Review Paper


, Volume 41, Issue 7, pp 657-669

First online:

The Water Table: The Shifting Foundation of Life on Land

  • Alexander N. GlazerAffiliated withDepartment of Molecular and Cell Biology, University of California Email author 
  • , Gene E. LikensAffiliated withCary Institute of Ecosystem Studies

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Hyperarid, arid, and semi-arid lands represent over a third of the Earth’s land surface, and are home to over 38 % of the increasing world population. Freshwater is a limiting resource on these lands, and withdrawal of groundwater substantially exceeds recharge. Withdrawals of groundwater for expanding agricultural and domestic use severely limit water availability for groundwater dependent ecosystems. We examine here, with emphasis on quantitative data, case histories of groundwater withdrawals at widely differing scales, on three continents, that range from the impact of a few wells, to the outcomes of total appropriation of flow in a major river system. The case histories provide a glimpse of the immense challenge of replacing groundwater resources once they are severely depleted, and put into sharp focus the question whether the magnitude of the current and future human, economic, and environmental consequences and costs of present practices of groundwater exploitation are adequately recognized.


Aquifer Environmental impacts Forest dieback Groundwater dependent ecosystems Water table