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Potential Adoption of Managed Aquifer Recharge Systems in the Corn Belt Region

Philip Gassman and Adriana Valcu-Lisman

Managed aquifer recharge (MAR) is a technique for improving groundwater recharge and maintaining aquifer levels to support water storage for water treatment systems and irrigation for agricultural production or other water needs. MAR is an effective buffer against future fluctuations in water demand, drought, and climate change. MAR systems include bank filtration, infiltration ponds/galleries, percolation tanks, and aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) wells (Page et al. 2018; Dillon et al. 2019; Alam et al. 2021). In the United States, MAR system use has increased for several reasons including water shortages, greater need for reliable seasonal water sources, and favorable costs (Bray 2020; Page et al. 2018; Pyne 2005). Dillon et al. (2019) report that average annual total MAR volume in the United States was 2,569 million cubic meters (MCM)/year in 2015. However, wider adoption of MAR systems has been hindered by uncertainty in determining appropriate site conditions and MAR method (Alam et al. 2021), lack of economic data (Maliva 2014), and legal, policy, and/or environmental issues (Bray 2020).

ASR wells (see figure 1) are the most widely adopted type of MAR system in the United States (Jennings et al. 2021), and consist of a single well that is used to: (a) inject water into an aquifer for storage; and, (b) retrieve the stored water to supply drinking water or meet other needs. The highest use of ASR wells has been documented in Florida, California, New Jersey, Arizona, and Oregon (Bloetscher et al. 2014), primarily for municipal purposes. The most advanced ASR system in the Corn Belt region is five wells (see table 1) managed by Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) and City of Ankeny Water Utility within the DMWW water supply system that serves 500,000 customers in central Iowa (Gassman 2021).

Figure 1
Figure 1. Schematic of injected treated recharge water, storage in a confined aquifer with surrounding buffer zone and native (original) ground water, and recovery of recharged water during high demand periods for an ASR system.
Source: TRWD (2021).
Table 1. Well Owner, Name, Drilling Date, and Depths for DMWW/Ankeny ASR Well Clustera
Geosam # Well owner Well name Drilling date Bedrock depth (ft) Well depth (ft) Total depth (ft) Recharge rate (gpmb) Production Capacity (MGDb)
59746DMWWLP Moon ASR11/04/20041152,6742,6741,7253.0
63127DMWWMcMullen Treatment Plant ASR12/20/2006502,5182,5181,7253.0
81129DMWWArmy Post Road ASR Well01/29/2016282,5252,5251,7253.0
12574City of AnkenyWell #4 (ASR #1)c06/22/19611402,5222,715737 to 7701.5d
64763City of AnkenyWell #6 (ASR #2)c03/12/20082702,5302,5301,195 to 1,2153.0d
aSource: IDNR (2020a; 2020b).
bgpm = gallons per minute; MGD = million gallons per day.
cWell #4 and well #6 are the names used by the City of Ankeny Water Utility (Buckner 2020).
dActual productions levels: 1.32 MGD for well #4 and 2.7 MGD for well #6 (Buckner 2020).

Implementation of MAR systems for agricultural purposes has been more limited across the United States. Several MAR systems focused partially or completely on agricultural applications have been developed in semi-arid or arid regions in the US Southwest. For example, the Central Arizona Project (CAP) water banking system diverts >1,850 MCM of Colorado River water annually (depending on availability), to recharge aquifers in support of the Phoenix and Tucson metropolitan areas, irrigated agriculture, and sovereign Native American Nations (Megdal, Dillon, and Seasholes 2014). Several different recharge methods are used as part of the CAP system including infiltration (spreading) basins, injection wells, infiltration galleys, and in-channel recharge (Megdal, Dillon, and Seasholes 2014). Infiltration basins, likely the first MAR system used in California (Dahlke et al. 2018), have been used since the 1960s to recharge aquifers in the Central Valley of California (Scanlon et al. 2016) (see figure 2). In the far western Corn Belt region, irrigation canals or wetlands are being used in three Nebraska Natural Resource Districts (NRDs) to recharge aquifers for irrigation purposes and also provide baseflow to the Platte River to support ecological streamflow levels (Gibson and Brozovic 2018).

Figure 2
Figure 2. Spreading (infiltration) basins used in Kern County, California, at the southern end of the Central Valley region to recharge aquifers used for groundwater sources.
Source: Austin (2021).

Economic issues

Extensive literature exists that demonstrates the advantages and benefits of MAR schemes in the space of water resource management (e.g., Pyne 2005; Scanlon et al. 2016; Page et al. 2018; Dillon et al. 2019; Alam et al. 2021; Jennings et al. 2021). However, the literature focused on supporting MAR economic feasibility is relatively limited, which may be one reason that explains the lack of wider implementation of MAR systems (Maliva 2014). As with any investment project, MAR benefits and costs need to be assessed and quantified in monetary terms. Furthermore, a feasible economic project requires that the monetary benefits are at least as large as the monetary costs. Given the multitude of MAR schemes, any economic assessment should consider the unique characteristics of the scheme such as soil characteristics, aquifer storage capacity, the water resource location and use, and land use constraints, etc.

The costs of MAR schemes can be broadly categorized as capital and investment costs and operational and maintenance costs (Maréchal et al. 2020). Capital costs can include costs of preliminary studies, the cost of buying land, and construction costs. In contrast, operation costs consist of maintenance costs, pre and post-treatment costs, and other annual expenses. Ross and Hasnain (2018) find that the costs of MARs are affected by several additional factors—the source of end-user water and water treatment costs, the range of objectives that a scheme has to meet, the scale of the project and its economies of scale, the operating scheme period and frequency utilization, hydrological setting, soil and aquifer characteristics, and the percentage recovery from storage.

The benefits of a MAR scheme derive from the primary purpose of the scheme (i.e., ensuring groundwater sustainability over time and for later use). Thus, measuring the benefits translates into monetizing the value of water stored and managed with the aquifer. However, water is a public good with no close substitutes. The value of water depends on time, circumstances, availability, and water preferences. In addition to the direct use value (the actual use of groundwater for commercial purposes), the water provides benefits from indirect use (the benefits from using ecosystem services provided by groundwater) and the option value (the value ensuring the option of using groundwater in the future). The direct use values can be quantified via the prices observed in the markets. However, the non-direct use values are difficult to measure in terms of market and non-market valuation techniques, such as contingent value or hedonic property value.

Several types of economic analyses can be conducted to evaluate potential MAR systems (i.e., cost-effectiveness and lifecycle analysis). However, the most robust and comprehensive economic analysis is the cost-benefit analysis (CBA) based on the assessment of both market and non-market benefits and costs. The most robust and complete economic analysis of a MAR project considers both the market benefits, non-market benefits, and related costs when possible. CBA uses the net present value method, where the project’s lifetime monetary benefits and costs are discounted to reflect the individuals’ time preference.

The CBA should be extended by a risk or sensitivity analysis that considers the risks and uncertainties of a MAR project related to the CBA’s inputs and assumptions regarding either the benefit side (i.e., the anticipated future demand for water use is not realized) or the project’s physical and technical aspects (e.g., the recharge source is not sufficient to meet the anticipated aquifer levels, the system has a low recovery efficiency, there is a high contamination risk). Successful economic analyses rely on understanding the extent of water demand and its uses, considering possible environmental implications, and including the cost efficiency relative to alternative water resource projects with a similar goal.

Other issues and future considerations

MAR methods can provide environmental benefits including removal of pathogens within filtration systems (Weiss et al. 2005), elimination of most environmental disturbances associated with surface water storage systems (Bray 2020), and prevention of saltwater intrusion into coastal aquifers using ASR wells (Page et al. 2018; Bray 2020). However, MAR systems can also manifest serious environmental problems. For example, ASR well drilling and injection processes can result in the release of arsenic and/or other minerals, resulting in the aquifer water becoming contaminated (Bray 2020; Jennings et al. 2021). ASR well clogging can also occur due to mineral or chemical contamination (or other problems), which can undermine the use of the well and also contaminate the aquifer (Bray 2020). These specific ASR-related problems have resulted in dozens of US ASR wells being abandoned or rendered inactive, including two ASR projects that were never completed in the Upper Midwest located near Green Bay, WI and Milford, IA (Jennings et al. 2021). Other environmental challenges might arise from changes in volume and flow of the rivers used as recharging sources, thus affecting the water quality and quantity available for local ecosystems (i.e., affecting the water temperature for fish habitat) (Stone et al. 2016). Beyond this, there are additional legal and policy-related issues that can pose serious obstacles towards the goal of implementing ASR and other MAR projects (Bray 2020).

Despite the economic, environmental, and other existing issues, MAR systems will likely attract growing attention due to projected climate stresses and population growth that could create increasing pressure on drinking water and irrigation demand, which will further strain US water resources. In the United States, MAR systems have been typically used in areas where water is scarce but have a reduced scale and scope in the Corn Belt region (Jennings et al. 2021). However, MAR projects have been successfully established in the Midwest to manage surpluses of water when available and make it available for later use by storing it in underground aquifers, as demonstrated by the DMWW ASR wells (table 1) and Nebraska NRD systems. It is likely that in-depth analyses of both hydro-technical aspects and socio-economic-ecological impacts will be required to support increased future adoption of MAR schemes in the Corn Belt region. MAR-related economic modeling, such as that described by Tran, Kovacs, and West (2020), and MAR-related hydrological modeling, such as that described by Niswonger et al. (2017), could prove to be important components of MAR development strategies in the Midwest, along with standard hydrologic, chemical, and geologic assessments required for implementation of MAR systems.

The findings and conclusions in this publication are those of the author(s) and should not be construed to represent any official USDA or US government determination or policy. Author Valcu-Lisman was employed by Iowa State University when this research was conducted.


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Suggested citation

Gassman, P. and A. Valcu-Lisman. 2021. "Potential Adoption of Managed Aquifer Recharge Systems in the Corn Belt Region." Agricultural Policy Review, Spring 2021. Center for Agricultural and Rural Development, Iowa State University. Available at