Protecting the Earth’s Groundwater

Hydrologist Jay Famiglietti uses scientific data and passionate advocacy to speak for aquifers that are drying up

For decades, Jay Famiglietti, A82, E16P, has been singing a persistent refrain: Freshwater availability on earth is shrinking. A hydrologist who pioneered satellite technology to measure groundwater depletion around the globe, he’s seen constant declines in water aquifers ranging from California to China. 

“Not only are things getting worse, but in some places the pace of decline is accelerating—and that includes California and Arizona,” he says. “We’ve been kicking the can down the road for a long time.” 

Helping a Desert State

In his role as Global Futures Professor at Arizona State University (ASU), Famiglietti now finds himself in a unique position to do something about the challenge of groundwater depletion. Under Governor Katie Hobbs, the state has created the Arizona Water Innovation Initiative, putting money, science, and willpower behind an effort to better manage water in the desert state before it’s too late. Famiglietti is chief scientist for the initiative, so it’s his job to help the state figure out a solution. 

“Right now only 25 percent of Arizona by area has groundwater management, so it’s literally the wild west out here,” Famiglietti says. The initiative will survey the state kilometer by kilometer to examine how agriculture and industry use water, and what strategies to implement to protect it best. “Of course it’s challenging,” he says, “but the exciting thing about it is that from the governor on down, everyone is on board.”

Eye in the Sky

Famiglietti grew up an avid nature lover in Rhode Island and initially planned to become a veterinarian before becoming inspired by the geology classes he took at Tufts. Caught up in the rise of the environmental movement in the 1980s, he turned to hydrology as a way to support clean water, earning a master’s at the University of Arizona and a Ph.D. at Princeton in 1992.

As a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, he became involved in a project pioneered by NASA called GRACE (Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment), which used a pair of satellites to monitor the earth’s environment. Launched in 2002, GRACE measured subtle changes in the earth’s gravitational forces, enabling scientists to track how water moves around the globe—in the ocean, the ice sheets, and on land. A follow-up project launched in 2018 continues to make these measurements today, providing more than 20 years of observational data. 

Famiglietti went on to the University California, Irvine and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he and his research team developed the methods to observe groundwater storage from space using GRACE. This work for the first time provided accurate data on the alarming rate of groundwater depletion across the world’s most vulnerable aquifers. 

A seminal 2009 paper that he co-authored for the journal Nature examined groundwater in India and led to a national hydrological mapping program to better manage water use. In 2014, Famiglietti’s work as both a scientist and an engaging public speaker, appearing on programs including 60 Minutes and Real Time with Bill Maher, supported a citizen-led groundswell to pass California’s landmark Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

In 2019, Famiglietti’s tireless efforts were recognized by Tufts with a Distinguished Achievement Award for alumni. The last few years found him at Canada’s University of Saskatchewan, leading an ambitious countrywide freshwater research program, before moving to ASU in 2023.

Consequences and Accountability 

Agriculture is the culprit for most groundwater depletion, Famiglietti says, accounting for some 80% of the total water withdrawals. “The reason agriculture is where it is in most of the world is because it’s sunny there—but places that are sunny do not necessarily have rain,” he says. That creates an imbalance in which crops use more water than rain returns to underwater aquifers. 

In Arizona, that means alfalfa, cotton, nut trees, and citrus, which compete for scarce water resources with cities and industry such as chip manufacturers, which are flocking to the state. The new initiative will quantify water supply and demand across the state, at the same time exploring strategies to fill the gaps and reverse depletion, including conservation, wastewater recycling, and aquifer recharging techniques that channel rainwater back into the ground. 

“To really make it work, there have to be consequences,” Famiglietti says. “That may mean significant fines, and policies that have teeth, to hold people and industry accountable.” 

If there is any hope in better managing the world’s fragile water systems, he says, it’s in the increasing awareness of the issue across the world; the agreement at the UN’s COP28 climate change summit in Dubai last year for the first time included language on reducing climate-driven water scarcity and increasing water resiliency. “I think—pun intended—there’s a new groundswell of attention,” says Famiglietti, who remains hopeful despite years of challenges on the issue. “What had been a grassroots movement is coming together at the national and international scale. It’s going to take some time, but ultimately groundwater is getting the recognition it needs.”

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