How academics are working to solve America’s groundwater crisis
MES/CEE Assistant Professor James Dennedy-Frank is using computer models to research how to better manage groundwater resources in the United States.
Beneath the roadways and sidewalks we traverse every day are underground reservoirs that supply a substantial chunk of the nation’s overall water needs. These groundwater aquifers once sustained America’s cities and farmland. Now, according to a New York Times investigation, they could be drying up for good.
Aquifers — geologic formations of layered rock or sediment that filter and hold groundwater — power much of the nation’s industry and agriculture. But the growth of cities and industrial farming is fast depleting the country’s groundwater — faster than rates of recharge. Additionally, public attention to the problem has been lacking, experts say.
More than a century ago, the movement of groundwater struck officials as “so secret and occult” as to seem ungovernable. That the problem isn’t easily visible has made it difficult for scientists to collect data, says James Dennedy-Frank, an assistant professor of marine and environmental sciences, as well as civil and environmental engineering, at Northeastern.
Dennedy-Frank spoke to Northeastern Global News about his ongoing research into the issue, which leverages the power of computing to create models that simulate rates of groundwater depletion, while exploring the environmental factors linked to recharge.
The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q1. Why don’t you start by explaining the problem. What is going on with our groundwater, and what prompted this big Times investigation?
The problem is we know that reliable water resources are a critical need, and we’re seeing a lot of places where water resources are becoming less reliable. The first big Times piece is about declining water levels across the country.
Certainly this is something we’ve known about — particularly on the West Coast — for a long time. But the Times put together a whole new database of declining water levels nationwide. As we are experiencing more severe drought in lots of places, including over here on the East Coast — in places like Cape Cod, for example, which is very groundwater-reliant — we’re seeing groundwater levels drop everywhere.
And that has all kinds of effects. It has effects on the availability of water. A lot of rivers and streams are supported by groundwater, especially through dry seasons. So those rivers and streams are getting lower and flowing less.
They’re also, as a result, getting warmer because you have less of that cold groundwater flowing in. That then has potential effects on aquatic life, too. There’s a whole set of effects here — and this isn’t only happening in the “arid” West, where you tend to hear about it a lot.
Phoenix made the decision recently to restrict the building of homes in certain areas because there wasn’t a reliable source of water. That is obviously a really big problem, when you have cities saying they can’t build new houses.
The second place the Times looked at was Minnesota, which is not a place that we think of when we think of arid zones. They had a drought back in 2021 and a lot of the big agricultural companies there were pumping a lot of groundwater — in fact, a lot more than their nominal permits allowed.
(I’ll say one thing about groundwater, which is that where there are permits, they’re not usually well enforced, and in many places there aren’t even things like permits, so there are very loose regulations.)
Even in Minnesota — we think of Minnesota as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” where there is lots of water — there were lots of wells running dry because of the drought, and these agricultural uses were pumping out millions of gallons of water. That’s a rough sketch of the problem.
Q2. Do we know how much this is a product of climate change specifically?
I don’t think anyone has precise numbers on that right now. There are people certainly working on trying to understand it as a climate attribution question — how much of it is climate, how much of it is human-led, etc. There have been many places where groundwater and other water resources have been stressed by human use in the absence of climate change, but climate change is stressing the systems more and stressing systems that we didn’t used to worry about as much.
Read full story at Northeastern Global News