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Groundwater Running Out Is Leading to Unsustainable Practice of Digging Deeper Wells

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Well water is pumped from the ground on April 24, 2015 in Tulare, California. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Drill, baby, drill! It's what Americans are doing to find potable water.

New research has found that Americans are digging deeper and deeper wells to meet our water demands, which is not a sustainable practice for our water supply needs, according to a study that is the first national assessment of U.S. groundwater wells.


Nearly 120 million Americans rely on underground aquifers for drinking water, for irrigating nearly half of the nation's crops, and for use in manufacturing. But, we have been using up that water much faster than it can be replenished, which has America running headlong into a water crisis, as Pacific Standard reported.


Nearly 1,000 of California's community water systems are at high risk of failing to provide potable drinking water. America's aging infrastructure is in desperate need of repair, including the country's drinking water systems, which the American Society of Civil Engineers gave a D rating in its 2017 report, according to the New York Times.

Water levels are dropping for large populations and farming regions, including California's fertile Central Valley and the High Plains region atop the vast Ogallala aquifer, which underlies 111.8 million acres in parts of eight states from South Dakota to Texas, as Science News reported. The Ogalla aquifer is particularly frightening — a 2017 report by the U.S. Geological Survey noted that its water levels had dropped by nearly 16 feet from 1950 to 2015.

The new study, published in the journal Nature Sustainability, analyzed 65 years of well depth trends to gain new insights into the management of the critical resource.

"We actually don't know that much about how much groundwater is being used and where groundwater wells are located," said Debra Perrone, an assistant professor at the University of California–Santa Barbara, and lead author on the new study, as Pacific Standard reported. "Groundwater is often referred to as an invisible resource. Groundwater wells are small, they're distributed, they're often lost among the landscape."

The research team realized that the number and depth of those wells could provide critical insights for water managers on the state of the underground reservoirs, but no central database existed. So, the research team started to build one by compiling constructing data and looking at well depth trends across the country. In the end, their research focused on five mega-aquifer systems that deliver water to densely populated regions, agricultural hubs, or areas with heavy industrial activities.

The data showed that across the country, groundwater users are drilling wells deeper and deeper across 70 percent of the country. But for the areas where wells haven't gotten deeper, the wells might soon run dry, according to Pacific Standard .

"Drilling deeper is not a sustainable, long-term solution," said Perrone, as Pacific Standard reported. "It's more of a stopgap solution."

Drilling also creates water access inequalities as poorer areas struggle to pay for the costs associated with deeper wells and water treatment. It's expensive to sink a deeper well and energy intensive to pump the water out. Deeper wells can also tap into brackish water, which may be too salty for irrigation or drinking. That requires extensive desalination and filtering, according to Science News.

The researchers hope their data will inform policy to "improve the way that we govern our groundwater resources," said Perrone to Pacific Standard. "So we know people are going deeper. And let's make sure that we protect the quality of that deep groundwater."

That brackish water deep in the aquifers is not protected right now. Even though we may need to use those deep stores of water one day, right now the fossil fuel industry injects chemical-tainted water that comes out of oil and gas wells into aquifers considered too salty to use.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.