Encyclopedic data on world geography strikingly illustrate the drastic inequity in the distribution of the world's water supply. About 97 percent of the total volume of water is in the world's oceans. The area of continents and islands not under icecaps, glaciers, lakes, and inland seas is about 57.5 million square miles, of which 18 million (36 percent) is arid to semiarid. The total world supply of water is about 326.5 million cubic miles, of which about 317 million is in the oceans and about 9.4 million is in the land areas. Atmospheric moisture is equivalent to only about 3,100 cubic miles of water.
The available and accessible supply of ground water in the United States is somewhat more than 53,000 cubic miles (about 180 billion acre ft). The amount of fresh water on the land areas of the world at any one time is roughly 30,300 cubic miles and more than a fourth of this is in large fresh-water lakes on the North American Continent.
Annual recharge of ground water in the United States may average somewhat more than 1 billion acre-feet yearly, but the total volume of ground water in storage is equivalent to all the recharge in about the last 160 years. This accumulation of ground water is the nation's only reserve water resource, but already it is being withdrawn or mined on a large scale in a few areas.
The principal withdrawals of water in the United States are for agriculture and industry. Only 7.4 percent of agricultural land is irrigated, however; so natural soil moisture is the principal source of agricultural water, and on that basis agriculture is incomparably the largest water user. In view of current forecasts of population and industrial expansion, new commitments of water for agriculture should be scrutinized very closely, and thorough justification should be required. The 17 Western States no longer contain all the large irrigation developments. Nearly 10 percent of the irrigated area is in States east of the western bloc, chiefly in several Southeastern States.
Ground water is not completely 'self-renewing' because, where it is being mined, the reserve is being diminished and the reserve would be renewed only if pumping were stopped.
Water is being mined at the rate of 5 million acre-feet per year in Arizona and 6 million in the High Plains of Texas. In contrast, water has been going into storage in the Snake River Plain of Idaho, where deep percolation from surface-water irrigation has added about 10 million acre-feet of storage since irrigation began.
Situations in California illustrate problems of land subsidence resulting from pumping and use of water, and deterioration of ground-water reservoirs due to sea-water invasion. Much water development in the United States has been haphazard and rarely has there been integrated development of ground water and surface water. Competition is sharpening and new codes of water law are in the making. New laws, however, will not prevent the consequences of bad management. An important task for water management is to recognize the contingencies that may arise in the future and to prepare for them.
The three most important tasks at hand are to make more efficient use of water, to develop improved quantitative evaluations of water supplies arid their quality, and to develop management practices which are based on scientific hydrology.
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USGS Numbered Series
Water management, agriculture, and ground-water supplies