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Satellite study shows drought-stricken Colorado River Basin states depleting their groundwater

A new satellite study finds more than 75% of the water loss in the drought-stricken Colorado River Basin since late 2004 came from underground resources. The extent of groundwater loss may pose a greater threat to the water supply of the western United States than previously thought.

The Colorado River Basin (black outline) supplies water to about 40 million people in seven states. Major cities outside the basin (red shading) also use water from the Colorado River. Credit: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Click to enlarge.

This study is the first to quantify the amount that groundwater contributes to the water needs of western states. According to the US Bureau of Reclamation, the federal water management agency, the basin has been suffering from prolonged, severe drought since 2000 and has experienced the driest 14-year period in the last hundred years. The study has been accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

The research team, led by NASA and University of California, Irvine, scientists, used data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite mission to track changes in the mass of the Colorado River Basin, which are related to changes in water amount on and below the surface. Monthly measurements of the change in water mass from December 2004 to November 2013 revealed the basin lost nearly 53 million acre feet (65 cubic kilometers) of freshwater, almost double the volume of the nation’s largest reservoir, Nevada’s Lake Mead. More than three-quarters of the total—about 41 million acre feet (50 cubic kilometers)—was from groundwater.

We don’t know exactly how much groundwater we have left, so we don’t know when we’re going to run out. This is a lot of water to lose. We thought that the picture could be pretty bad, but this was shocking.—Stephanie Castle, lead author

Water above ground in the basin’s rivers and lakes is managed by the US Bureau of Reclamation, and its losses are documented. Pumping from underground aquifers is regulated by individual states and is often not well documented.

There’s only one way to put together a very large-area study like this, and that is with satellites. There’s just not enough information available from well data to put together a consistent, basin-wide picture.

—senior author Jay Famiglietti

Famiglietti said GRACE is like having a giant scale in the sky. Within a given region, the change in mass due to rising or falling water reserves influences the strength of the local gravitational attraction. By periodically measuring gravity regionally, GRACE reveals how much a region’s water storage changes over time.

Famiglietti noted that the rapid water depletion rate will compound the problem of short supply by leading to further declines in streamflow in the Colorado River.

Combined with declining snowpack and population growth, this will likely threaten the long-term ability of the basin to meet its water allocation commitments to the seven basin states and to Mexico.

—Jay Famiglietti

Coauthors included other scientists from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado. The research was funded by NASA and the University of California.

GRACE is a joint mission with the German Aerospace Center and the German Research Center for Geosciences, in partnership with the University of Texas at Austin. JPL developed the GRACE spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington.


  • Stephanie L. Castle, Brian F. Thomas, John T. Reager, Matthew Rodell, Sean C. Swenson and James S. Famiglietti (2014) “Groundwater Depletion During Drought Threatens Future Water Security of the Colorado River Basin,” GRL doi: 10.1002/2014GL061055



Western US farmers will have to learn how to farm with 80% less water?


OR realize that every BILLION we could spend to capture or desalinate in the coming decades would go along way in this heavily-populated and farmed DESERT.


I guess that is what happens when you start farming in a desert.
What would happen if they were made pay the market price for water? [ whatever that is ]


Tangential issue here, but don't forget about fracking. I am a giant fan but it certainly consumes water. Practically speaking CO should probably be a bit more thoughtful about joining the hydraulic fracturing parade for now.

Other note that the GRACE project is pretty dang cool.


Covering the ground with a thin 6 mm layer of appropriate wood chips can reduce the need of water and fertilizer by 75%. It has been tried in many places and it works.

Of coarse proper wood chips may cost more than free water and low cost chemical fertilizers. The mid west may not have a choice if they want to maintain production.


"We don’t know exactly how much groundwater we have left, so we don’t know when we’re going to run out."

That sort of says it all.

Farmers in California's central valley were told not to plant trees because the water was now and then, the allocation depended on snow and rain fall. They planted orchards anyway and now are complaining they are not allocated enough water.


There might be enough wood chips from pine beetle kill to do the job, but the wind would probably blow it all away.
If Colorado replace fossil fuel electricity with solar and wind (lots of both), we would not send the water from cooling towers to the other side of the Mississipi, which is what happens now.
It is too late to stop the fracking train in Colorado -- unfortunately.


Fracking takes a lot of water, power plant cooling takes a lot of water. You can use reclaimed water for fracking and power plants. Use multistage condensers on power plants then use that water for crops. As one example, the nuclear power plant in Arizona uses 20 billion gallons per year. You could grow miscanthus for fuel in the desert with the right water management. Multistage condensers are used to make 60% of the desalinated water in the world.



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