That Great Sucking You Hear Is the Sound of the Ground Going Dry

Aquifer illustration (© Hans Hillewaert)

By Jim Brace-Thompson

An article in a recent issue of the journal Science calls it “the hidden crisis beneath our feet.”

As populations increase and demand more resources, and climate warms and dries, essential groundwater is rapidly depleted! In the American Southwest, gallows humor has it that, one day soon, someone in Phoenix is going to hear a loud dry sucking sound as the last drops of well water dribble from a faucet.

But it’s not really funny at all. Some 96 percent of our unfrozen freshwater is stored in underground aquifers, where we access it via wells. Researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, have compiled a huge database of some 39 million wells in 40 countries on every continent except Antarctica. Their results reveal that wells supplying drinking water to billions of people and water for agricultural irrigation worldwide are at risk of running dry in places where water tables are declining significantly. Indeed, at many places wells already have run dry.

Just dig wells deeper into the aquifers? Not so easy, say the researchers, Scott Jasechko and Debra Perrone. Costs of going deeper are high, making it impractical in poorer regions. Plus, the quality of the water often declines with depth.

Because aquifers often cross beneath state and national borders, a coordinated and cooperative effort must be made to avoid the overexploitation of this essential resource and—in the face of climate change—to maintain it in a sustainable way such that no one in Phoenix need ever hear that great sucking sound at the faucet.

Author: Jim Brace-Thompson

JimBraceThompson Jim began and oversees the AFMS Badge Program for kids and has been inducted into the National Rockhound & Lapidary Hall of Fame within their Education Category.
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