Influence of Groundwater Extraction Costs and Resource Depletion Limits on Simulated Global Nonrenewable Water Withdrawals over the 21st Century

Global groundwater depletion is projected to peak and then decline during this century as costs of using it change.

The Science

Because water is a fundamental human need, estimating future supplies is important. Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) coupled regionally varying groundwater availability and extraction cost estimates with continually adjusted demands for water in a simulation that covered multiple sectors around the world. As groundwater levels dropped, imposing greater capital and energy costs to bring water to the surface, modeled water use sectors responded by drawing from other water resources. These behaviors resulted in a marked peak and decline in the rate of global groundwater depletion.

The Impact

Previously it was assumed that the rate of global groundwater depletion would increase steadily over the 21st century as humans demanded more water—particularly for crop production. This work suggests that groundwater depletion may actually decline, because the increasing costs of pumping will force water users to adapt by turning to less expensive sources, which are often in regions where renewable water remains plentiful.


In many regions of the world, groundwater reserves are being depleted rapidly. This raises concerns for the sustainability of irrigated agriculture and global food supplies. It is therefore important to study groundwater depletion and possible exhaustion of water resources at a global scale. A problem for such analysis is the lack of detailed understanding of when a depleting resource becomes unviable for further exploitation. The question is not simply how much water is physically available; we need to know when the financial costs and environmental effects of extracting more groundwater render the resource unviable for human applications. To study these effects, PNNL researchers employed a global, gridded data set that specifies the cost of groundwater extraction as a function of depletion. Then, using the Global Change Assessment Model (GCAM), they simulated water users as economic decision makers to understand how they would adapt as extraction costs increased. Results indicated that future rates of global groundwater depletion would be heavily moderated by increasing extraction costs. Regions that depleted water to costly levels lost competitive advantage for crop production, which shifted to regions where water resources were less costly and more plentiful. The team concluded that extraction costs must be included in simulations for projections of global groundwater depletion to be reliable.

Principal Investigator(s)

Leon Clarke
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Mohamad Hejazi
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory


This research was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, Biological and Environmental Research through the Multisector Dynamics, Earth and Environmental System Modeling Program.


Turner, S. W. D., M. Hejazi, C. Yonkofski, S. H. Kim, and P. Kyle. “Influence of groundwater extraction costs and resource depletion limits on simulated global nonrenewable water withdrawals over the twenty-first century.” Earth’s Future 7(2),123−135 (2019). [DOI: 10.1029/2018EF001105]