A hydrologist who monitors the world’s water supply using NASA satellites says even with recent heightened awareness, “global water security is at greater risk than is generally recognized.”
Jay Famiglietti, a senior scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. and a professor at the University of California-Irvine, said that 20 of the world’s 37 major aquifers are being depleted, including the Ogallala Aquifer in western Kansas.
“The common issue in over half of the world’s major aquifers is that we use more water than is available on an annual renewable basis, primarily for food production, and we make up the shortfall from groundwater,” he said. “Another common feature is poor management of groundwater. Consequently, many aquifers, such as those in India, the Middle East, and China are being depleted at a very rapid pace.”
Famiglietti will give a talk titled ‘Water, Food and Energy: Interwoven challenges to sustainable resource management,’ as part of the Henry C. Gardiner Global Food Systems Lecture Series, Oct. 3 in Kansas State University’s McCain Auditorium.
Famiglietti’s talk will begin at 7 p.m. Admission to McCain Auditorium is free.
He is the third speaker in the series, which aims to provide science-based education about the global food system. The series allows university students, faculty, staff and Kansas citizens to interact with U.S. and international food industry leaders. Kansas State University and Gardiner Angus Ranch of Ashland, Kan. initiated the lecture in 2015.
“I really focus on the surprising disappearance of groundwater, not just in the American Midwest and in California, but around the world,” Famiglietti said. “I firmly believe that global water security is at greater risk than is generally recognized. I also try to encourage faculty and graduate students to get engaged locally, and to work hard to communicate their key results.”
Using satellites to monitor water on Earth, Famiglietti and his team develop computer models to track how freshwater availability is changing all over the world.
“We are learning much about how patterns of water storage and freshwater availability are changing,” he said. “We hope to develop a very deep understanding of how large scale water management practices like groundwater pumping and reservoir storage are impacting climate, whether they are sustainable, and what the environmental consequences might be.”
Famiglietti said that sustaining agriculture and food production in the future will require much cooperation.
“In my opinion, we need to take a diverse portfolio approach that includes changes on both the supply side and the demand side,” he said. “Recognizing that the era of water abundance is over is a critical first step, so conservation and efficiency are essential and can result in huge water savings.
“From there, changes in water pricing, appropriate crop choices, and joint management of surface and groundwater, just to name a few, should all be up for discussion.”
It’s also not a challenge solely for farmers and the food industry.
“I think that the biggest obstacle to conserving water is a psychological one, at least in the United States,” Famiglietti said. “We need to dispel the myth of limitless water and come to terms with the fact that vast swaths of our country are water limited.  That requires a far higher level of water awareness than we are currently used to. Any technology that can help us better monitor and manage our water budgets, from the home to the farm to the entire state. We all need to become water managers.
“I always challenge my students to focus on these three basics: how much water do we have; how much do we need; and how are both of these changing over time? The answers to these questions are just as important for homeowners as they are for water managers or for big users like the food industry.”
Famiglietti’s lecture will be shown live online, www.k-state.edu/globalfood/lecture-series, beginning at 7 p.m on October 3. Kansas State University also will be tweeting live from the event, using the hash tag #GlobalFoodSystems.
Acclaimed hydrologist to speak Oct. 3 on global water supply