September 19, 2023 –– Recent observations have highlighted a trend in the southwestern United States: giant fissures or cracks are appearing due to the over-extraction of groundwater. These fissures have been spotted in states such as Arizona, Utah, and California.
Human Actions Causing the Cracks.
According to a report by Science Springs, too much groundwater pumping in the US Southwest is causing the ground to split open. Citing Joseph Cook from the Arizona Geological Survey, Science Springs reports that the fissures are a direct result of human actions. Groundwater is a crucial resource, accounting for nearly half of the world’s drinking water and 40% of its irrigation. However, it’s being extracted faster than it can naturally replenish, leading to the formation of these cracks.
The New York Times Investigation.
A recent investigation by the New York Times and summarized by WION classified the emergence of these fissures as evidence of a national crisis. It revealed:
- Aquifers, responsible for supplying about 90% of US water systems, are depleting at an alarming rate.
- Nearly half of the monitored sites across the US have shown significant decline over the past 40 years.
- 40% of the sites have reached all-time low water levels in the past decade.
- Some of these aquifers might take centuries, if not thousands of years, to recover.
The New York Times investigation also highlighted the significant role of inadequate regulations in the groundwater crisis. The federal government’s current rules against groundwater pumping are sparse, and regional rules vary greatly.
Selected State Highlights and Interactive Maps.
Arizona. The American Geosciences Institute writes, “”Earth fissures are associated with basin subsidence that accompanies extensive ground water mining. In Arizona, fissures were first noted near Eloy in 1929. Their physical appearance varies greatly, but they may be more than a mile in length, up to 15 ft wide, and 100s of feet deep. During torrential rains they erode rapidly presenting a substantial hazard to people and infrastructure. Moreover, fissures provide a ready conduit to deliver runoff and contaminated waters to basin aquifers. Rapid population growth in southern Arizona is increasingly juxtaposing population centers and fissures.” The Arizona Geological Survey offers an interactive map that is incorporated into an interactive map of multiple natural hazards in Arizona. (On the upper right portion of the map screen, click the earth fissures layer.)
California. Using the broader term “land subsidence,” instead of fissures, the United States Geological Survey explains, “Land subsidence is a gradual settling or sudden sinking of the Earth’s surface due to removal or displacement of subsurface earth materials. The principal causes include: aquifer-system compaction associated with groundwater withdrawals. drainage of organic soils.” The USGS has assembled a collection of studies involving land subsidence throughout the state. The USGS offers an interactive map.
Utah. The Utah Geological Survey published a study titled “Land Subsidence and Earth Fissures in Cedar Valley” along with maps. The 2.4-mile long earth fissure in Enoch City was significant according to the Utah Geological survey because it was the “first one in Utah that has encroached into a developing area. In other western states, land subsidence and earth fissures have caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to buildings, roads, bridges, railroads, utilities, well casings, dams, canals, and other infrastructure.” Like Arizona, Utah offers an interactive hazard map where earth fissures can be identified (select the earth fissures feature on the left side of the map).
Implications of the Crisis.
Reporting from IFL Science points to the serious environmental impacts of over-extracting groundwater. The US Geological Survey mentions that over 80% of known land subsidence in the US results from groundwater use. Additionally, as Jason Groth from Charles County Maryland’s planning and growth management department shared, the water being extracted is ancient, taking thousands of years to replenish. He expressed concerns over the county potentially running out of water within a decade. Warigia Bowman, a water expert and law professor at the University of Tulsa, voiced similar concerns, stating that some parts of the US might soon run out of drinking water due to this crisis.
The reports about the fissures conclude that continuous depletion of groundwater, combined with increasing temperatures and droughts, has led to a severe crisis in the US Southwest. This environmental challenge necessitates immediate attention and collaborative action, both in terms of research and policy formulation.
Image Source: Screenshot from YouTube video.