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Groundwater pumping causes cracks and subsidence in the United States

A few years ago, different parts of United States, such as the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming in 2015, witnessed appearance of large cracks

By Ground Report
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Annual groundwater loss of 17 cubic km leads to land subsidence

A few years ago, different parts of the United States, such as the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming in 2015, witnessed the appearance of large cracks, with one measuring 685 meters long and 45 meters wide.

Cracks, also known as fissures, have occurred in states like Arizona, Utah, and California and evidently link to groundwater. Joseph Cook, of the Arizona Geological Survey, explained to Business Insider that these cracks are not natural formations but rather "something that we have caused."

However, we actually know the cause behind the appearance of these cracks.

According to ScienceAlert, The US has been pumping so much groundwater that the ground itself is beginning to split open across the southwestern part of the country, spanning miles on end. So far, people have spotted these cracks in Arizona, Utah, and California.

Fissures can damage more than just homes, roads, canals, and dams; they can threaten humans and livestock, and they have a direct impact on property value in the area.

Groundwater flows below the surface of the Earth through a complex system of interconnected space within rocks and sediment, known as an aquifer, as its name implies. Tapping into this underground reservoir is typically done by humans through drilling wells, which then create a cone for the water to flow upwards from the aquifer.

Many other countries, including the United States, pump groundwater to meet the population's needs. People use groundwater, one of the sources of fresh water in the world, for consumption.

In the United States, people now believe that certain parts of the ground are beginning to "open up" because pumping out groundwater causes ground subsidence.

The USGS explained on its website, “More than 80% of known land subsidence in the US results from groundwater use, an often-overlooked environmental consequence of our lives.” Land and water use practices.

A national crisis

The New York Times recently conducted an investigation on the topic and brought attention to a troubling fact: groundwater is depleting faster than it naturally replenishes.

Jason Groth, deputy director of planning and growth management for Charles County, Maryland, informed the newspaper that most of the water extracted from the ground is thousands of years old. He stated that it is not the case that it rains on Monday and on Saturday it is already in the aquifer.

When we pump too much groundwater from beneath the Earth's surface, it makes the land sink and create cracks, explained Joseph Cook, a researcher at the Arizona Geological Survey. These cracks are not natural; we have caused them to form.

A road fissure formed near Sulphur Hills. (Joseph Cook/AZGS)

In Arizona, some places are already too damaged to fix. We have been using water so much and so quickly that rainwater doesn't have enough time to refill the underground water sources. In some areas, the damage is irreversible, and the water levels won't recover, Cook added.

Climate change makes it worse

When we factor in climate change, we're heading towards a "crisis," says water expert Warigia Bowman from the University of Tulsa. Rising global temperatures are causing rivers to shrink, which means farmers have to rely more on groundwater for freshwater.

For example, the Colorado River, a vital water source for Southwestern farmers, has already decreased by nearly 20% since 2000. Predictions suggest that if temperatures rise 2-5 degrees Fahrenheit in the Colorado River Basin by 2050, river flow could drop by 10-40%.

One of the big problems here is the lack of regulations on groundwater pumping. The federal government has very few rules in place, and state regulations vary widely. In places like Arizona, groundwater has historically been unregulated, so people can use as much as they want, with no limits.

An individual skillfully maneuvers a drone, expertly guiding it into the depths of a striking fissure nestled in Arizona's rugged terrain.(Brian Conway/AZGS)

Additionally, national-scale research on groundwater is not sufficient, so we do not have a good understanding of the extent of the over-pumping issue. This lack of regulation and knowledge allows harmful practices, like farming in dry areas, to continue.

If we don't change our ways and let underground water sources naturally recharge, these cracks in the Earth will keep getting worse.

Global water shortage challenges deepen

The United States is not the only country experiencing this situation. National Geographic published its World Water Map a few months ago, which highlighted the world's "hot spots," where there is a greater gap between water supply and demand.

A drone view of a fissure over Picacho Basin, Arizona. (Brian Gootee/ AZGS)

Several countries, which are part of the 22 "hot spots" where the disparity between supply and demand is significant, are already experiencing this situation. These countries include the Central Valley of California, Java (Indonesia), the Nile River Delta (Egypt), and the Indus River Basin (Pakistan).

Several of these places have groundwater as one of the big problems. For example, India has had to pump the most groundwater. The researchers discovered that most of the pumped groundwater is destined for irrigation, particularly in the northwestern states of Punjab and Haryana, characterized by aridity and crops with high water consumption, such as rice and wheat.

The Water Map researchers note that the country's government had to make the decision to resort to the finite resources of groundwater as part of a successful effort to avoid mass famine. As a result of this decision, the water table, the first layer of groundwater, is sinking up to three meters each year.

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