Woman looking out over a beautiful lake in the mountains

There is a finite amount of freshwater on the Earth’s surface, but there are an estimated 360,000 births every day. The planet’s population is rapidly increasing while the amount of water we can use stays the same.

Actually, the amount of freshwater we have for the world’s population is decreasing. How can this be? The answer is complex and involves many interlinked processes primarily caused by human activity, from urbanization to pollution. Water sustainability is more crucial than ever to safeguard the main sources of freshwater we access daily to irrigate our crops, manufacture our clothes, and simply drink to survive.

Two factors that aggravate water scarcity are groundwater depletion and saltwater intrusion. Keep reading for a breakdown of these forces and what you can do about them.

What Is Groundwater Depletion?

Groundwater depletion is a relatively simple concept with far reaching implications. Groundwater depletion is the long-term decline in groundwater levels due to overuse and sustained groundwater pumping.

Dry cracked soil

What Is Groundwater?

Groundwater is the largest source of usable freshwater on the planet. In the United States your drinking water either comes from surface water (lakes, rivers, and streams) or groundwater. Groundwater accounts for 30% of Earth’s freshwater, while 68% of the remaining freshwater is frozen in ice caps, glaciers, and permanent snow.

Groundwater is found underground in porous rock, soil, and sand. A large deposit of groundwater is called an aquifer. In many of our blogs we report on groundwater aquifers that have been depleted in drought-prone regions.

The area where groundwater fills an aquifer is called the saturation zone, and the top of this zone is called the water table. The water table of an aquifer can be located just a few feet below the ground or it can be located hundreds of feet down.

Groundwater depletion is large-scale problem because it represents a water supply for an area becoming unviable. For example, if severe groundwater depletion occurs in a dry state in the Southwest and the aquifer is not replenished, eventually there will not be a financially sound source of drinking water for that area. When groundwater and fresh water supplies run out, a mass migration will happen as people move to an area where drinking water is obtainable.

Groundwater supplies drinking water for 51% of the U.S. population and 99% of the rural population. Groundwater is integral for agricultural and industrial uses — 64% of our yearly groundwater withdrawals are used to water crops.

Filling a glass of with tap water
Commercial farming sprayer

Effects of Groundwater Depletion

When groundwater is depleted faster than it is replenished several adverse environmental effects occur that threaten the groundwater supply for future generations. The most common effects of groundwater depletion are:

Porus stone material

Ground subsidence — when porous aquifers are depleted of groundwater they become full of holes, like a sponge. Groundwater often acts as structural support, and when it is gone the ground can collapse and compact. The ground “dropping” can cause structural damage, but more importantly once ground subsidence occurs the aquifer can no longer store water because the ground has been compacted. As groundwater depletion happens around the water ground subsidence prevents many groundwater aquifers from being repleted with water.

Ground water pump

Lowered water tables — Groundwater depletion can cause the water table, or the top of the aquifer, to move further below ground. When this happens many wells can no longer access the groundwater. When the water table lowers well owners will have to lower their pump, deepen the well, or drill a new well entirely.

Machine drilling a new well

Increased costs — As the water table lowers the water yield rate can decline. The water must be pumped higher to reach the surface, and more energy is needed to pump the water lower in the ground. This results in increased costs, with some wells becoming too expensive to remain viable.

Polluted water with oil slick

Reduced water quality — As aquifers levels go down so does the general quality of the water being pumped. Rising levels of salinity, grit, and contaminants are observed in water from aquifers where groundwater has been depleted. One of the reasons for this dip in quality is saltwater intrusion, which we discuss below.

Causes of Groundwater Depletion

Construction of new appartment buildings

In plain terms, groundwater depletion is caused by overuse of groundwater. As populations increase and urban areas develop more water is needed for public consumption, agriculture, and industrial use. Sustained groundwater pumping results from overuse due to rising populations and lax water regulations.

Climate change will accelerate groundwater depletion in the near future. Rising ocean temperatures and glacial melting will cause the sea-level to rise, increasing the risk of saltwater intrusion. The frequency and intensity of floods and droughts will increase, putting more pressure on public water supplies and forcing municipalities to pump more groundwater during crisis events.

Much of the groundwater that is depleted is “fossil water.” Fossil water is a term for groundwater that was first deposited millennia ago and cannot be replenished by natural means. When these groundwater sources are drawn from there is no feasible way for the water to return. Reasons for this include:

  • Lack of rainfall in the area
  • Impermeable geographic barriers, like heavy clay
  • Human activity, like paving an area with concrete

Groundwater depletion is more likely to occur in areas experiencing water scarcity.

Water Scarcity Facts

Water scarcity is one of the most common issues in rapidly-urbanizing areas in China, India, and other developing nations. It also affects areas all over the country, from Nevada to Florida.

The causes of water scarcity are straightforward. The world population is rapidly growing, and urban areas are being developed to deal with this increase. In addition, freshwater is polluted by commercial activity like agricultural or industrial runoff, and by natural disasters. Many local and national governments do not prioritize water conservation, which leads to rapid consumption of limited resources.

Here’s what you need to know about water scarcity:

Two times

The global water consumption rate is double the rate of population increase.

1.8 billion

By 2025 the demand for drinking water will be more than 150% of the available supply. This will leave 1.8 billion people living in water-scarce conditions.

One third

One-third of the world’s large groundwater aquifers are being rapidly depleted by human consumption.


The main culprits of this depletion are unsustainable groundwater pumping from non-renewable resources (what we referred to as fossil water) and increased urban development.

Water scarcity and groundwater depletion are among the most serious environmental problems we face today. Conserving freshwater and protecting existing aquifers are top priorities for water professionals and climate scientists. As homeowners we need to be aware of the real potential for shortages of groundwater depending on where we live, and how we can combat the rapid depletion of our groundwater aquifers.

What Is Saltwater Intrusion?

Saltwater intrusion is one of the most serious effects of groundwater depletion and water scarcity.

As sea levels begin to rise, coastal regions become more prone to flooding. Saltwater intrusion happens when flood water or ocean water penetrates aquifers that have been depleted of groundwater. This process is irreversible, forever contaminating groundwater aquifers with saltwater.

An SUV drives through a flooded roadway

Under natural conditions the barriers between saltwater and freshwater tend to be stable, but when excessive groundwater is pumped out of the ground saltwater can migrate inland and upward, contaminating at-risk water supplies and causing more problems for coastal communities. When groundwater is depleted it creates a cone-shaped depression in the ground that can reverse the flow of groundwater, pulling in the nearby saltwater to fill the cracks and holes left by the freshwater.

States that are most susceptible to saltwater intrusion include Florida, Texas, and California, where the nearby ocean, droughts, population booms, groundwater depletion, and potential for flooding all combine to create a real risk of saltwater intrusion and resulting water scarcity.

Florida is particularly affected by saltwater intrusion. If you live in Florida schedule an in-home service appointment to meet with one of our experts and assess the current quality of your water.

Saltwater Intrusion Solutions

Saltwater intrusion lowers the amount of available freshwater in aquifers, as it contaminates groundwater with saline water that is not able to be consumed.

Industrial water treatment plant

One possible solution for this problem is desalination. Desalination plants are facilities designed to treat seawater and convert it into drinkable freshwater to be delivered to your tap.

It sounds like a great solution! However, there are two main problems with desalination. One — the process is incredibly expensive, as the technology is still being developed and refined. Two — desalination plants produce more toxic waste brine than originally anticipated. A comprehensive study found that a desalination plant creates 1.5 times the amount of brine as it does drinkable water, creating 51.8 billion cubic meters of brine per year around the world.

Metal pipes leaking water

One global solution that is better for long-term protection of our groundwater is to practice smarter water treatment. The efforts focused on desalination are indicative of large-scale water scarcity problems caused by overuse, greed, and mismanagement of water resources.

Ways that individual families can make a difference include conserving water in their home and installing water treatment systems that do not introduce salt into the environment.

Water Softener Alternative

with Salt-free Technology

Installing a water softener alternative system is a terrific choice for families who are experiencing hard water and increased sediment in their drinking water due to groundwater depletion and other factors.

By choosing a water softener alternative from Pelican Water you can reduce your hard water scale at home without generating any salty brine. Salt-free systems are a better choice for the environment — salt-based water softeners create mineral-heavy wastewater that is discharged into the water supply and should be avoided.

In addition to removing minerals and sediment from your water, water softeners also have the added benefits of conditioning your water, reducing buildup, and saving you money on your electric bill. Learn more about the benefits of water softener alternative.

Outfit your home with any of the following systems based on your family’s needs:

Pelican NaturSoft® Water Softener Alternative: our flagship product conditions your water and is available in multiple sizes depending on the amount of bathrooms you have in your home. This softener is only intended to treat water hardness, and does not filter out other contaminants. Certified at 99.6% for limescale prevention, the NaturSoft® softener is the premium maintenance-free water softener available, complete with a warranty.

Water Softener Alternative & Filter Combination Systems: equip your home with the most complete salt-free hard water treatment capabilities while also protecting your home from bacteria and common contaminants with carbon and sediment filters. Free shipping comes standard on our most comprehensive family of products that provide fresher, cleaner drinking water. Compare our Basic, UV, and Pro UV systems to learn more.

Have Questions?

If you have any questions about our products or about protecting your family from saltwater intrusion and groundwater depletion contact a Pelican Water specialist today.