15 May 2009

The West's Achilles Heel

Ground water is important. Californians get 30 percent of their supplies from groundwater in a good year and 40 percent in a drought.

The trouble is that we Californians have no state-wide monitoring or control over ground water withdrawals. That makes it more likely that we will have unsustainable, tragedy-of-the-commons-style overdrafting of groundwater. (Read this and this.)

For evidence, check out DWR's ground water report [PDF], and note two things: it's as of March 25, which is BEFORE peak summer demand, and it's comparing ground water levels to levels during the past droughts, not a "normal" year. Ouch!

Although things are looking grim in CA, I thought that the situation in other western states was better. After all, they "managed" their ground water, right?

Well, kinda.

When I visited Arizona recently, I learned about their active management areas (AMAs). The good news is that they cover about 15% of the land and 80% of the people. AMA borders are drawn (roughly) on watershed lines, and water rights can be traded within, but NOT between, AMA areas.*

The bad news is that AMAs do not regulate private wells that pump less than 35 gallons/minute. Since that works out to about 55AF/year, that's a LOT of water from ONE well -- and Arizona has thousands! Apparently, these wells are the key to "uncontrollable" development, AND they are politically untouchable. (Some people say that developers control Arizona.)

In areas with shallow water tables, water managers try to limit the impact of these wells by offering cheaper access to centralized water supplies. (The real estate meltdown and cost of thousand-foot wells slows drilling elsewhere.)

Bottom Line: Out of the frying pan and into the fire: First regulate groundwater, then regulate wells!
Addendum (30 June 2013): I forgot to add the other problem: AMAs allow pumping offsets within the "same watershed," i.e., water can be taken from one location if it's recharged at another location within the watershed. That's all, as far as administrators are concerned, but it doesn't mean that the physical water resources are offset. That depends on aquifer dynamics!


WaterSource said...

If the experience of the last 45 years is any indication, groundwater regulation in CA will come about much like the Court Order to curtail diversions for the Delta Smelt and soon to come Order to adhere to the legal provisions that are in place when northern CA counties demand their water which has historically been delivered to Southern CA.

Except for those areas where CA can substantiate and proclaim designated ground water basins (designated by law), all groundwater will be adjudicated as TRIBUTARY to surface streams and in the EXISTING priority system.

Therefore, eventually in times of shortage, the WELLS WILL BE ORDERED TO BE SHUT-OFF. If CO is any example, this process will take about 40 years. This is exactly what has happened on the South Platte, Arkansas and Rio Grande Rivers in CO. There is no where near enough augmentation water available to keep most of the wells from being turned off permanently.

There will be exceptions such as the exempt domestic wells (exempt from administration by law because of a presumption of non-injury. ( New Mexico has this exemption.)

CA, NV and the Bureau of Reclamation have been offered for confidential investigation and verification, a truly new NON-TRIBUTARY fresh water Source that can yield a million acre feet each year, be stored in times of plenty in the available air-space in existing reservoirs like Lake Mead.

Development of the Source will not damage the environment or the water rights of anyone, anywhere !

CA's Achilles Heel is her short sightedness to look into the future when conservation and desalination will not be enough to satisfy her basic water requirements ...

WaterSource waterrdw@yahoo.com Retired Water Rights Analyst

Leif said...

I think this is the Achilles Heel of water management in many places. Goverments are loathe to attepmt to regulate private wells and it may not be practical even if the political were there in the general population. I think other mechanisms need to be employed to limit development in water stressed areas if it's not practical to force everyone to be on a municipal supply.

WaterSource said...

Response to Wall Stree Journal article: Rising Calls to Regulate California Groundwater

Only fools and angels dare wade into the groundwater arena…

In 1969 CO declared that wells were TRIBUTARY to the surface streams ( except designated groundwater basins & exempt domestic wells) and as such were to be administered in the priority system according to prior appropriation doctrine. It has taken 40 years for the law to be enforced and now the wells of the South Platte, Arkansas and Rio Grande River basins either have to augment their depletions or SHUT-OFF !

The wells were simply depleting the water available for the older senior surface water rights. It was the senior water right owners that eventually convinced the administrators to protect their vested water rights.

Eventually, groundwater depletions in CA will get severe enough that CA too will have to decide if its water rights are subject to a prior appropriation doctrine or riparian ( take what you want from under your own land).

A truly new fresh water NON-TRIBUTARY Source has been offered for confidential investigation & verification to CA, NV and the Bureau of Reclamation that can yield ONE MILLION acre feet each year for storage in existing reservoirs like Lake Mead or in the groundwater aquifers. Development of the Source will not damage the environment or the water rights of anyone, anywhere because the water is NON-TRIBUTARY to all CA streams.

With coordination and cooperation among governmental agencies ( the angel part), the Source could be developed so that NO POWER is required to deliver the water and the delivery system could be kept Quagga Mussel free.

CA may soon come to realize that her water, like her economy, needs to be protected with resources that are REAL and in perpetuity. Conservation efforts and desalination are to be encouraged, but long term, a vast natural resource of one million acre feet each year should not be ignored.

WaterSource waterrdw@yahoo.com Retired Water Rights Analyst

Mister Kurtz said...

We have had a Division of Oil and Gas in California since 1915, and they do an excellent job of regulating oil and gas wells; everything from requiring monthly production reports to ensuring that groundwater is not polluted. On the basis of the public information they provide, mineral owners can verify that their property is being operated in accordance with sound practices that do not waste the resource. I don't know what the agency's budget is, but i don't think it is huge; at least some of the cost is covered by an assessment (not a severance tax)on production. They are highly regarded for integrity and professionalism both inside of and outside of the industry. It does not take a huge leap of the imagination to see such a model extended to groundwater.
Of course, because the substances coming out of oil and gas wells are deemed *valuable*...

J said...

Simple. Water is a valuable resource, can be sold to consumers, so it must have a price and be taxed. People may have "a right" to extract water, but they must pay for the water, which is not free.

All wells must have a permit and a flow meter installed, and the operator must pay for each cubic meter extracted.

That is how we do in Israel.

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