Scanlon and her colleagues at the U.S. Geological Survey and the Université de Rennes in France used water level records from thousands of wells, data from NASA's GRACE satellites, and computer models to study groundwater depletion in the two regions.

(For more, see: California readies for water banking)

GRACE satellites monitor changes in Earth’s gravity field which are controlled primarily by variations in water storage. Byron Tapley, director of the university's Center for Space Research, led the development of the GRACE satellites, which recently celebrated their 10th anniversary.

Scanlon and her colleagues suggested several ways to make irrigated agriculture in the Central Valley more sustainable: Replace flood irrigation systems (used on about half of crops) with more efficient sprinkle and drip systems and expand the practice of groundwater banking—storing excess surface water in times of plenty in the same natural aquifers that supply groundwater for irrigation. Groundwater banks currently store 2 to 3 cubic kilometers of water in California, similar to or greater than storage capacities of many of the large surface water reservoirs in the state. Groundwater banks provide a valuable approach for evening out water supplies during climate extremes ranging from droughts to floods.

For various reasons, Scanlon and other experts don't think these or other engineering approaches will solve the problem in the High Plains. When groundwater levels drop too low to support irrigated farming in some areas, farmers there will be forced to switch from irrigated crops such as corn to non-irrigated crops such as sorghum, or to rangeland. The transition could be economically challenging because non-irrigated crops generate about half the yield of irrigated crops and are far more vulnerable to droughts.

"Basically irrigated agriculture in much of the southern High Plains is unsustainable," said Scanlon.

For more information, contact: Marc Airhart, Geology Foundation, Jackson School of Geosciences, 512 471 2241.