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Linking groundwater use and stress to specific crops using the groundwater footprint in the Central Valley and High Plains aquifer systems, U.S.

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Abstract

A number of aquifers worldwide are being depleted, mainly by agricultural activities, yet groundwater stress has not been explicitly linked to specific agricultural crops. Using the newly developed concept of the groundwater footprint (the area required to sustain groundwater use and groundwater-dependent ecosystem services), we develop a methodology to derive crop-specific groundwater footprints. We illustrate this method by calculating high-resolution groundwater footprint estimates of crops in two heavily used aquifer systems: the Central Valley and High Plains, U.S. In both aquifer systems, hay and haylage, corn, and cotton have the largest groundwater footprints, which highlights that most of the groundwater stress is induced by crops meant for cattle feed. Our results are coherent with other studies in the High Plains but suggest lower groundwater stress in the Central Valley, likely due to artificial recharge from surface water diversions which were not taken into account in previous estimates. Uncertainties of recharge and irrigation application efficiency contribute the most to the total relative uncertainty of the groundwater footprint to aquifer area ratios. Our results and methodology will be useful for hydrologists, water resource managers, and policy makers concerned with which crops are causing the well-documented groundwater stress in semiarid to arid agricultural regions around the world.

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