Water Hub Blog

Groundwater: The unsung hero

Digital illustration of floodplain restoration. Background is a river flowing out of green mountains. In the foreground, two people are planting trees along the river above a depiction of an underground reservoir.

There’s no better time to look at the invisible water source beneath our feet. Groundwater is being depleted and polluted at an alarming rate, but recharging aquifers could also be the key to climate-driven weather whiplash: allowing communities to both store more water and prevent flooding. Let’s take a deeper look:

Why is groundwater important?

More than 100 million people in the United States (about 1 in 3 Americans) get their drinking water from a public water system that uses groundwater. Another 40+ million rely on water from private wells. These aquifers are also the unsung heroes of water storage. While bathtub rings and dry docks of the West’s largest reservoirs get all the attention, underground reserves are far larger and just as depleted. For example, California’s 500+ groundwater basins could hold 17 times more water than all its major reservoirs combined, and dozens of wells are at an all-time low

The problems

Groundwater depletion (pumping more water out aquifers than is refilled by rain and runoff soaking into soil) has been making headlines in the Southwest and Great Plains for years, but it’s an issue in every corner of the country. Declining river and reservoir levels cause cities and farms to pump more groundwater, but there’s also a negative feedback loop. Research focused in the Colorado and Mississippi River Basins show over pumping groundwater reduces stream flows by as much as 50%. In Texas, nearly 80% of groundwater pumped is used to irrigate crops, and over pumping is causing land to sink and streamflows in cherished waterways like Comanche Stream to decline.

The future of groundwater management

Because groundwater is, quite literally, underfoot, it’s difficult to measure, monitor, and manage. NASA is tackling this problem using satellite imagery. In addition to tracking groundwater levels, many communities are also working to recharge aquifers by helping more rain and runoff sink into the ground. That can look like unpaving urban areas, flooding farm fields, or engineered recharge basins. In addition to the city’s investment in green stormwater, Tucson Water uses two aquifer recovery projects alongside its reservoir to store Colorado River water underground. Drought resilience funded through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law includes federal support for groundwater recharge and aquifer storage projects.

Join us in educating the public about this underground issue! Here is a social media toolkit (with updated graphics!) we hope will help you spread the word.

The Water Hub