60 Minutes: Water
Lesley Stahl said on 60 Minutes that some believe the wars of the 21st century will be fought over water (instead of, say, oil). In the past 50 years, the world’s population has more than doubled, though the water supply has not kept up. Groundwater has become a more common source of water, though experts say heavy reliance on this practice could lead to hard times ahead.
This can definitely be seen in California, which is in the fourth year of a serious drought. Despite that, you can see the farming industry thriving, thanks to the use of groundwater. University of California—Irvine Earth sciences professor Jay Famiglietti showed graphics of what he compared to “an underground sponge.”
Aquifers that store groundwater can be drilled into and accessed. This drought has been big business for drillers like Steve Arthur. “They’ve got to keep these crops alive,” he said. “The only way to do that is to drill wells.” Arthur has a waiting list longer than one year, and as drought conditions continue, the wells must be drilled deeper than in the past.
60 Minutes: California’s Central Valley Groundwater
Arthur admitted that drilling is depleting the groundwater, but he pointed out that there isn’t much other choice. Otherwise, the fertile farmland would just become desert. Though farmers may think this is a cyclical pattern, experts like Famiglietti caution that it could take as long as hundreds of years to fully replenish some of these deep aquifers.
Hydrologist Claudia Funk with the US Geological Survey is one of many who monitor groundwater levels in California’s Central Valley. She showed 60 Minutes how water levels are measured at 20,000 monitoring wells across the U.S.
The result of this particular measurement was the alarming discovery that this location dropped five feet over the course of a month. “At this site, water levels have dropped about 200 feet in the last few years,” Funk said, noting “historic lows.”
60 Minutes: GRACE Water Satellites
There is also a more high-tech way to monitor groundwater depletion. In 2002, NASA launched the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite. Mike Watkins from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory is the project scientist. He explained that two satellites work together to monitor each other’s orbit.
Gravity has an impact on their orbits, and since water has its own mass, it can influence that gravity. As one GRACE satellite approaches a particular area and is affected by its gravity, the other satellite will catch up. Their tandem measurements help monitor water levels.
That means these satellites can tell whether a particular area lost or gained water over a period of time. Scientists can do the math to account for rain and snowfall, leaving them with the results of any groundwater changes for the period.
60 Minutes: Worldwide Groundwater Depletion
Famiglietti admitted he was skeptical about GRACE’s potential. But then he started looking at the data. For example, he looked at 12 years of water changes in India, where pumping has led to serious groundwater depletion due to the same type of agricultural use now being seen in California.
In the Far East, he noticed a pattern that may be cause for concern. In Beijing, Bangladesh, and southern Asia, food-producing regions are tapping into aquifers. The same thing is taking place in Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey, areas that have seen plenty of turmoil in recent history.
Famiglietti explained that Turkey has built dams to store water upstream, leaving southern neighbors with no choice but to rely on groundwater. He is now traveling around the world to meet with government officials and educators to spread the word about the world’s water worries.
60 Minutes: What is Subsidence?
The director of National Intelligence made a report in 2012 suggesting that water will soon become a valuable resource that could lead to global confrontations. The past several years of GRACE data for California’s Central Valley shows a dire situation, and finds that rainfall is not helping to make up any differences.
Another consequence, according to 60 Minutes, is Subsidence, which is when parts of the valley shrink due to loss of water. The ground could be dropping by several inches or as much as a foot every year. “It’s some of the fastest rates we have ever seen in the valley, and in the world,” Claudia Faunt said.
Despite the risks to infrastructure, there are no set limits in California regarding how much groundwater any farmer can use. “As long as you put it to beneficial use, you can take as much as you want,” Faunt explained. Steve Arthur said everyone is aware of the water problems, but drilling continues.
60 Minutes: Thirsty Crops & Toilet To Tap
60 Minutes also said that certain “Thirsty Crops” are compounding water shortage issues. Almond Trees are profitable, but they must be watered year-round or they will die. Lesley Stahl did find some good news on her journey, however. She met Orange County Water District general manager Mike Markus, who is behind a program sometimes referred to as Toilet To Tap.
Each day, a county sanitation plant treats 96 million gallons of waste water, which is then basically recycled. In just about 45 minutes, the water is rendered drinkable. A three-step process is designed to “suck it through microscopic filters, force it through membranes, [and] blast it with UV light,” Stahl said.
This water is then sent to a basin, and from there it helps to replenish groundwater. Jay Fmiglietti said that this is a great way to help stave off the rapid decline of groundwater. Stahl bravely taste-tested the water and Markus said the program could spread to other cities in the future.
60 Minutes: Recyclable Water
However, that requires a large population to generate so much “recyclable” water every day. The Central Valley in California does not have the population density to help offset its own declines. Famiglietti warned that there is a potential in the future for the state’s aquifers to be completely empty.
Now, the state of California is stepping in to place regulations on the use of groundwater, but it may not be soon enough. According to 60 Minutes, it may be 25 years before these reforms are fully in place. Have you thought about the use of groundwater in your area?