. The pump hummed as it lifted water from nearly 600 feet underground. He turned a valve and let the cool water run into his cupped hands. Just as he feared, he saw fine bubbles in the water.
"It's showing signs of weakening," he said. "It's just a question of how much time is left."
The High Plains Aquifer, which lies beneath eight states from South Dakota to Texas, is the lifeblood of one of the world's most productive farming economies. The aquifer, also known as the Ogallala, makes possible a large share of the country's output of corn, wheat and cattle. But its levels have been rapidly declining, and with each passing year, more wells are going dry.
The severe depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer is symptomatic of a larger crisis in the USA and many parts of the world. Much more water is pumped from the ground than can be naturally replenished.
Groundwater levels are plummeting. It's happening not only in the High Plains and drought-ravaged California but also in places from the Gulf Coastal Plain to the farmland of the Mississippi River Valley, and from the dry Southwest to the green Southeast.
FACTS ABOUT GROUNDWATER IN THE UNITED STATES
1 - More than 1,000 cubic kilometers of groundwater has been depleted from U.S. aquifers -- about 28 times the amount of water that can be held in Lake Mead.
2 - In 2010, the USA used about 76 billion gallons of groundwater per day, an amount comparable to the flow of Niagara Falls.
3 - In parts of the USA, the water table has dropped more than 100 feet since 1995.
4 - U.S. Geological Survey data show groundwater levels have declined in nearly two-thirds of the nation's wells during the past two decades.
5 - Groundwater levels have been dropping in places across the country, from the High Plains to the Mississippi River Valley.
DECLINING GROUNDWATER LEVELS ACROSS THE U.S.
For text of this graphic/map - please see print or online edition
Groundwater levels have fallen in many areas of the United States during the past 20 years. The biggest declines have occurred in the West, in areas such as the farmlands that rely on the Ogallala Aquifer. But pockets of depletion have appeared in counties across the nation, and in wetter regions as well as dry regions.
HOW MUCH WATER HAVE WE PUMPED FROM THE GROUND?
Place more than 1 million 1-liter bottles on a football field ...
Stack those together nearly a million times ...
About five times that amount of groundwater was depleted in California's Central Valley in 2013.
And that's a fraction of what the U.S. pumps annually
But we're not the biggest users of groundwater
For full text of this graphic/map - please see print or online edition
Cubic kilometers used in 2010