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Throughout the history of the American West, water issues have shown their ability to both unite and divide communities. As an imbalance between water supplies and demands grows in the region, KUNC is committed to covering the stories that emerge.

Study: During Years of Drought, Western Groundwater Wells Go Dry

Luke Runyon
A center pivot irrigation sprinkler waters potato plants in Colorado's San Luis Valley, where farmers and cities rely heavily on aquifers.

Stories of Western groundwater wells going dry started bubbling up during a multi-year drought that began in 2012. Farmers and rural communities throughout the Rocky Mountains and central California owned wells no longer deep enough to tap into underground water supplies.

But those anecdotal stories didn’t have data to back them up. Now they do.

Credit Debra Perrone, Scott Jasechko / Environmental Research Letters
Environmental Research Letters
Colored areas on the map show the percentage of wells where the water table is deeper than the depth of the well, indicating that it is likely a dry well.

A new study published in the scientific journal Environmental Research Letters sheds more light on the stressed underground water supplies on which farmers, cities and industries depend. Researchers with Stanford University’s Water in the West found from 2013 to 2015 about 1 in 30 groundwater wells in the Western U.S. went dry. In other high-use areas one-fifth of wells dried up.

Those wells provide water for not just farm fields but for some residential neighborhoods. They’re called public supply wells.

“A public supply well can provide water to tens, hundreds, thousands of people,” says study co-author Debra Perrone, a Stanford postdoctoral fellow. “So if a public supply well is going dry, it has the chance of impacting tens, hundreds, thousands of people.”

Groundwater management, monitoring and record-keeping vary across the Western U.S., making it difficult to get a full picture of the demands on the water under our feet, Perrone says.

Perrone, along with University of Calgary geography professor Scott Jasechko, collected data on wells drilled from 1950 to 2015 in 17 Western states, then categorized each well for its use and depth. Their study was the first time such data was compiled and mapped across county and state boundaries in three decades.

Areas that rely heavily on groundwater pumping saw a higher density of dry wells, like Colorado’s San Luis Valley and the South Platte River Valley where farmers draw from the expansive Ogallala aquifer in the state’s northeastern corner.

Perrone says rural communities often bear the brunt of declining groundwater more than urban areas. They’re more likely to depend on groundwater supplies, and digging new or deeper wells is costly, straining rural towns’ budgets.

The researchers focused their report on wells drilled in flat areas throughout the West where groundwater supplies tend to be more uniform. 

This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant.

As KUNC’s managing editor and reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I edit and produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
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