A congressional committee created to review the U.S. economy and then recommend improvements in economic policy issued a “fact sheet” that highlights the importance of groundwater to the economy. The sheet lists threats to groundwater, how drilling can help to reduce such threats, federal programs designed to protect groundwater, and bills designed to protect groundwater.

The Joint Economic Committee (JEC) was created under the Employment Act of 1946 and currently comprises 20 House of Representatives and Senate members, including JEC Chair Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), who has introduced at least two bills to protect groundwater.

On May 10, 2024, the JEC issued the fact sheet “Protecting Groundwater is Essential for our Country and Economy,” and a JEC groundwater expert who declined to be identified told The Driller the fact sheet’s task is to provide the government and the public with information concerning groundwater, including instances where groundwater is under threat of contamination or is rebounding.

The fact sheet says groundwater “plays an outsize role in supporting the U.S. economy, with 90 percent of U.S. water systems relying on groundwater to meet demand” and that “approximately 30 percent of the freshwater used for drinking, cooking, agriculture, and other important needs comes from groundwater.” In addition, groundwater is “vital for agricultural production and for the estimated 13 million American households that rely on private wells for their drinking water.”

Furthermore, the fact sheet says, “Groundwater reserves serve as an important buffer against surface water shortages, which are expected to increase as the climate changes. In a drought, groundwater can serve as insurance because surface water supplies are more variable.”

However, the fact sheet says aquifers are shrinking around the U.S. and provides the example of the Ogallala Aquifer, which has been depleted by more than 25 percent and has reached the point “where it can no longer reliably support large-scale irrigation.” Such groundwater depletion leaves underground spaces for the ground to collapse and create sinkholes, leading to permanent loss of water-holding capacity and costly damage to roads, canals, home foundations, sewer pipes, and other infrastructure, according to the fact sheet.  

The fact sheet also says that “in many regions of the country, water users have adapted to declining groundwater levels by drilling deeper wells,” but “drilling becomes increasingly costly at lower water levels, which can make it economically infeasible, particularly for disadvantaged rural communities.” Furthermore, “there are varying limits to how deep wells can be drilled before groundwater is no longer usable or available,” the document says.

Other threats to groundwater listed in the fact sheet include:

  • Aridification, or a permanent shift to a drier climate, occurs as rising temperatures and less rain deplete the water supply, thereby prompting communities to pump more groundwater from aquifers and reducing the resilience of aquifers.

  • Contamination of groundwater due to climate change, overpumping, and rising groundwater pushed up by sea level rise, which may release toxic chemicals into other waterways but also increase groundwater susceptibility to saltwater contamination.

However, effective water management policies can halt or reverse declines in groundwater levels, and federal policy, programs, and funding are being implemented also to halt or reverse declines in groundwater levels. Further, those actions are supported by legislation such as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which has provided more than $50 billion for safe drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure. According to the fact sheet, those allocations will help replace aging water infrastructure prone to contamination and leakage, increasing the efficiency of water systems and potentially reducing demands on groundwater supplies.

Plugging and implementing remediation of abandoned petroleum and natural gas wells can help reduce the risk of contamination from those wells leaching into groundwater, and broader climate mitigation investments from both the IIJA, and the Inflation Reduction Act are also helping to address climate change, mitigating its impact on water supplies.

The fact sheet also says there are bills pending in Congress dedicated to addressing declining groundwater levels. They include:

  • The Water Data Act is meant to facilitate the collection of information regarding water access needs across the U.S. and to understand the impacts of the water access gap in each state and territory.

  • The Voluntary Groundwater Conservation Act directs the Department of Agriculture to establish a groundwater conservation easement program that provides farmers with the flexibility and incentives they need to protect groundwater sources while maintaining food production.

The JEC groundwater expert said pieces of legislation like the IIJA are responses to the groundwater system being stressed by climate change, and investments allocated by those bills “are helping to protect this essential resource.”

Read the fact sheet.