Anthropogenic Basin Closure and Groundwater Salinization (ABCSAL)

Conceptual model of ABCSAL.


Global food systems rely on irrigated agriculture, and most of these systems in turn depend on fresh sources of groundwater. In this study, we demonstrate that groundwater development, even without overdraft, can transform a fresh, open basin into an evaporation dominated, closed-basin system, such that most of the groundwater, rather than exiting via stream baseflow and lateral subsurface flow, exits predominantly by evapotranspiration from irrigated lands. In these newly closed hydrologic basins, just as in other closed basins, groundwater salinization is inevitable because dissolved solids cannot escape, and the basin is effectively converted into a salt sink. We first provide a conceptual model of this process, called “Anthropogenic Basin Closure and groundwater SALinization” (ABCSAL). We examine the temporal dynamics of ABCSAL using the Tulare Lake Basin, California, as a case study for a large irrigated agricultural region with Mediterranean climate, overlying an unconsolidated sedimentary aquifer system. Even with modern water management practices that arrest historic overdraft, results indicate that shallow aquifers (36 m deep) exceed maximum contaminant levels for total dissolved solids on decadal timescales. Intermediate (132 m) and deep aquifers (187 m), essential for drinking water and irrigated crops, are impacted within two to three centuries. Hence, ABCSAL resulting from groundwater development constitutes a largely unrecognized constraint on groundwater sustainable yield on similar timescales to aquifer depletion in the Tulare Lake Basin, and poses a serious challenge to groundwater quality sustainability, even when water levels are stable. Results suggest that agriculturally intensive groundwater basins worldwide may be susceptible to ABCSAL.

Journal of Hydrology

Key Points

  • Groundwater pumping may close a basin, and gradually lead to the accumulation of dissolved solids and hence worsening water quality.
  • For the first time, we describe Anthropogenic Basin Closure and groundwater SALinization (ABCSAL).
  • We develop a method to estimate the rate of ongoing ABCSAL in a groundwater basin, and apply it to California's Tulare Basin.

Conceptual Model

Rich Pauloo, PhD
Data Scientist

My interests include data science, hydrology, geology, physical simulation, building simple solutions to complex problems, and expedition behavior.