"In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act." -George Orwell

Posts Tagged ‘Water Aquifers’

Pumped Dry: Global Water Crisis Widespread And Worsening With Continued Depletion Of Groundwater

In Uncategorized on December 11, 2015 at 8:11 pm
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Kansas Farmer Jay Garetson said: “Thinking about Jared and the challenges that his generation faces, that’s what leaves you gasping for air. It kind of leaves you at a loss for what to do next,” he said, wiping a tear.

 

Oldspeak: “Expect this existential crisis to intensify as temperatures rise and conditions worsen. Sustainability tipping points have been passed for 21 of 37 of Earth’s largest aquifers.  I would imagine these figures are not taking into account the incalculable and permanent damage being done to our water supplies by our extractive energy and mineral mining practices. This story focuses on the U.S. but this story is being told worldwide, be sure to click on the link to the original story &  check out the stories documenting the carnage in India, Peru and Morocco at the bottom of the article. Hmm, Less water for what’s expected to be 9 billion humans, what’s the worst that could happen!?” -OSJ

 

Written By Ian James and Steve Reilly @ The Desert Sun:

SUBLETTE, Kansas – Just before 3 a.m., Jay Garetson’s phone buzzed on the bedside table. He picked it up and read the text: “Low Pressure Alert.”

He felt a jolt of stress and his chest tightened. He dreaded what that automated message probably meant: With the water table dropping, another well on his family’s farm was starting to suck air.

The Garetson family has been farming in the plains of southwestern Kansas for four generations, since 1902. Now they face a hard reality. The groundwater they depend on is disappearing. Their fields could wither. Their farm might not survive for the next generation.

At dawn, Jay was out among the cornfields at the well, trying to diagnose the problem. The pump was humming as it lifted water from nearly 600 feet underground. He turned a valve and let the cool water run into his cupped hands. Just as he had feared, he saw fine bubbles in the water.

“It’s showing signs of weakening,” he said sadly, standing in the shoulder-high corn.

“This’ll last another five or 10 years, but not even at the production rate that we’re at here today,” he said. “It’s just a question of how much time is left.”

Time is running out for portions of the High Plains Aquifer, which lies beneath eight states from South Dakota to Texas and is the lifeblood of one of the world’s most productive farming economies. The aquifer, also known as the Ogallala, makes possible about one-fifth of the country’s output of corn, wheat and cattle. But its levels have been rapidly declining, and with each passing year more wells are going dry.

As less water pours from wells, some farmers are adapting by switching to different crops. Others are shutting down their drained wells and trying to scratch out a living as dryland farmers, relying only on the rains.

In parts of western Kansas, the groundwater has already been exhausted and very little can be extracted for irrigation. In other areas, the remaining water could be mostly used up within a decade.

The severe depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer is symptomatic of a larger crisis in the United States and many parts of the world. Much more water is being pumped from the ground than can be naturally replenished, and groundwater levels are plummeting. It’s happening not only in the High Plains and drought-ravaged California but also in places from the Gulf Coastal Plain to the farmland of the Mississippi River Valley, and from the dry Southwest to the green Southeast.

In a nationwide examination of the problem, USA TODAY and The Desert Sun analyzed two decades of measurements from more than 32,000 wells and found water levels falling in nearly two-thirds of those wells, with heavy pumping causing major declines in many areas. The analysis of U.S. Geological Survey data revealed that:

  • Nationwide, water levels have declined in 64 percent of the wells included in the government database during the past two decades.
  • The average decline among decreasing wells has been more than 10 feet, and in some areas the water table has dropped more than 100 feet during that period – more than 5 feet per year.
  • For 13 counties in Texas, New Mexico, Mississippi, Kansas and Iowa, average water levels have decreased more than 40 feet since 1995.
  • Nationally, the average declines have been larger from 2011-2014 as drought has intensified in the West. But water tables have been falling consistently over the years through both wet and dry periods, and also in relatively wet states such as Florida and Maryland.
  • Across the High Plains, one of the country’s largest depletion zones, the average water levels in more than 4,000 wells are 13.2 feet lower today than they were in 1995. In the southern High Plains, water levels have plunged significantly more – in places over 100 feet in just 20 years.

Average water level decrease in US counties

In many counties across the United States, groundwater levels have been dropping.

The problem is especially severe in the region that relies on the Ogallala Aquifer.

Aquifers are being drawn down in many areas by pumping for agriculture, which accounts for nearly two-thirds of the nation’s use of fresh groundwater. Water is also being drained for cities, expanding development and industries. Across much of the country, overpumping has become a widespread habit. And while the symptoms have long remained largely invisible to most people, the problem is analogous to gradually squandering the balance of a collective bank account. As the balance drops, there’s less of that resource to draw on when it’s needed.

At the same time, falling groundwater levels are bringing increasing costs for well owners, water utilities and society as a whole. As water levels drop, more energy is required to lift water from wells, and those pumping bills are rising. In areas where aquifers are being severely depleted, new wells are being drilled hundreds of feet into the earth at enormous cost. That trend of going deeper and deeper can only go on so long. When groundwater levels fall to precarious lows and wells are exhausted, farming businesses can suffer. And in particularly hard-hit communities, such as parts of California, homeowners have been left relying on tanker trucks to deliver their water.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the United States is estimated to have lost more than 1,000 cubic kilometers of water from the nation’s aquifers – about 28 times the amount of water that can be held in Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir.

That estimate of water losses from 1900 through 2008, calculated by USGS scientist Leonard Konikow, shows the High Plains has accounted for 35 percent of the country’s total depletion. California’s Central Valley accounted for more than 14 percent, and other parts of the country have depleted the remainder, about half of the total.

In places, water that seeped underground over tens of thousands of years is being pumped out before many fully appreciate the value of what’s lost. The declines in groundwater in the United States mirror similar decreases in many parts of the world.

NASA satellites have allowed scientists to map the changes underground on a global scale for the first time, putting into stark relief a drawdown that has long remained largely out of sight. The latest satellite data, together with measurements of water levels in wells, reveal widespread declines in places from Europe to India, and from the Middle East to China.

“Groundwater depletion is this incredible global phenomenon,” said Jay Famiglietti, a professor of earth system science at the University of California, Irvine, and the senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We never really understood it the way we understand it now. It’s pervasive and it’s happening at a rapid clip.”

Famiglietti and his colleagues have found that more than half of the world’s largest aquifers are declining. Those large-scale losses of groundwater are being monitored from space by two satellites as part of the GRACE mission, which stands for Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment.

Since 2002, the orbiting satellites have been taking detailed measurements of Earth’s gravity field and recording changes in the total amounts of water, both aboveground and underground. Using that data, the researchers have created a global map showing areas of disappearing water as patches of yellow, orange and red. Those “hotspots” mark regions where there is overpumping of water or where drought has taken a toll.

The map shows that, just as scientists have been predicting due to climate change, some areas in the tropics and the higher latitudes have been growing wetter, Famiglietti said, while many dry and semi-arid regions in the mid-latitudes have been growing drier. In those same dry regions, intensive agriculture is drawing heavily on groundwater. And with little rain to recharge the aquifers, their levels are dropping.

“Many of these resources are finite,” Famiglietti said. “It took tens of thousands of years to accumulate this water, and we’re burning through it in a matter of decades.”

In many regions, government agencies and water districts have studied the problem but haven’t taken sufficient steps to manage aquifers or prevent declines.

Alongside climate change, groundwater depletion has become another human-caused crisis that could bring devastating consequences. As aquifers are pushed far beyond their natural limits, water scarcity is battering farms, undermining economies and intensifying disputes over water.

In parts of the southern High Plains, farmers are feeling the effects. Some counties have seen small decreases in population as people have moved away. Local leaders have been expressing concerns about what sorts of businesses can help sustain their economies as water supplies dwindle.

The Kansas Geological Survey has mapped out how much longer the aquifer can support large-scale pumping. It projects that some places still probably have more than a century of water left, but that large patches of western Kansas will go dry in less than 25 years. Some areas will likely run out faster, within a matter of years.

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The green circles of center-pivot irrigation systems stand out in areas where farms rely on water from the High Plains Aquifer. (Photo: Ian James, The Desert Sun)

The Ogallala Aquifer’s decline shows what the world can expect in other areas where groundwater is being quickly depleted, Famiglietti said. “The fact that they’re running out of water means that we will no longer be growing food there, and so where will that food come from?”

In Haskell County, Kansas, windswept fields of sorghum and corn stretch to the flat horizon in a swaying sea. The huge farms, many of them in the thousands of acres, still appear lush and productive. But driving along the arrow-straight country roads, Jay Garetson can point out spots where wells have gone dry – both on his family’s land and other farms.

All that’s left at one of his decommissioned wells is a round metal cover on a concrete slab, with a rusty Frigidaire lying on its side next to it. His grandfather once used the refrigerator to store oil for the pump.

Opening the well’s metal lid, Jay dropped in a rock. It pinged off the steel casing. More than five seconds later, there was faint splash.

“Now the only water it finds is a couple three feet at the very bottom of the well that the pumps can’t effectively access anymore,” Jay said, his voice echoing in the empty well.

He and his brother, Jarvis, drilled this well in the early 2000s when a shallower well failed. It lasted less than a decade, and then it went dry in 2012, forcing them to drill again – this time 600 feet deep, down to the bedrock at the bottom of the aquifer. It’s hard to say how long that well might last.

If the water keeps dropping about 5 feet per year, he said, it might be finished in as few as 10 years.

“Very simply, we’re running out, and it’s happening far faster than anybody anticipated,” he said. “And as optimistic as I’d like to be about the future, the window for that optimism is closing very quickly.”

He put the cover back on the old well, pointing out a tag that was placed on it by a state regulatory agency.

“We’re documenting very well the demise of the aquifer, but we’re not making the real-world changes in the way we manage the aquifer to really do the serious things that need to happen,” Jay said. “We seem to be unwilling to take the necessary steps to actually reduce water usage.”

Jay is an influential farmer and a longstanding member of the Kansas State Board of Agriculture who has been appointed by both Democratic and Republican governors. He has many ideas about how to extend the life of the aquifer, including mandatory water cutbacks that would be shared by farmers. But he has faced resistance from those who oppose mandatory limits.

Over the past five years, the pumping capacity of the Garetsons’ wells has decreased by about 30 percent as the water table has fallen. They’ve been forced to plant less corn and instead more wheat and sorghum, which use less water and bring in smaller earnings.

When Jay’s grandparents drilled wells in the mid-20th century, they were told the water supply was inexhaustible. They had clung to their land through the hardships of the Dust Bowl, when blowing drifts of soil and grit decimated crops and sent many others packing. In the decades that followed, they built a successful business on the water they pumped from the ground.

Since then, numerous studies have shown that the status quo is far from sustainable. Starting in 1986, Congress directed the USGS to monitor and report on changes in the levels of the Ogallala Aquifer, recognizing its economic importance. An estimated 30 percent of the groundwater used for irrigation in the country is pumped from the aquifer. Researchers have projected that without action to slow the losses, the portion of the aquifer in Kansas will be nearly 70 percent depleted within 50 years.

“What frustrates me is with all this knowledge and all this information, we still collectively refuse to act,” Jay said. “I don’t understand how we can all be so lacking in courage when we all can clearly see this is a train wreck happening in slow motion.”

The costs of inaction are visible just down the road, at a farmhouse where Jay lived as a young boy. Today the white house is abandoned. Weeds have grown around the front steps. Scraps of wood lie in a pile on the porch like logs on a campfire.

When the well went dry two years ago, a farm employee was forced to move out. The Garetsons drilled test holes but found no more water to tap.

In the yard, Jay pointed out the spot beneath a dying elm tree where he used to play on the swings. “It’s probably seen its last swing set in the yard,” he said wistfully.

“It’s something I used to read about and study, you know, the Dust Bowl. And you would see these abandoned farmsteads, and now I’m actually seeing it in my own lifetime,” he said. “Now we’re kind of at the end of the tracks here, and the only thing left to do is decide whether we should go ahead and push the house in and burn it, or probably the most painful option in my mind is to stand back and watch time just slowly melt it down.”

The worst-case scenario, he said, is that within a decade many more homes in the area could look just like this one – dry and deserted.

Jay Garetson checks on a well that is starting to weaken as the Ogallala Aquifer declines. Steve Elfers, Ian James

The United States, along with India and China, is one of the largest users of groundwater in the world.

The federal government has estimated that in 2010, the country used 76 billion gallons of fresh groundwater per day. That’s 117,000 cubic feet per second, roughly comparable to Niagara Falls. Wells across the country are pumping out as much water – even slightly more – than the average flow of approximately 100,000 cubic feet per second that tourists see plunging from the top of Niagara Falls.

When groundwater is pumped from wells, some of it is soaked up by plants, some evaporates, some courses through pipes to cities, and some soaks back into the ground. Part of it ends up flowing into the oceans, adding to the global problem of rising seas as glaciers and ice sheets melt.

Most of the planet’s available freshwater lies underground. Aquifers store water like sponges, holding it in the spaces between rocks, sand, gravel and clay. So much water is now being sucked from some aquifers that those underground spaces are collapsing and the surface of the Earth has been permanently altered.

The ground has sunk in parts of California, Texas, Arizona and Nevada, cracking the foundations of houses, leaving fissures in the ground, and damaging roads, canals and bridges. As layers of aquifers gradually subside, their water-storing capacity is irreversibly decreasing.

Groundwater levels have changed relatively little in some of the country’s wetter areas, as rainfall and snowmelt have offset the amounts pumped out. But even in pockets of the Northeast and upper Midwest, there have been significant declines. Average water levels in Cumberland County, N.J., for instance, decreased nearly 6 feet over the past two decades. In Outagamie County, Wis., there was a decline of 6.1 feet.

Elsewhere, there has been significant depletion across entire regions, largely driven by agriculture. Average water levels fell by 5.7 feet across the Mississippi River Valley aquifer system, by 12.6 feet in the Columbia Plateau basaltic rock aquifers of the Pacific Northwest, and by 17.8 feet in some of the Snake River Plain’s aquifers of southern Idaho.

As the nation’s population grows, expanding cities and suburban development are also having an effect. Total U.S. water use has decreased in recent years due to improvements in efficiency and conservation, but the cumulative strains on groundwater have continued to build.

Big drops in water tables have occurred in many parts the country. The U.S. Geological Survey’s data show that individual monitoring wells with water level decreases of more than 100 feet in the past two decades are located in a long list of states: California, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Maryland, Washington, Oregon, Kansas, Iowa, Arkansas, Idaho, Arizona, Louisiana, Colorado, Wyoming and Mississippi.

Saltwater has been seeping into declining aquifers along portions of the Atlantic coast in places such as Hilton Head, S.C. and Savannah, Ga., and beneath coastal cities in Florida such as Jacksonville, Miami and Tampa. When saltwater intrusion taints supplies of drinking water, it can force water districts to use different wells or invest in other costly solutions.

In parts of the desert Southwest and the Great Plains, natural springs that used to gush from the ground have dried up.

There have also been long-term declines in groundwater levels around urban areas including Chicago, Milwaukee, Wis., Long Island, N.Y., Baton Rouge, La., Memphis, Tenn., and Houston.

In each state, the use of groundwater falls under different laws. In many areas, though, the agencies charged with managing water supplies have allowed aquifers to fall into a state of perpetual overdraft, with water levels receding deeper by the year. Even where groundwater regulations exist, pumping often remains largely unchecked.

“Like your bank account, you can’t keep depleting it forever. That’s a non-sustainable condition,” the USGS scientist Konikow said. “Society will have to do something about it. Some areas, they are doing things about it. Other areas, it’s going to kind of slap them in the face at some point as a wake-up call.”

In the farm country of Grant County, Kansas, where grain silos tower over fields that stretch out to a flat horizon, the chamber of commerce hosts an annual dinner that has been a tradition for 53 years. Hundreds of people line up while volunteers dish out local food: barbecued beef, sweet corn, candied squash and prized doughnuts made with milo, another name for sorghum.

The dinner consistently attracts top state politicians. This September, when Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer gave a speech to a packed auditorium, he emphasized the importance of water.

“We all know here that the lifeblood of our land is that Ogallala Aquifer below us,” Colyer said. “We’ve got to rely on that water.”

He said that’s why Gov. Sam Brownback recently launched an effort to develop a “50-year water vision” for the state. Colyer said southwestern Kansas is working to preserve its water, and he pointed to the large cattle industry and the fast-growing dairy business as signs of a bright economic future.

Those applauding at the long tables included Jay Garetson, his wife, Jill, and two teenage sons. But while Jay credits the state government with doing more than ever to focus on water, he’s concerned the consensus-building approach and the voluntary measures being promoted aren’t enough.

In his office, he rolled out a map to explain why. The map is marked with patches of orange and red denoting areas that have relatively little water left. In one of those spots, “right in the bull’s eye,” he pointed to the family’s hometown of Sublette.

The biggest problem, he said, is that no one can slow down the decline alone. And those who try to use less water will have the aquifer pumped out from beneath them by neighbors.

“Everybody’s got a straw in the same soda,” Jay said. “When you have a common resource, and the individual motivations are to accelerate the use rather than to stretch it out over a period of time, the net result is everybody loses.”

The economics of the profit-driven status quo are driving the depletion, he said, and that points to a need for the state and the regional groundwater district to intervene – like a referee in a sporting event that has deteriorated into a free-for-all. He said the referee should “call a timeout.”

Then, he said, “we need to sit down and think about changing the rules.”

Wells have been drawing out less water and going dry in places from eastern Colorado and the Texas Panhandle. Northern portions of the aquifer in Nebraska still have more water remaining, but parts of the southern High Plains have been left with parched fields.

In areas where little water remains, people have been turning to dryland farming, relying on the rains to grow wheat and other crops. That switch leads to sharply reduced earnings per acre. It requires farmers to use much bigger acreages to turn a profit. It means the land will support far fewer farms, and that could bring hard economic times.

Jay’s brother Jarvis explained how profound those changes could be, pausing from his work after changing a flat tire on a center-pivot irrigation system.

“It’s tough to think about what’s been in my family for well over a hundred years not being here in 20. It may mean that my kids or my nephews don’t come back, may not even have a chance if that’s their desire,” he said, his voice quavering. “It’s just tough to think about it not being there. I mean, it’s a way of life.”

Trying to make the aquifer last longer, some farmers have been adopting water-saving irrigation systems. A sign on one highway reads: “Make Every Drop of Water Count.”

Marieta Hauser, a dryland farmer who is director of the Grant County Chamber of Commerce, said she’s concerned about what sorts of businesses could take the place of irrigated farming, which drives the economy.

“Ideally we all want the aquifer to last forever. It’s not going to. We realize that. So what’s the best way to go forward and maintain the viability of our communities and our businesses?” Hauser said. “Those are the discussions that I hear more than anything, is ‘What’s going to happen to our communities when irrigation is not viable?’”

Some towns, such as Ulysses and Johnson City, have been buying water rights from farmers to secure enough drinking water supplies to keep the taps flowing.

One experiment aimed at slashing water use on farms is underway in Sheridan County, in northwestern Kansas, where the state’s first “Local Enhanced Management Area,” or LEMA, was established in 2013. Through that five-year plan, farmers are trying to keep within a “budget” that calls for a 20 percent reduction in water use.

Even as that strategy is showing signs of working, water managers acknowledge it’s not coming close to halting declines in the aquifer. It’s simply buying a bit more time.

Mark Rude, executive director of the Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 3, can put a specific number on the gap between the amounts of water pumped and the quantities of rainfall that recharge the aquifer in an average year: “We’re only about 9 percent sustainable.”

In other words, the people of southwestern Kansas are pumping out 11 times more than the aquifer’s natural recharge. People are barred from adding new wells in the area. If a new well is drilled, it needs to replace another well that is shut down.

In practice, the water rights system doesn’t limit pumping at all. In fact, farmers are using much less than they would be permitted under the system of appropriated groundwater rights, which was established decades ago when water seemed plentiful and flood irrigation was the norm.

“Ultimately, I think, budgeting the aquifer is where any area has to start. How much do you have and how much are you willing to see consumed? That’s always a difficult step,” Rude said. When the water district has held meetings and asked farmers whether they’re in favor of developing a water budget, some have been apprehensive about restrictions or mandates.

While some keep pumping, others are leaving. Within the traditional Mennonite community, elders have begun sending away young couples to settle in other areas such as the Snake River Plain in Idaho, where even though aquifer levels are declining, more water remains. They’re leaving, Rude said, “because as the water supply leaves, the intensity of agriculture leaves, and the job opportunities also leave.”

For every acre that runs out of irrigation water and starts being dry-farmed, the state estimates the economy loses nearly $4,000 a year.

The difference between irrigated fields and dryland farms appears starkly on a large satellite photo on the wall of the water district’s office in Garden City. Patches of brown border the green circles of center-pivot irrigation systems.

Moving a hand across the map, Rude pointed out spots where springs and streams have dried up. One spring was a popular swimming hole half a century ago, he said, and it doesn’t flow anymore.

Decades ago, the Arkansas River used to flow between Garden City and Dodge City. Now all that’s left are scattered patches of reeds in the dry riverbed.

Jay Garetson’s wife Jill, who is a teacher, lived near the flowing river as a child. She has watched it disappear, drained by diversions upstream and the declining water table. As a girl, she used to follow her father into cornfields while he fixed sprinklers. Now he’s out of water and relying on several oil wells for income.

“I don’t think we can continue to do things the way we’re doing them,” she said. “Some serious action has to be taken quickly.”

The Garetsons’ 17-year-old son, Jared, is cautiously assessing the future and thinks it may be difficult to return home to farm after college.

Every year he helps out during the corn harvest, and as a hobby he flies a drone to film the harvester mowing down golden rows. But he said the aquifer now seems like a gas tank with its gauge approaching “E.”

“If we lose the aquifer, we lose probably 80 percent of our crops out here,” Jared said. “If our water supply is shut off, that’s a huge amount of food that we’re going to have to find elsewhere.”

They are a close-knit family, and stories of their farming history are woven into conversations around the kitchen table. It’s a legacy that may be slipping away for Jared.

“I’ve thought, why don’t we just pack up, sell the farm and leave? And we’ll find somewhere else that’s got water and that’s going to continue to have water, where we can build?” Jared said. But that’s a difficult idea for his parents and grandparents to accept. “It’s been our home for 113 years now, and for all that to go away and just stop that, that hundred-year-old investment, and that’d be really hard to just pack up and say goodbye to everything.”

As for Jared’s future, he said in order to make long-term investments in farming, it would be crucial to secure enough water for the next 40 years.

“Until we’ve got our water issue taken care of, then I basically have no future here,” Jared said. “It’s kind of sad, but it’s the harsh reality.”

Large rice farms in the Mississippi River Valley depend heavily on water pumped from wells. So do fields of cotton, soybeans and corn across portions of Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Missouri. The farms are drawing out significantly more than is naturally replenished, and the valley’s alluvial aquifer system has been declining.

“Here, we actually get a lot of rain so you tend to not think of it as being in danger of running low on water,” said Brian Clark, a USGS hydrologist in Little Rock, Arkansas. “But just the sheer amount of use kind of poses that issue.”

Officials in Arkansas, which is the country’s top rice-producing state, are updating the state’s water plan with proposals for coping with a growing “groundwater gap” in the eastern portion of the state. They’ve recommended building infrastructure to make surface water the primary irrigation source for areas that now depend on a declining supply of groundwater.

Other proposed regulatory changes aimed at addressing strains on groundwater are being debated elsewhere, in wet regions as well as dry regions of the country.

In Arizona, state lawmakers have been under increasing pressure to consider groundwater regulations for some of the same rural areas that fought off restrictions about 35 years ago. Some farmers and residents in southeastern Arizona are concerned that unregulated pumping is drawing down groundwater levels, and have been pushing the legislature for action to limit the expansion of irrigated farmlands and begin charging fees for groundwater use.

In Wisconsin, where some people are concerned about farms’ wells drawing down streams and lakes, a bill pending in the legislature would allow state regulators to establish “groundwater protection areas” where there would be tighter permitting rules for new high-capacity wells in order to prevent environmental impacts. The proposed measures would also ease the permitting process for redrilling or repairing existing wells.

In Iowa, growing demands are being placed on the Jordan Aquifer as water is pumped for cities, farms, and industries such as ethanol plants. In June, the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission approved a new rule aimed at limiting pumping. The measures divide wells into tiers based on how much water levels have declined, and lay out procedures for reductions in water use in areas where the aquifer has dropped significantly.

Florida has also faced problems with groundwater declines as expanding development has strained water supplies. As the vast Floridan Aquifer has been drawn down, the amounts of water flowing from some of the state’s natural springs have decreased significantly, altering the sensitive environments where fish, turtles and other wildlife have long flourished.

“We have springs that are going silent because they’re not bubbling with the artesian pressure that they did in the past,” said Robert Knight, president of the Gainesville-based Florida Springs Institute, which advocates reducing the extraction of groundwater to safeguard the natural springs. He pointed out that much of the water pumped from wells is being sprayed on lawns.

As freshwater is pumped out, more seawater has been moving inland underground. And water managers across Florida have been tracking the problem and investing in remedies, including more desalination plants.

The Tampa Bay area built a seawater desalination plant that can churn out 25 million gallons of drinking water a day. The Tampa Bay Water plant, which has been operating since 2008, has helped reduce the stresses on the area’s groundwater supplies. But that has come at a price, with cost of construction alone totaling $158 million.

As the Ogallala Aquifer has declined beneath their land, Jay and Jarvis Garetson have been locked in a bitter dispute with a neighboring landowner over water.

They’re suing the company American Warrior, which owns adjacent farmland, in a case that could set a legal precedent in Kansas.

The case revolves around one of the Garetsons’ wells. They own a vested water right that is one of the oldest in the area, and they have priority under the state’s “first-in-time, first-in-right” system. They’ve claimed “impairment” of that well by two of the company’s nearby wells.

American Warrior holds junior water rights, and a judge issued an injunction temporarily barring the company from using the wells while the case proceeds.

Mike O’Brate, vice president of the family-owned American Warrior, accused the Garetsons of suing out of “greed” and said a lawsuit isn’t the right way to settle the dispute. He said if the Garetsons win, it will set a bad precedent and more suits will follow.

“Everybody will want to file these to shut off their neighbors,” O’Brate said. “Attorneys are going to get filthy rich in a fight over water. It’s not a good thing.”

The Garetson brothers said the 2012 lawsuit was necessary to defend their family’s livelihood.

“The fact of the matter is, we have a vested right to their junior rights, and Kansas water law is very clear,” Jarvis said. “And the sad thing is we had to get the courts involved to make it happen.”

Jay said that in addition to pressing the state to enforce its laws, they hope to call attention to the urgent need for action to preserve the aquifer.

“I guess our family’s decided we’d rather call a question and force everybody to make an informed decision one way or the other than to be complicit in the death of something that didn’t have to go out this way,” he said.

After the lawsuit was filed, the Garetsons faced hostility – even death threats.

As aquifers decline, more legal conflicts are likely to flare up in places across the country. Many disputes have already ended up in the courts.

Mississippi, for instance, is in a long-running legal battle with Tennessee and the city of Memphis, claiming the neighboring state is taking groundwater that belongs to Mississippi. In California, where many aquifers have been divvied up by courts, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians is suing two Coachella Valley water districts in a fight over rights to groundwater.

In Kansas, the state Water Office and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have studied a proposal to build an aqueduct that would carry water from the Missouri River to the High Plains, and have estimated the cost at $18 billion.

When Jay and his family start talking about water, the conversation touches on mega-fixes, such as the idea of building a wind-powered pipeline from the Mississippi River.

In the meantime, Jay holds out hope there is still time to save what’s left and extend the use of the aquifer. “But it’s going to take immediate action and it’s going to take mandatory action, and that’s something that is hard for most of us out here, who are pretty individualistic and self-reliant, to contemplate.”

Any imposed cutbacks would be painful for everyone, though the pain could be spread around, he said. And water credits could be traded, creating a market that would help deal with scarcity and put the limited water toward high-value uses.

Jay sometimes wonders if roadside billboards would help increase the sense of urgency. He envisions signs with cross-section drawings of the aquifer “that show the reservoir declining and force people to admit at least, if we’re not going to act, that it was an informed decision not to act.”

Driving down a dirt road through farmland, Jay talked about what losing the aquifer would mean for his family.

“Thinking about Jared and the challenges that his generation faces, that’s what leaves you gasping for air. It kind of leaves you at a loss for what to do next,” he said, wiping a tear.

Jay said he and his brother keep trying to gain five or 10 years by using a new crop or new irrigation technologies. He said their father, Jesse, encourages them to “keep pushing” and keep praying.

“We’ll succeed somewhere. I just always thought it would be here,” he said as he pulled into his gravel driveway next to a cornfield.

He stood beside the mud-splattered pickup, petting his dog.

“In spite of everything I do and we do, it’s still not enough,” he said, sniffling softly. “My boys and my nephews will never have the … they won’t have the same opportunity.”

He paused, keeping his composure.

“If they stay here, it’ll be a salvage operation. It won’t be an expansion or a growth or an improvement. It’ll be a salvage operation,” he said. “That’s the mentality they’ll have to have – unless everybody can come together. The problem is everybody won’t come together, in my experience, until it’s too late.”

As he began to cry, he walked away.

Ian James reported from Kansas and Steve Reilly reported from McLean, Virginia.

Steve Elfers of USA TODAY, Caitlin McGlade of The Arizona Republic and Chad Gillis of The News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla., contributed to this report.

This special report was produced with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. 

Mega Drought: The New Normal For The American Southwest?

In Uncategorized on July 24, 2014 at 7:10 pm

https://i1.wp.com/www.nationofchange.org/sites/default/files/imagecache/article_main_image/DroughtinCAtoStopFracking012014.jpg

Oldspeak: “As for now, personal bathing in showers in California continues without disruption for the foreseeable future because of advance planning for water shortages by state and federal agencies; however, in many respects the future is now as water resources are running short, quickly, very quickly, and as it happens, America’s dependency upon California for food is only as good as results from drilling into deep water aquifers on farmland, costing $500,000-to-$1,000,000 per job… As it goes, retail food costs are almost guaranteed to go up — a lot… Nevertheless, a much bigger issue is whether California produces food in 2015-20… In short, human influence is once again slowly inching the noose up around its own neck by carelessly burning fossil fuels like there is no tomorrow. At current rates of carbon dioxide emissions, setting new records year-by-year, there may not be much of a tomorrow left for upcoming decades… “Rising greenhouse gases will lead to a steady drying of the Southwest.” –Robert Hunziker

“It’s time for us to wake up. If this drought continues, we’re going to be in a terrible situation within the next 12-24 months… I think it says that this region is in trouble. I think it says that we need to really rethink our water use in this region, our demand in this region because it is far outstripping the supply.” –Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

“i wonder if the relentless and ever-increasing extraction rates of Big Water, Big Ag and Big Oil has been factored into the advance planning for water shortages by government agencies? Business as usual extractive energy and resource extraction all but guarantee America’s foodbasket will go dry indefinitely.  Then what? Keep in mind that what’s happening in the American southwest, is happening in all other food producing regions on the planet…. Tick, tick, tick, tick….” -OSJ

By Robert Hunziker @ Dissident Voice:

According to the Assessment of Southwest Climate Change (Arizona Institute of the Environment), the five decades from 1950 to 2000 were the warmest in over 600 years. The report predicts that reduced snowfall and increased evaporation from global warming will lead to more droughts over the next 90 years.

Droughts are a natural part of the climate cycle. As a matter of fact, studies of tree rings going back 1,000 years show mega droughts lasting for decades. Then, nature alone was the culprit, but what happens now when global warming/climate change is superimposed onto nature’s handiwork?

Is an intensified mega drought in the works for the United States?

California is already burning up.

Markedly, to a great degree, America depends upon California for its food.

“Up to half of the nation’s fruit, nuts and vegetables are grown in the Central Valley, one of the planet’s most fertile growing regions, between Los Angeles and Sacramento.” 1

Furthermore, as an aside, how will someone in LA or San Francisco react when, hopping into an A.M. shower, the water barely dribbles out of the faucet? That would be a new twist for California’s famous “ride-sharing” on its slow-moving heated freeways traveling to and from work.

As for now, personal bathing in showers in California continues without disruption for the foreseeable future because of advance planning for water shortages by state and federal agencies; however, in many respects the future is now as water resources are running short, quickly, very quickly, and as it happens, America’s dependency upon California for food is only as good as results from drilling into deep water aquifers on farmland, costing $500,000-to-$1,000,000 per job.

As it goes, retail food costs are almost guaranteed to go up — a lot.

Nevertheless, a much bigger issue is whether California produces food in 2015-20.

Droughts – A Perspective

Recent studies reveal that persistent dry periods lasting for multiple years to several decades have occurred many times during the last 500-1,000 years over North America… These historic droughts are linked to tropical SST variations, with La Nina-like SST anomalies in the tropical Pacific often leading to widespread drought in North America….

Since the middle 20th century, global aridity and drought areas have increased substantially, mainly due to widespread drying since the 1970s… Although natural variations … have played a large role in the recent drying, the rapid warming since the late 1970s has increased atmospheric demand for moisture and likely altered atmospheric circulation patterns … contributing to the recent drying over land. Since a large part of the recent warming is attributed to human-induced GHG increases, it can be concluded that human activities have contributed significantly to the recent drying trend.

The large-scale pattern shown in figure 11 appears to be a robust response to increased GHGs. This is very alarming because if the drying is anything resembling figure 11 a very large population will be severely affected in the coming decades over the whole United States…. 2

In short, human influence is once again slowly inching the noose up around its own neck by carelessly burning fossil fuels like there is no tomorrow. At current rates of carbon dioxide emissions, setting new records year-by-year, there may not be much of a tomorrow left for upcoming decades.

“Rising greenhouse gases will lead to a steady drying of the Southwest.”3

Droughts- Southwestern U.S.

According to the State Water Resources Control Board, California is bone dry. Nearly 50 communities in the state of California are in danger of running out of water.

Additionally, the draining of aquifers on California farmland is happening so fast that the ground is sinking, up to a foot in some parts of the San Joaquin Valley, which is a very, very significant part of America’s breadbasket. Sinking ground, in turn, damages irrigation pipes that deliver the water. It’s a vicious circle.

A new social media phenomenon “Drought Shaming” has begun in California. This involves people who take videos of neighbors wasting water, and it is posted on Facebook or Twitter.

Meanwhile, in Las Vegas the situation is dire, according to climate scientist Tim Barnett, a geophysicist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography: The city must find new sources of water or go out of business. Vegas’s long-standing standby massive water reservoir of the past 80 years, Lake Mead, is depleting so fast that fishermen notice a difference in the water level every few weeks.

“Andy Ameigeiras and two of his friends spent Wednesday night and Thursday morning hooking carp, catfish and stripers from the rocky shore of Echo Bay. He said the water had easily dropped three to five feet since the last time they fished there, just four weeks ago.” 4

The Southern Nevada Water Authority is spending $817 million on a new intake that will reach deeper into Lake Mead at an elevation of 860 feet. The two current intakes reside at 1,050 feet and 1,000 feet whereas Lake Mead’s water level is currently 1,082 feet.

The ongoing drought in America’s Southwest highlights the importance of the Colorado River, providing water to over 40 million people in the West, including key agricultural production in California’s Coachella and Imperial Valleys, which are extremely important to the food supply for the entire U.S.

According to the U.S. Department of the Bureau of Reclamation, the Colorado River, aka: the “lifeblood of the Southwest,” has experienced drought conditions since the year 2000.

“It’s time for us to wake up. If this drought continues, we’re going to be in a terrible situation within the next 12-24 months,” says Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.5 His research, which uses satellites to track changes in water supplies, has confirmed that the Colorado River Basin has lost vast amounts of groundwater during the past decade.

The fact that Lake Mead is now 39% full shows how dire the water situation has become, according to Famiglietti: “I think it says that this region is in trouble. I think it says that we need to really rethink our water use in this region, our demand in this region because it is far outstripping the supply,”

Further east, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, there are 12 water districts in Texas with only 45 days of water remaining.

Wichita Falls, Texas, a city of 105,000 is building a water treatment plant that will process local sewage into drinking water. As such, residents will be drinking what they passed into the toilet only days before, which is the epitome of recycling!

The Human Footprint Clomps Onward

As the 21st century progresses, human-influenced climate change is forever at the forefront of disaster scenarios, from melting glaciers’ rising sea levels to deformed ocean plankton threatening the base of the food chain as a result of too much CO2, now drought conditions, enhanced by human-caused global warming, threaten food production and adequate water resources.

A recent study provides quantitative evidence of California’s drought linked to the role of human-caused greenhouse gases. 6

As far back as 1990, James Hansen, one of the world’s foremost climatologist, in an article “Potential Evapotranspiration and the Likelihood of Future Drought“, (Journal of Geophysical Research, 95, 9983-10004), predicted that severe to extreme drought in the U.S., then occurring every couple of decades, would become an every-other-year phenomenon by mid-century: “If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase rapidly, the model results suggest that severe drought (5% frequency today) will occur about 50% of the time by the 2050s.”

Hansen was wrong. He was too conservative, especially in consideration of the fact that annual CO2 emissions are 50% higher than when Hansen wrote his paper.

Bottom line: If fossil fuel (oil, gas, and coal) usage flagrantly continues to spew carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, eventually an ice-free Arctic will kick up methane (CH4) like there’s no tomorrow, essentially injecting steroids into the global warming equation, and California will morph into a barren desert wilderness, similar to its ancient past.

Then, as large proportions of humanity are forced into a hunter/gatherer lifestyle, roaming eastward in search of sustenance, they’ll crash the gates.  It happened in France in the late 18th century when the world’s most powerful nation-state came tumbling down as starving people crashed the gates! There is no escaping the past.

Why should it be any different this time around?

As such, the real issue is: When will the United States government seriously promote a renewables energy plan?

Postscript

The greenhouse effect is simple science; greenhouse gases trap heat, and humans are emitting ever more greenhouse gases.

— Nicholas Stern, British economist and academic, Professor of Economics and Government, Chair- Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change/Environment, London School of Economics.

——————————————————————————————————————————–

  1. Stephen Neslage, “California Drought Threatens Food Supply of All Americans: Collapsing Aquifer Sinking Land”, Weather.com, May 29, 2014. []
  2. Aiguo Dai (Ph.D. Atmospheric Science, Columbia University), “Drought Under Global Warming- A Review”, Vol. 2, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, CO, Jan./Feb. 2011. []
  3. Richard Seager et al, “Atmosphere and Ocean Origins of North America Droughts”, Journal of Climate, 27, 4581-4606. []
  4. Henry Brean,”Lake Mead Sinks to a Record Low”, Las Vegas Review-Journal, July 10, 2014. []
  5. Ian James, “Mead Reservoir Drops to Record Low”, The Desert Sun, July 14, 2014 []
  6. S. Y. Wang, et al, “Probable Causes of the Abnormal Ridge Accompanying the 2013-2014 California Drought: ENSO Precursor and Anthropogenic Warming Footprint”, Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 41, Issue 9, May 16, 2014. []

Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history, DePaul University) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide, like Z magazine, European Project on Ocean Acidification, Ecosocialism Canada, Climate Himalaya, Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Comite Valmy, and UK Progressive. He has been interviewed about climate change on Pacifica Radio, KPFK, FM90.7, Indymedia On Air and World View Show/UK. He can be contacted at: rlhunziker@gmail.com. Read other articles by Robert.

 

 

 

Never Again Enough: Goodbye To All That Water; Confronting The New Normal In A Drying American West

In Uncategorized on July 31, 2013 at 5:45 pm

https://i0.wp.com/azbex.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Colrado-River.jpgOldspeak: “The bottom line… is that there simply isn’t enough water to go around. If you want to put your money on one surefire bet in the Southwest, it’s this: one way or another, however these or any other onrushing disputes turn out, large numbers of farmers are going to go out of business.” –William deBuys

“The resource shock that trumps all other resource shocks is already happening. People are right now in a America fighting via litigation for rapidly dwindling water resources. There’s not enough water for everybody. When farmers go out of business as a result of water shortages, there won’t be enough food for everyone. Coupled with the incomprehensible and probably vastly underestimated predicted costs of climate change (60 TRILLION, 10 trillion short of Global GDP), we can expect there won’t be enough food for significantly more than the 1 in 7 of humans who are currently (and needlessly) going without food. At some point, litigation will give way to actual physical violence over vanishing resources in the supposed “greatest country in the world”  Then what? You can’t beat physics.”  –OSJ

“Martha and the Vandellas would have loved it.  Metaphorically speaking, the New York Times practically swooned over it.  (“An unforgiving heat wave held much of the West in a sweltering embrace over the weekend, tying or breaking temperature records in several cities, grounding flights, sparking forest fires, and contributing to deaths.”) It was a “deadly” heat wave, a “record” one that, in headlines everywhere, left the West and later the rest of the country “sweltering,” and that was, again in multiple headlines, “scary.”  The fire season that accompanied the “blasting,” “blazing” heat had its own set of “record” headlines — and all of this was increasingly seen, in another set of headlines, as the “new normal” in the West. Given that 2012 had already set a heat record for the continental U.S., that the 10 hottest years on record in this country have all occurred since 1997, and that the East had its own sweltering version of heat that wouldn’t leave town, this should have been beyond arresting.

In response, the nightly primetime news came up with its own convenient set of new terms to describe all this: “extreme” or “severe” heat.  Like “extreme” or “severe” weather, these captured the eyeball-gluing sensationalism of our weather moment without having to mention climate change or global warming.  Weather, after all, shouldn’t be “politicized.”  But if you’re out in the middle of the parching West like TomDispatch regular William deBuys, who recently headed down the Colorado River, certain grim realities about the planet we’re planning to hand over to our children and grandchildren can’t help but come to mind — along with a feeling, increasingly shared by those in the sweltering cities, that our particular way of life is in the long run unsustainable.” –Tom

By William deBuys @ Tomsdispatch

Several miles from Phantom Ranch, Grand Canyon, Arizona, April 2013 — Down here, at the bottom of the continent’s most spectacular canyon, the Colorado River growls past our sandy beach in a wet monotone. Our group of 24 is one week into a 225-mile, 18-day voyage on inflatable rafts from Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek. We settle in for the night. Above us, the canyon walls part like a pair of maloccluded jaws, and moonlight streams between them, bright enough to read by.

One remarkable feature of the modern Colorado, the great whitewater rollercoaster that carved the Grand Canyon, is that it is a tidal river. Before heading for our sleeping bags, we need to retie our six boats to allow for the ebb.

These days, the tides of the Colorado are not lunar but Phoenician. Yes, I’m talking about Phoenix, Arizona.  On this April night, when the air conditioners in America’s least sustainable city merely hum, Glen Canyon Dam, immediately upstream from the canyon, will run about 6,500 cubic feet of water through its turbines every second.

Tomorrow, as the sun begins its daily broiling of Phoenix, Scottsdale, Mesa, Tempe, and the rest of central Arizona, the engineers at Glen Canyon will crank the dam’s maw wider until it sucks down 11,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). That boost in flow will enable its hydroelectric generators to deliver “peaking power” to several million air conditioners and cooling plants in Phoenix’s Valley of the Sun. And the flow of the river will therefore nearly double.

It takes time for these dam-controlled tidal pulses to travel downstream. Where we are now, just above Zoroaster Rapid, the river is roughly in phase with the dam: low at night, high in the daytime. Head a few days down the river and it will be the reverse.

By mid-summer, temperatures in Phoenix will routinely soar above 110°F, and power demands will rise to monstrous heights, day and night. The dam will respond: 10,000 cfs will gush through the generators by the light of the moon, 18,000 while an implacable sun rules the sky.

Such are the cycles — driven by heat, comfort, and human necessity — of the river at the bottom of the continent’s grandest canyon.

The crucial question for Phoenix, for the Colorado, and for the greater part of the American West is this: How long will the water hold out?

Major Powell’s Main Point

Every trip down the river — and there are more than 1,000 like ours yearly — partly reenacts the legendary descent of the Colorado by the one-armed explorer and Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell. The Major, as he preferred to be known, plunged into the Great Unknown with 10 companions in 1869. They started out in four boats from Green River, Wyoming, but one of the men walked out early after nearly drowning in the stretch of whitewater that Powell named Disaster Falls, and three died in the desert after the expedition fractured in its final miles. That left Powell and six others to reach the Mormon settlements on the Virgin River in the vicinity of present-day Las Vegas, Nevada.

Powell’s exploits on the Colorado brought him fame and celebrity, which he parlayed into a career that turned out to be controversial and illustrious in equal measure. As geologist, geographer, and ethnologist, Powell became one of the nation’s most influential scientists. He also excelled as an institution-builder, bureaucrat, political in-fighter, and national scold.

Most famously, and in bold opposition to the boomers and boosters then cheerleading America’s westward migration, he warned that the defining characteristic of western lands was their aridity. Settlement of the West, he wrote, would have to respect the limits aridity imposed.

He was half right.

The subsequent story of the West can indeed be read as an unending duel between society’s thirst and the dryness of the land, but in downtown Phoenix, Las Vegas, or Los Angeles you’d hardly know it.

By the middle years of the twentieth century, western Americans had created a kind of miracle in the desert, successfully conjuring abundance from Powell’s aridity. Thanks to reservoirs large and small, and scores of dams including colossi like Hoover and Glen Canyon, as well as more than 1,000 miles of aqueducts and countless pumps, siphons, tunnels, and diversions, the West has by now been thoroughly re-rivered and re-engineered. It has been given the plumbing system of a giant water-delivery machine, and in the process, its liquid resources have been stretched far beyond anything the Major might have imagined.

Today the Colorado River, the most fully harnessed of the West’s great waterways, provides water to some 40 million people and irrigates nearly 5.5 million acres of farmland. It also touches 22 Indian reservations, seven National Wildlife Reservations, and at least 15 units of the National Park System, including the Grand Canyon.

These achievements come at a cost. The Colorado River no longer flows to the sea, and down here in the bowels of the canyon, its diminishment is everywhere in evidence. In many places, the riverbanks wear a tutu of tamarisk trees along their edge. They have been able to dress up, now that the river, constrained from major flooding, no longer rips their clothes off.

The daily hydroelectric tides gradually wash away the sandbars and beaches that natural floods used to build with the river’s silt and bed load (the sands and gravels that roll along its bottom). Nowadays, nearly all that cargo is trapped in Lake Powell, the enormous reservoir behind Glen Canyon Dam. The water the dam releases is clear and cold (drawn from the depths of the lake), which is just the thing for nonnative trout, but bad news for homegrown chubs and suckers, which evolved, quite literally, in the murk of ages past. Some of the canyon’s native fish species have been extirpated from the canyon; others cling to life by a thread, helped by the protection of the Endangered Species Act. In the last few days, we’ve seen more fisheries biologists along the river and its side-streams than we have tourists.

The Shrinking Cornucopia

In the arid lands of the American West, abundance has a troublesome way of leading back again to scarcity. If you have a lot of something, you find a way to use it up — at least, that’s the history of the “development” of the Colorado Basin.

Until now, the ever-more-complex water delivery systems of that basin have managed to meet the escalating needs of their users. This is true in part because the states of the Upper Basin (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico) were slower to develop than their downstream cousins. Under the Colorado River Compact of 1922, the Upper and Lower Basins divided the river with the Upper Basin assuring the Lower of an average of 7.5 million acre-feet (maf) of water per year delivered to Lees Ferry Arizona, the dividing point between the two. The Upper Basin would use the rest. Until recently, however, it left a large share of its water in the river, which California, and secondarily Arizona and Nevada, happily put to use.

Those days are gone.  The Lower Basin states now get only their annual entitlement and no more. Unfortunately for them, it’s not enough, and never will be.

Currently, the Lower Basin lives beyond its means — to the tune of about 1.3 maf per year, essentially consuming 117% of its allocation.

That 1.3 maf overage consists of evaporation, system losses, and the Lower Basin’s share of the annual U.S. obligation to Mexico of 1.5 maf. As it happens, the region budgets for none of these “costs” of doing business, and if pressed, some of its leaders will argue that the Mexican treaty is actually a federal responsibility, toward which the Lower Basin need not contribute water.

The Lower Basin funds its deficit by drawing on the accumulated water surplus held in the nation’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead, which backs up behind Hoover Dam. Unfortunately, with the Lower Basin using more water than it receives, the surplus there can’t last forever, and maybe not for long. In November 2010, the water level of the lake fell to its lowest elevation ever — 1,082 feet above sea level, a foot lower than its previous nadir during the fierce drought of the 1950s.

Had the dry weather held — and increasing doses of such weather are predicted for the region in the future — the reservoir would have soon fallen another seven feet and triggered the threshold for mandatory (but inadequate) cutbacks in water delivery to the Lower Basin states. Instead, heavy snowfall in the northern Rockies bailed out the system by producing a mighty runoff, lifting the reservoir a whopping 52 feet.

Since then, however, weather throughout the Colorado Basin has been relentlessly dry, and the lake has resumed its precipitous fall. It now stands at 1,106 feet, which translates to roughly 47% of capacity.  Lake Powell, Mead’s alter ego, is in about the same condition.

Another dry year or two, and the Colorado system will be back where it was in 2010, staring down a crisis.  There is, however, a consolation — of sorts.  The Colorado is nowhere near as badly off as New Mexico and the Rio Grande.

How Dry I Am This Side of the Pecos

In May, New Mexico marked the close of the driest two-year period in the 120 years since records began to be kept. Its largest reservoir, Elephant Butte, which stores water from the Rio Grande, is effectively dry.

Meanwhile, parched Texas has filed suit against New Mexico in multiple jurisdictions, including the Supreme Court, to force the state to send more water downstream — water it doesn’t have. Texas has already appropriated $5 million to litigate the matter.  If it wins, the hit taken by agriculture in south-central New Mexico could be disastrous.

In eastern New Mexico, the woes of the Pecos River mirror those of the Rio Grande and pit the Pecos basin’s two largest cities, Carlsbad and Roswell, directly against each other. These days, the only thing moving in the irrigation canals of the Carlsbad Irrigation District is dust. The canals are bone dry because upstream groundwater pumping in the Roswell area has deprived the Pecos River of its flow. By pumping heavily from wells that tap the aquifer under the Pecos River, Roswell’s farmers have drawn off water that might otherwise find its way to the surface and flow downstream.

Carlsbad’s water rights are senior to (that is, older than) Roswell’s, so in theory — under the doctrine of Prior Appropriation — Carlsbad is entitled to the water Roswell is using. The dispute pits Carlsbad’s substantial agricultural economy against Roswell’s, which is twice as big. The bottom line, as with Texas’s lawsuit over the Rio Grande, is that there simply isn’t enough water to go around.

If you want to put your money on one surefire bet in the Southwest, it’s this: one way or another, however these or any other onrushing disputes turn out, large numbers of farmers are going to go out of business.

Put on Your Rain-Dancing Shoes

New Mexico’s present struggles, difficult as they may be, will look small-scale indeed when compared to what will eventually befall the Colorado. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation expects the river’s 40 million water-users to grow to between 49.3 and 76.5 million by 2060. This translates into a thirst for Colorado River water of 18.1 to 20.4 maf — oceans more than its historical yield of 16.4 maf.

And that’s not even the bad news, which is that, compared to the long-term paleo-record, the historical average, compiled since the late nineteenth century, is aberrantly high. Moreover, climate change will undoubtedly take its toll, and perhaps has already begun to do so. One recent study forecasts that the yield of the Colorado will decline 10% by about 2030, and it will keep falling after that.

None of the available remedies inspires much confidence. “Augmentation” — diverting water from another basin into the Colorado system — is politically, if not economically, infeasible. Desalination, which can be effective in specific, local situations, is too expensive and energy-consuming to slake much of the Southwest’s thirst. Weather modification, aka rain-making, isn’t much more effective today than it was in 1956 when Burt Lancaster starred as a water-witching con man in The Rainmaker, and vegetation management (so that trees and brush will consume less water) is a non-starter when climate change and epidemic fires are already reworking the landscape.

Undoubtedly, there will be small successes squeezing water from unlikely sources here and there, but the surest prospect for the West?  That a bumper harvest of lawsuits is approaching. Water lawyers in the region can look forward to full employment for decades to come. Their clients will include irrigation farmers, thirsty cities, and power companies that need water to cool their thermal generators and to drive their hydroelectric generators.

Count on it: the recreation industry, which demands water for boating and other sports, will be filing its briefs, too, as will environmental groups struggling to prevent endangered species and whole ecosystems from blinking out. The people of the West will not only watch them; they — or rather, we — will all in one way or another be among them as they gather before various courts in the legal equivalent of circular firing squads.

Hey, Mister, What’s that Sound?

Here at the bottom of Grand Canyon, with the river rushing by, we listen for the boom of the downstream rapids toward which we are headed. Sometimes they sound like a far-off naval bombardment, sometimes more like the roar of an oncoming freight train, which is entirely appropriate. After all, the river, like a railroad, is a delivery system with a valuable cargo. Think of it as a stream of liquid property, every pint within it already spoken for, every drop owned by someone and obligated somewhere, according to a labyrinth of potentially conflicting contracts.

The owners of those contracts know now that the river can’t supply enough gallons, pints, and drops to satisfy everybody, and so they are bound to live the truth of the old western saying: “Whiskey’s for drinkin’, and water’s for fightin’.”

In the end, Powell was right about at least one thing: aridity bats last.

William deBuys, a TomDispatch regular, irrigates a small farm in northern New Mexico and is the author of seven books including, most recently, A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest.

USGS Study: Drop In U.S. Underground Water Levels Has Accelerated; 3 Times Greater Than At Any Time In 20th Century

In Uncategorized on May 24, 2013 at 7:00 pm

U.S. Drought Monitor map from March 19, 2013Oldspeak: “Tell your crew use the H2 in wise amounts since/it’s the New World Water; and every drop counts/You can laugh and take it as a joke if you wanna/But it don’t rain for four weeks some summers/And it’s about to get real wild in the half/You be buying Evian just to take a fuckin bathYasiin Bey, “New World Water”
“With the U.S. currently embroiled in historic drought with no end in sight and nearly 80 percent of farmland experiencing drought, this is definitely not good. No surprise, petrochemical/”natural” gas extraction and petrochemical based factory farming are the largest users of water from aquifers. Coincidentally, the process of  extracting of petrochemicals that serve as fertilizer and energy to produce food, has the wonderful side effect of poisoning these same rapidly depleting aquifers with hundreds of secret proprietary “fracking” chemicals that sicken and or kill all life that comes into prolonged contact with them. The burning of these petrochemicals, pollutes the air, and continuously pumps dangerous amounts of  greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which has the nifty side effect of warming the planet to prehistoric levels, causing “less rain and snow filtering underground to replenish what was being pumped out“. Mix it all together and you have a completely avoidable, undeniably man-made slow motion shitshow of a global ecological catastrophe. Human activity is significantly disrupting the water cycle. We are using/poisoning more water than can be replenished naturally. We need to abandon energy and food production that is destroying our water supply.  There’s only so much left. We can’t continue to use water as if it’s supply is infinite. Over 1 Billion have no access to clean drinking water. Count on that number to rise. With that rise will come a rise in disease, as around 80% of all disease in the world stems from unclean water, poor sanitation, or crude living conditions (hygiene). We must put the safety our most vital and indispensable resource ahead of profit.  Water is the Eco-currency we can’t afford to run out of.”

By Deborah Zabarenko @ Reuters:

Water levels in U.S. aquifers, the vast underground storage areas tapped for agriculture, energy and human consumption, between 2000 and 2008 dropped at a rate that was almost three times as great as any time during the 20th century, U.S. officials said on Monday.

The accelerated decline in the subterranean reservoirs is due to a combination of factors, most of them linked to rising population in the United States, according to Leonard Konikow, a research hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey.

The big rise in water use started in 1950, at the time of an economic boom and the spread of U.S. suburbs. However, the steep increase in water use and the drop in groundwater levels that followed World War 2 were eclipsed by the changes during the first years of the 21st century, the study showed.

As consumers, farms and industry used more water starting in 2000, aquifers were also affected by climate changes, with less rain and snow filtering underground to replenish what was being pumped out, Konikow said in a telephone interview from Reston, Virginia.

Depletion of groundwater can cause land to subside, cut yields from existing wells, and diminish the flow of water from springs and streams.

Agricultural irrigation is the biggest user of water from aquifers in the United States, though the energy industry, including oil and coal extraction, is also a big user.

The USGS study looked at 40 different aquifers from 1900 through 2008 and found that the historical average of groundwater depletion – the amount the underground reservoirs lost each year – was 7.5 million acre-feet (9.2 cubic kilometers).

From 2000 to 2008, the average was 20.2 million acre-feet (25 cubic kilometers) a year. (An acre-foot is the volume of water needed to cover an acre to the depth of one foot.)

One of the best-known aquifers, the High Plains Aquifer, also known as the Oglala, had the highest levels of groundwater depletion starting in the 1960s. It lies beneath parts of South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico, where water demand from agriculture is high and where recent drought has hit hard.

Because it costs more to pump water from lower levels in an aquifer, some farmers may give up, or irrigate fewer fields, Konikow said. Another problem with low water levels underground is that water quality can deteriorate, ultimately becoming too salty to use for irrigation.

“That’s a real limit on water,” Konikow said. “You could always say that if we have enough money, you build a desalization plant and solve the problem, but that really is expensive.”

(Reporting by Deborah Zabarenko; Editing by Leslie Adler)