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Shrinking groundwater supplies: a need for reforms?

This country’s excessive use of underground water resources has created “an environmental catastrophe,” and “significant reform” is necessary to prevent further degradation of rivers, streams, lakes, wetlands, and estuaries, says Robert Glennon.

The University of Arizona Morris K. Udall Professor of Law and Public Policy, who spoke at the Intelligent Use of Water Summit at Pasadena, Calif., is the author of Water Follies: Groundwater Pumping and the Fate of America’s Fresh Waters.

“For domestic purposes alone, groundwater use jumped from 2.9 trillion gallons in 1965 to about 6.8 trillion gallons in 1995 — about 24,000 gallons for every man, woman, and child.”

But the overall pumping was even greater, Glennon noted. For all purposes, it amounted to nearly 28 trillion gallons in 1995. Two-thirds of that was used for crop irrigation.

“Groundwater withdrawals actually exceeded surface water diversions in Florida, Kansas, Nebraska, and Mississippi.”

In the United States, more than half the population relies on groundwater for drinking water.

The legal system has fostered the increasing use of groundwater, he said, by developing two sets of rules for allocating rights to divert water from rivers and lakes, and a completely different set of rules for controlling groundwater use.

“When U.S. courts developed groundwater laws in the 19th century, hydrology was an infant science…Since then, the laws in most states has not kept pace with advances in hydrology…and have failed to conform with physical reality.”

Under the doctrine of “reasonable use,” a landowner may pump as much water as desired, which in many areas has resulted in overdrafting or “mining” groundwater resources.

As water is pumped from deeper levels, well drilling costs increase, energy costs escalate and water quality may decline due to naturally-occurring elements such as arsenic, radon, and fluoride, or increased salinity.

Groundwater pumping can have “minimal to catastrophic” impact on surface water, including lakes, ponds, rivers, streams, springs, wetlands, and estuaries, Glennon said.

An example: “The Santa Cruz River in Tucson (Ariz.) was once a verdant riparian system, with a lush canopy provided by cottonwood and willow trees. Groundwater pumping has lowered the water table, drained the river of its flow, killed the trees, and driven away the local wildlife. The river has become an oxymoron — a dry river, a pathetic, desiccated sandbox.”

In Arizona, he said, groundwater pumping has dried up or degraded 90 percent of the state’s once perennial desert streams, rivers, and riparian habitats.

Florida, one of the wettest states in the nation, with an average of over 54 inches of rainfall annually, extremely high water tables, enormous aquifers, and surrounded on three sides by ocean, has seen enormous increases in groundwater withdrawal, with a drying-up of many lakes and ponds.

Even the bottled water craze has had an impact on groundwater, Glennon noted, with millions of gallons being pumped from underground springs that, in many cases, are critical to the health of streams, lakes, and rivers.

There is urgent need for reform of legal rules governing groundwater, he says, noting that current laws “encourage exploitation of the resource…by permitting the pumping of enormous quantities, regardless of the impact.”

As U.S. water use spirals upward, Glennon says, “We must begin to rethink the economic structure by which we value, and usually undervalue, our water resources. At the same time, we must act to protect our rivers, springs, wetlands, lakes, and estuaries from groundwater pumping.”

Because groundwater moves so slowly, it often takes years of pumping for the impact to become apparent. “The hidden tragedy and irremediable fact is that groundwater pumping that has already occurred will cause environmental damage in the future.”

Nature has “enormous regenerative capacity,” Glennon said, but needs help through “charting a new course for the future, based on wise policies, and a commitment to stay the course. It can be done, and state and local governments must play a critical role.”

Any meaningful reform must do two things, he says: “Protect the rights of existing users by creating quantified water rights that are transferable and therefore valuable, and break free of the relentless cycle of increasing use by placing restrictions on individual freedom to pump groundwater.”

Also, Glennon suggests:

• States should foster a market in water rights by allowing the easy transferability of rights from existing users to newcomers.

• States should carefully craft water conservation standards. But, he notes, if states attempt to impose elaborate, detailed standards, “The regulated groups will fight tooth and nail over every sentence in the proposed regulation. The lesson is that it is better to embrace simple conservation standards that are easy to administer and implement. They are likely to have the most practical effect in terms of actually saving water, and will avoid prolonged political struggle.

• States should establish minimum stream flows and protect those flows from pumping of hydrologically connected groundwater.

• States should prohibit the drilling of new wells in areas that are hydrologically connected to surface flows. “They can make the ban on wells near watercourses turn on a hydrologic analysis of the particular region, or they can use a bright-line rule that simply prohibits drilling wells within, for example, a mile of a river.”

• States should require any new pumper to offset or mitigate the impact on the environment. “It makes no sense to allow developers to drill new wells in an aquifer already under stress.”

• Through local governments, states should use financial incentives as a significant part of water policy. “Quite simply, we are not paying the true cost of water…Our habits of water use will not change until the cost rises sufficiently to force an alteration. We must increase water rates so all users pay the replacement value of the water…”

• Whenever a water rights transfer occurs, states should require that a small percentage of the water be dedicated for environmental purposes.

• Both state and federal governments should commit resources to purchasing and retiring groundwater rights in order to protect critical watersheds and habitat. “Congress should create a program funded by federal tax dollars to reward states that protect their environments from groundwater pumping.”

The impact of groundwater pumping on the environment is enormous, Glennon says, “and it is getting worse. As the drought that is gripping the country continues, cities, farmers, and homeowners are scrambling in search of additional water supplies…Well drilling businesses around the country are booming.

“Drought has prompted the media to pay remarkable attention to water issues — yet none of the stories, to my knowledge, has mentioned the environmental consequences of groundwater pumping.”

The Intelligent Use of Water Summit, hosted by Rain Bird Corp., included representatives from academia, public/private water agencies and municipalities, media, government, landscape architecture, and agriculture.

e-mail: [email protected]

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