A new study from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) reveals troubling news: The aquifers that millions of Americans rely on for freshwater are being depleted at an accelerating rate. In fact, aquifer depletion in the years between 2004 and 2008 was nearly triple the historical average.

Population growth and increasing demand—in particular for irrigating crops—are straining these underground freshwater sources. In many cases, aquifers have accumulated over the course of millions of years.

There are two lessons we take away from this USGS study:

  1. Growing demand is increasingly coming into conflict with our finite global water supply. Even in places that are historically water-abundant, growth in water demand is outstripping available supply. (That’s why WRI’s Aqueduct project focuses on water stress – the ratio of water supply and demand – more than measures of water quantity.)
  2. There’s still a lot we don’t know about water. While new research like this report from USGS expands our understanding of the complex interaction between water supply and demand, it often raises as many questions as it answers. How has the picture changed in the United States since 2008? What is the condition of other aquifers around the world? Good data on water is tough to find, and the groundwater hidden beneath our feet is particularly enigmatic. Even the cutting-edge research underlying Aqueduct’s groundwater stress map (see below) is limited to major aquifers, leaving substantial parts of the globe’s groundwater resources uncharted. For the communities and businesses worldwide that depend on groundwater, this lack of data poses a significant risk.

As with any complex challenge, data and comprehension is the first step towards finding a solution to our shared water resource challenges. WRI’s Aqueduct project and new studies like the recent release from USGS bring us closer to a more complete picture of water scarcity worldwide.