2016 Feature, Large Newsroom finalist

Ground Water

A global investigation into the overpumping of groundwater

The Desert Sun

Feature, Large Newsroom


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About the Project

California’s historic drought brought into focus the struggles with limited water supplies that plague the western United States. But in the series “Pumped Dry: The Global Crisis of Vanishing Groundwater,” The Desert Sun and USA TODAY analyzed national and global data on groundwater level measurements to reveal that the thousands of dry wells in California are part of a much bigger problem: Groundwater levels have been dropping in many places around the world due to unsustainable farming practices, misguided policies and a lack of regulation.

This global investigation brought into sharp relief the reasons why overpumping of groundwater has become so pervasive and the devastating consequences for people whose aquifers are being rapidly depleted on four continents.

Ian James, an investigative reporter at The Desert Sun, has been reporting extensively on the drought in California and the West, and he was especially interested in scientists’ recent findings, based on NASA satellite measurements, that aquifers are declining and threatened in many areas worldwide. He proposed a series with an ambitious vision: to investigate the problem globally and report on how it’s affecting people in several of the world’s hotspots of groundwater depletion.

A team of journalists with The Desert Sun and USA TODAY worked on this project, which was supported by a travel grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Over eight months, Ian and video journalist Steve Elfers of USA TODAY traveled to the farmlands of Kansas, California, India, Morocco and Peru. This project involved a tremendous amount of data analysis and legwork poring over scientific studies and government reports.

Ian obtained groundwater data from researchers, NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey and government agencies in each country. He worked with USA TODAY Investigative Reporter Steve Reilly to analyze the data, and their analysis found major declines in groundwater levels across much of the U.S. and in farming regions in India, Peru and elsewhere.

The series’ website showcases the videos and articles, presents potential solutions and illustrates the scale of the problem through interactive maps produced using new NASA satellite data. The maps show large areas around the world where aquifers are in decline. The design of the website and interactives was led by Shawn Sullivan of USA TODAY, while the interactive maps and graphics were created by Mitchell Thorson, Jon Dang and Olga Norwood.

No other news organization has produced such a thorough, wide-ranging examination of the world’s overexploitation of groundwater. The series was original in its scope and depth, and innovative in connecting scientific data with on-the-ground reporting in areas where aquifers have been severely depleted.

The series was the first ever to use global water data from scientists, governments and NASA satellite measurements to present a comprehensive picture of groundwater depletion around the world, and it revealed the failures of many regions to adequately address the problem. The journalists obtained GRACE satellite data from a team of scientists at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and U.C. Irvine, and they used the satellite measurements to map areas where aquifers are declining in the U.S., the Middle East and North Africa, India and South America.

The team obtained measurements of groundwater levels in wells across the United States from a U.S. Geological Survey database. By analyzing the data, they were able to map areas where aquifers are declining, showing how widespread the problem has become. For India, they went through a lengthy process of extracting available regional data from the Central Ground Water Board’s website. Morocco’s water agencies provided data for several monitoring wells. For Peru, the National Water Authority provided groundwater data in response to repeated requests.

The interactive maps produced from GRACE satellite data revealed major hotspots of groundwater depletion around the world. Those maps helped guide the reporting, including decisions about which countries to focus on, and also provided a unifying theme and backdrop that helped tell this global story in a powerful way. The data analysis was primarily conducted in Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Access. A variety of tools were used to create the online visualizations that allowed readers to explore the trends in groundwater depletion across the U.S. and around the world.