While the United Nations has declared 2003 the International Year of Freshwater, virtually no one is discussing the increasing reliance worldwide on groundwater and the potentially dire consequences of that dependence for rivers, ecosystems, and sustainable development.

No one, that is, except Robert Glennon—whose new Island Press book, Water Follies: Groundwater Pumping and the Fate of America's Freshwaters, details how United States law and indiscriminate well drilling have created precarious and sometimes disastrous hydrological situations around the country. Glennon outlined his case for new groundwater policies at a Wilson Center meeting sponsored by the Environmental Change and Security Project.

Overuse and Inadequate Law

Glennon called groundwater overuse an immense problem that is not simply confined to the American West but is national and even international in scope. Groundwater has certainly become an increasingly important component of the U.S. water portfolio: over half of U.S residents get their drinking supply from it, and it makes up two-thirds of the water supply used by agriculture. Meanwhile, as some portions of the country remain in drought, farmers, miners, industries, and homeowners are increasingly pursuing groundwater through well-drilling.

Glennon next provided an overview of U.S. water law, which he said is presently inadequate to deal with our scientific understanding of the cyclical interplay of surface water and groundwater. In most states, he said, groundwater use is governed under the "reasonable use" doctrine, which allows a theoretically infinite number of users to tap into a given water supply.

"This encourages overdrafting," said Glennon. "Each well is like a straw in a glass of milkshake." The Ogallala Aquifer, which underlies the Great Plains of the United States, has been so oversubscribed that farmers there are now returning to dry-land farming. Increasing energy costs of pumping, decreasing water quality, and soil subsidence are also major consequences of groundwater overuse.

The Effects on All Water

But Glennon also illustrated how groundwater pumping is having a deleterious effect on surface waters—-rivers, creeks, estuaries, and wetlands. Groundwater migrates laterally to and from surface water bodies, so unsustainable use of either source affects the other. Large-scale pumping of groundwater for irrigation of cotton in the desert of from springs for bottled water threatens the very hydrological system in many areas. And Glennon argued that water laws written under the reasonable-use doctrine are powerless to stop this degradation.

"The market for bottled water has exploded," noted Glennon. "It's more valuable than milk, oil, gasoline—-more valuable than Coke, because the profit markup is remarkable."

From the Riverwalk in San Antonio (whose water is actually pumped in from the underground Edwards Aquifer) to McDonald's demand for unblemished and uniform French fries (which has spurred irrigation of potato fields in rain-rich Minnesota), Water Follies details the bizarre and unsustainable ways the United States is tapping groundwater. Glennon said that better groundwater use and allocation starts with proper valuation (including increasing water rates) and a shift away from the reasonable-use doctrine, which would facilitate water transfers from low- to high-value uses.

"The structure [for water distribution] is now is based on the cost of service," Glennon said, likening it to pulling into a service station, filling up, but paying only for the electricity to run the pump and not the gasoline itself.

"We need to accept that water is both a public resource and a private commodity," he added. "A combination of the two is the way to go—-the command and control of government rules and regulations with the market forces of transferable rights and price incentives."

Drafted by Robert Lalasz.


  • Robert Glennon

    Professor of Law and Public Policy, University of Arizona