A decade ago, reports began emerging of a strange occurrence in the Saudi Arabian desert. Ancient desert springs were drying up.
The springs fed the lush oases depicted in the Bible and Quran, and as the water disappeared, these verdant gardens of life were returning to sand.
“I remember flowing springs when I was a boy in the Eastern Province. Now all of these have dried up,” the head of the country’s Ministry of Water told The New York Times in 2003.
The springs had bubbled up for thousands of years from a massive aquifer system that lay underneath Saudi Arabia. Hydrologists calculated it was one of the world’s largest underground systems, holding as much groundwater as Lake Erie.
So farmers were puzzled as their wells dried, forcing them to drill ever deeper. They soon were drilling a mile down to continue tapping the water reserves that had transformed barren desert into rich irrigated fields, making Saudi Arabia the world’s sixth-largest exporter of wheat.
… A Saudi banker turned water detective put together the pieces in 2004 and published the now seminal report “Camels Don’t Fly, Deserts Don’t Bloom.” Elie Elhadj’s investigation revealed the culprit: Wealthy farmers had been allowed to drain the aquifers unchecked for three decades.
Beginning in the late 1970s, Saudi landowners were given free rein to pump the aquifers so that they could transform the desert into irrigated fields. Saudi Arabia soon became one of the world’s premier wheat exporters.
And, as to California?
For the past two years, stories similar to Saudi Arabia’s have been bubbling up in the Central Valley, which produces about 10 percent of America’s agriculture. Wells are going dry, farmers are forced to chase water ever deeper underground, and the ground is sinking.
California scientists warn that they have little idea how much groundwater is left, or how long it would take aquifers to refill even if all the pumping stopped now.
Some California aquifers have been so depleted by irrigated farmland that the state is now pumping water that trickled down more than 20,000 years ago. Rainwater won’t recharge these ancient aquifers. When it’s gone, it’s gone – at least for the next 800 generations or so.