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A new analysis by The New York Times shows that groundwater levels are declining across much of the United States due to overpumping. This invisible water crisis threatens American agriculture, drinking water supplies, and even the stability of the land itself.
The Times compiled data from over 80,000 monitoring wells, finding that groundwater levels have fallen significantly at nearly half of sites since 1980. The rate of decline is accelerating, with 40% of wells hitting record lows in the past decade alone.
The main culprit is unsustainable water use for farming in dry areas like Kansas, Arkansas, and California. Industrial-scale agriculture depends on irrigating crops with water pumped from aquifers. But in many places, more water is extracted each year than rainfall can replenish.
Once depleted, aquifers can take centuries or longer to recharge. And when groundwater is depleted, the land above can sink or crack open in fissures. This subsidence damages buildings, roads, and infrastructure.
Drinking water is also at risk in many regions, especially small towns and rural areas that rely predominantly on wells. Overpumping leads to saltwater intrusion in coastal areas like Long Island and falling water quality through arsenic contamination inland.
Experts call groundwater depletion a "crisis" requiring action. But regulation of groundwater extraction is limited, with the federal government playing almost no role. Addressing this invisible crisis will require confronting unsustainable practices and better stewardship of our essential groundwater resources.