The depletion of groundwater should be a wake-up call for Canada, where more than half of the population relies on groundwater for drinking, and for Saskatchewan, which is striving to double its food production capacity, a University of Saskatchewan scientist warns.
Renowned water scientist Dr. Jay Famiglietti, professor emeritus in hydrology at USask, and former executive director of USask’s Global Institute for Water Security, has pioneered methods to observe changes in global groundwater stores over the past two decades using a specialized NASA satellite.
Famiglietti’s work has made a key discovery about the aquifers that supply California’s Central Valley region. He believes that the groundwater depletion rate has accelerated to a point where the resource could disappear over the next several decades.
“If that water disappears, so does food production. That means less produce, higher prices, shortages, and other shocks to food systems,” states Famiglietti. “All around the world, we have been kicking the can down the road for a long time on effectively managing groundwater. Now we are at the end of the road, and it’s a dead end.”
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California’s Central Valley grows most of the produce consumed across North America. To do that it relies heavily on aquifers.
Famiglietti’s team analyzed nearly two decades of data collected by NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite and the GRACE Follow-On satellite. Their research shows groundwater losses during 2019-2021 — the driest three-year period in California’s history — were 31% faster than in two previous drought periods of 2006-2011, and 2011 to 2017. This rate is also five times greater than the long-term average rate of depletion since 1962.
Accompanying the disappearance of groundwater, there is ecological damage as wetlands are drained, and as streams run dry.
In Canada, Famiglietti notes that the South Saskatchewan River water is close to being over-allocated already, as is the water in many of Canada’s rivers, so care must be taken to avoid Saskatchewan becoming another California or Colorado River Basin.
“We have to think about how much groundwater we need for sustainable food production, and then to manage to balance that with changing surface water availability so that we can do it for centuries, not just for a few decades. Currently we’re OK, but if we want to increase food production and we want to be doing it on an annual, sustainable basis, that means irrigation and that means having continuous access to water. To me that means groundwater.”