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Depleting the water

Depleting the water

The following is a script of “Water” which aired on Nov. 16, 2014. Lesley Stahl is the correspondent. Shari Finkelstein and Jennie Held, producers.

It’s been said that the wars of the 21st century may well be fought over water. The Earth’s population has more than doubled over the last 50 years and the demand for fresh water — to drink and to grow food — has surged along with it. But sources of water like rainfall, rivers, streams, reservoirs, certainly haven’t doubled. So where is all that extra water coming from? More and more, it’s being pumped out of the ground.

Water experts say groundwater is like a savings account — something you draw on in times of need. But savings accounts need to be replenished, and there is new evidence that so much water is being taken out, much of the world is in danger of a groundwater overdraft.

California is entering its fourth year of a record-breaking drought. Last year was the driest since the state started keeping records more than a hundred years ago. And yet, pay a visit to California’s Central Valley and out of that parched land you’ll see acre upon acre of corn, almond trees, pomegranates, tomatoes, grapes. And what makes them all possible: water. Where do you get water in a drought? You take it out of the savings account: groundwater.

[Jay Famiglietti: When we talk about surface water, we’re talking about lakes and rivers. And when we’re talking about groundwater, we’re really talking about water below the water table.]

Jay Famiglietti, an Earth sciences professor at the University of California, Irvine, is a leading expert on groundwater.

Jay Famiglietti: It’s like a sponge. It’s like an underground sponge.

He’s talking about the aquifers where groundwater is stored — layers of soil and rock, as he showed us in this simple graphic, that are saturated with water and can be drilled into, like the three wells shown here.

Lesley Stahl: You can actually pump it out of the crevices?

Jay Famiglietti: Imagine like trying to put a straw into a sponge. You can actually suck water right out of a sponge. It’s a very similar process.

Sucking the water out of those aquifers is big business these days in the Central Valley. Well driller Steve Arthur is a very busy man.

Steve Arthur: All the farmers, they don’t have no surface water. They’ve got to keep these crops alive. The only way to do that is to drill wells, pump the water from the ground.

Lesley Stahl: So it’s either drill or go out of business?

Steve Arthur: Yes.

So there’s something of a groundwater rush going on here. Arthur’s seven rigs are in constant use and his waiting list is well over a year. And because some wells here are running dry, he’s having to drill twice as deep as he did just a year or two ago. This well will cost the farmer a quarter of a million dollars, and go down 1,200 feet — about the height of the Empire State Building.

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