December 14, 2015
Sorry for the delay on updates. We needed a little time to come to grips with the outcome of our efforts and to hold a Board meeting on what the future holds for our organization.
First though, on Monday November 30th, Granite Construction on behalf of the RTC, cut down the Eagle Tree. It is gone. We wanted to let everyone know that while this had been an expected event, it has hit our communities harder than was anticipated. We appreciate all the emails letting us know of your sorrow, and wanted to let everyone know that we share your devastation.
The Board of Directors has met and discussed our steps forward and have determined that we are going to continue to work to preserve what is left of the flood plain, wetlands and open spaces that surround this awful project. We are also continuing to work on items that are related to the SEC that we hope will be beneficial to our communities.
We are working toward, and have taken preliminary steps to have truck traffic not allowed on Pembroke and Mira Loma; we are working toward and have taken preliminary steps to get all areas where mercury is buried under the road marked so that the public is aware where it is; we are working toward and have taken initial steps to require the City to have an "emergency plan" should there be a breach in the above ground mercury storage areas; we are working toward and will be ready to act to restrict further development in the flood plain, and other items.
We hope to continue to have your support in our efforts to get the steps above implemented.
We wanted to let everyone know that we appreciate the continued emails with your support and we will continue to answer all questions that we can, and to let you know that we are still here and still focused on working for protections of the flood plains, wetlands and open spaces despite recent setbacks.
We will let everyone know when future Board meetings come up and we encourage attendance.
Next - below is an extensive email from Pam Galloway sent to Councilwoman Jenny Brekhus on the issue of sustainable water. This is a very long comment but it is worth the read and might be very informative to anyone who does not know the history of the issue of sustainable water in Washoe County.
Please feel free to forward to anyone concerned about Washoe County water and financial resources
Dear Councilwoman Brekhus (Jenny):
I address this to you as you have long been concerned about water issues, I know you, you are responsive and responsible, you give input due consideration, and you are on the TMWA board, you are a professional planner by trade, and as a Reno City Council member have much input on future growth and development.
I first want to publicly thank you for all the time you have taken in recent years to thoroughly examine so many complex issues, take the time to ask high-quality questions, take the time to explain your thinking. I learn a lot by watching you and appreciate your comprehensive look at concerns. This includes your input at TMWA meetings. You ask many good questions.
I am adding Mark Foree to this email, along with some other TMWA board members. I ask that this be added to the official record of plan input, and be forwarded to all TMWA board members and appropriate staff.
Many other concerned residents are being blind-copied. They are among the 121,555 Voices for a Sustainable Washoe County who in 2008 voted yes on WC-3, tying land-use planning to the known, sustainable water supply. Since that time, as you know, our long-term drought has reached serious levels. Many of the key proponents who worked hard for most of 2008 to pass WC-3 have met several times in recent months to share concerns and discuss where we are today. We want WC-3 honored.
Some of the recommendations below are mine alone, some are from others individually, and some enjoy the support of everyone. You may be interested to know that we are Republicans, Democrats, most over the age of 50, and in our various walks of life what we have in common is that every one of us has spent decades of our lives being involved in governments at the local and state levels. We have long memories and much information about what has occurred around here dating back at least to the 1970s. Our backgrounds and areas of expertise are quite varied, so it makes for interesting discussion. I am a print news journalist by trade and not a water expert but have been a student of water for many years. I am better versed in South Truckee Meadows issues than other areas so use this area to make significant points, not to pick on one area. These anecdotes could be coming to other areas near you if people are not attentive. We are borrowing from Peter to pay Paul throughout the land. If groundwater tables continue to drop, more existing residents will need the river.
The list of issues and concerns outlined herein is rather lengthy, but not all-inclusive and definitive or it would become unwieldy. This involves recommending input for TMWA's future plan document, and to the cities of Reno and Sparks especially. (Please note that attached to the bottom of this email is the first in a four-part series being published by USA Today, describing how the nation's ground waters are being depleted rapidly. I add this as I recall someone stating that this is TMWA's concern, too, in our region. As you know, water tables have been dropping significantly around here for some years, such as along north and south sides of Mt. Rose Highway.)
If we were limited to only one recommendation, besides enacting WC-3, it would be that we want cost/benefit analyses affixed to all water infrastructure and other public services going forward. I would add that we want all water rights listed, too. For instance, running a pipeline from the Mt. Rose Highway up high from wells in an area known to have dropping groundwater tables to the south to benefit Sierra Reflections would be prime for a cost/benefit analysis. It is not sufficient to say "future hookups" would pay for this. There are, according to a TMRPA point-and-click map, some 943 homes planned in Sierra Reflections, and they would also need to pay for gas and sewer lines. So who else would be hooked up to this? How much would the future development pay? Would creek and groundwater rights be used for this? What is their perennial yield? Do the creeks ever dry out in the summer? What about downstream holders of the rights? What rights did Sierra Reflections buy, for how much?
(Two more anecdotes: This morning I received a phone call from Las Vegas, directing me to an LVRJ article about next week's special legislative session for Faraday, the Apex electric car company proposal. Previously, it was reported that Faraday wanted taxpayers to foot the bill for $150 million for water lines. This morning's article says no, it will initially pump groundwater. Next, I received an email saying that the Tahoe-Region Industrial Center (TRIC)'s requested need for a $35 million pipeline to ship our gray water to Storey County has fallen into a "Sparks black hole". I have no idea what this means, but these are excellent examples of reported proposals that could put the costs for water lines on the backs of existing residents and ratepayers. We do not want to finance any such pipelines. Developers need to foot the bills for their infrastructure and not keep looking to our state and local coffers. Look what has happened to Reno's financial condition after prior officials ran up all the credit cards for the specially interested. We don't want that.
(Digressing again, while EDAWN has the megaphone hyping that we need to get ready for 50,000 jobs coming here within the next five years, EDAWN needs to also list all existing debt and what will be needed to pay for the associated schools, roads, fire, police, courts, etc. Reno came to the verge of bankrupt status, and it will take decades to pay off existing debt and unfunded liabilities incurred by your predecessors. Some in our WC-3 group asked why we would "soil our own nest" with more debts, more unfunded liabilities, and 741,000 people destroying our quality of life. It is a legitimate question. We are not anti-growth, we are for sustainable growth linked to the water supply. You can quickly come up with $2 billion needed for existing non-water needs, and by adding debt and other needs such as higher education I can easily push that number to $3 billion for local needs, not counting growth. If I did a deeper survey even the $3 billion might be low.) Growth does not pay for itself.
If we had two priorities to offer, our second is that we advocate for "good numbers" -- transparent, accountable, good numbers. For instance, I read in USA Today (see below) that Congress authorized the USGS years ago to check perennial yields in the Midwest. We would urge TMWA, while Harry Reid is still in office, to seek federal funds immediately to examine and update our perennial yields.
Background: Our numbers are outdated in some cases. We are told by water experts that some yields included in the draft TMWA plan may be overly optimistic. Are some tied to mineralized water? Some groundwater rights are linked to wellheads in the former STMGID that were shut down long ago. The rights are parked there because there is no place to put them. As water rights expert Vahid told me long ago, if it is not parked on some wellhead, it goes away. The state water engineer does not consider it viable.
Anecdote: A casino long ago planned for the SE corner of Geiger Grade/S. Virginia Street intersection had some 400-plus acre feet of water rights, and these were parked on a poisonous mineralized well in the Kohl's parking lot which has only recently been shut down. Now the casino has been moved to the SW corner of the intersection (Station, and I have serious questions about whether this is even financially viable anymore) but it has no water rights situated on a viable well. So what to do? Send river? (This originally was approved by BCC only with promises it would be a very low-profile western-themed gaming facility like the Pondera Ranch with pony rides for the kids, not some humungous hotel/casino as John Frankovich keeps describing to you at Reno City Council meetings to justify digital signs and brightness everywhere. But I digress.)
I know for a fact the plan includes exaggerated ground water rights. Or it might have rights that are good terms of solid numbers but are too remote to access. For instance, who would run a pipeline to Bedell Flat to access 60 AF yearly (if that is still a good number)? This is north of Lemmon Valley, in between Red Rock and Warm Springs. This could be for 60 homes with landscape, 120 homes (no landscaping) housing how many people that are now added to your population projections? At what cost to access? You see the problem. One number added impacts all other numbers, leaving residents to think there is no problem supplying water to almost three-quarters of a million people. No. This is not responsible.
I give a shout out to Neoma Jardon for suggesting to TMWA that it consider developing some more worst case drought scenarios -- "variables". Jim Smitherman did state that the numbers do not consider worst case scenarios. I am assuming too, based upon plan wording, that all waters listed are drinkable, and not highly mineralized. One water attorney tried for years to get the county to buy waters to the north that are mineralized. We have and would continue to vehemently oppose this. So we want the "good numbers" to mean drinkable, sustainable water. We would not favor importation projects taking waters from outlying areas. We would not want to count farmland acre feet when it is unknown whether or not a farmer in the future would be willing to convert his land and sell out the affixed water rights. For instance, if I were a farmer in Fallon and I sold my land, it would be to a developer wanting to build a subdivision, not someone in Washoe County taking the water rights and making the land useless.
Anecdote on meaningful, realistic numbers: In 2008, we all agreed that there was enough water (max) to serve a population of 620,000. We of WC-3 were gracious and generous agreeing with this number, not wanting to pick fights with developers or governments over numbers so we chose the high number offered by experts. That said, I want to share that a well-respected water expert sent me an email in 2007 stating this: We really only have enough water for 550,000 total buildout population, the expert stated, but we could get to 620,000 if we took all the water up to the Oregon border, including drying out all the recreation areas, and we took some water rights from the Lake Lahontan area. (As you can see, TMWA's and WRWC's verbiage with a population total of 741,000 becomes questionable and is perceived by experts as overly optimistic, with exaggerated perennial yields. We urge TMWA and WRWC to go back to the drawing board on these numbers.)
These are just a few examples. Some of these numbers need to be revisited.
In sum, we want good, accountable, transparent numbers and explanations now on all sustainable water of drinking quality, taking into account the possibility of long-term drought.
Water experts opine that this notion of a population buildout number of 741,000 served by 183,000+ AF (Western Regional Water Commission) might be exaggerated and does not plan for contingencies. One of my biggest points is that we may have thousands upon thousands of people already here who are on groundwater systems and might clamor to be placed on the river system if the groundwater tables continue to drop. This has already happened in the case of the former South Truckee Meadows General Improvement District (STMGID). Despite the ongoing protests of many citizens for years, too much new development was placed on municipal wells along the Mt. Rose fan, so those who formed the system and paid for it for 40 years were transferred to the river to make way for more development. We cautioned it was not sustainable. We formed a years-long citizens' advisory group working with the county. (I chaired it.) We accomplished much, de-annexed territory to be sustainable, accounted for every drop of water, added more meters and pumps, included future infill, and spent several thousand hours developing a sustainable plan. The final CEO who came in to run DWR ignored all of this. More and more development was put in STMGID or on county municipal wells that should have been placed in TMWA on the river. Unfortunately I was commuting to Washington D.C. for years to care for an elderly grandma and could no longer watchdog STMGID. Of course it is now lost. In recent times neighbors begged me repeatedly to rise up and fight again but I said no, send me the river now. I no longer trust the municipal wells. I know you all are Republicans, I said, but we are in the midst of climate change. One called me late at night and whispered into the phone that he believed me but don't tell anyone because he is a Republican. Humor is important.
We of STMGID are the poster child for what happens when development occurs almost mindlessly without regard to proper planning. What saved us was the river. For others, should this zealous overdevelopment occur, the river might not be nearby and accessible. I recommend, therefore, that the TMWA plan factor in the possibility that all those on these municipal groundwater systems relying on wells could one day need the river instead. This is in keeping with TMWA board discussions and Ms. Jardon's comments.
Subtract all these people from the future population projections as they are already here.
Giving some kudos, I want to publicly acknowledge your tougher public questioning, Jenny, including the costs of this pipeline in the south, Neoma Jardon's request that variable levels of drought scenarios be included in the plan, and Naomi Duerr's shout out for protecting and increasing the tree canopy of the Truckee Meadows. Those of us who paid (in some cases dearly) for water rights affixed to properties need assurances (and the plan does this) that any savings we derive will go to the reservoirs. Many people are skeptical about this, thinking it will be used for new growth. Already it is rumored that the TRIC is on the hunt for water rights to be pumped up into its Storey County industrial center (not gray water but river).
We want WC-3 enacted. Obviously this 56,000+ "approved but unbuilt" number of housing units in Reno is not a good number anymore and I do note regional planners are trying to get their arms around some of this, such as future commercial development. Regional planners need to focus on water more. Reno and Sparks planners, representing about 75% total of the future development, could alter their plans to place "good water rights" alongside development approvals as they occurring. These two should not be considered separately. For instance, when a development project comes to the table, every single developer needs to be asked how many water rights will be needed, what type, what is the source of the type (not Dry Creek Gulch), and is there the promise from TMWA to deliver. If this involves pipelines, is the developer prepared to pay 100% of these costs? What hookup fees will be charged, and to whom? Creeks and streams that dry up in the summertime need to take that into account.
I have quipped that in the Watergate years we used to say, "Follow the money." Now we need to say, "...and the pipelines".
I offer this up because TMWA says it does not get into the development matters, it just issues "will serve" for whatever is in your TMSAs (service areas). Therefore, Reno especially might consider going back to the drawing board and examining all these TMSAs and how much water it would take to serve. Ditto Sparks and county future development. Our elected representatives need to be at the forefront representing the existing taxpayers and ratepayers who do not want to pay the costs of the infrastructure for future development. As occurs in many other places, future development needs to pay for itself. Our budgets are stretched thin, governmental entities have taken on much debt, our property taxes are capped, there is not much other revenue available unless we keep being asked to bond more. Obviously Reno cannot take on more debt, and I would not support the county doing it either. Kudos to Washoe County Manager John Slaughter and others for lowering the county's debt.
Newspaper ads and agenda containing information about bonds being approved need to spell out the amount, what it is to be used for, the percentage rate, total payout costs, etc. These are often worded more vaguely and the reader is clueless about what is being purchased. (Take today's classifieds, for instance.)
Summarizing the highlights, we the Voices for a Sustainable Washoe County who drove WC-3 to a major victory (more than 73% voting in the affirmative), offer these recommendations:
Open, transparent, comprehensive cost/benefit analyses on all projects.
Obtain the services of the USGS, if necessary, to update perennial yield numbers. If not, budget to do this anyway. If we know water rights are sitting on a dead wellhead, delete them. Be honest.
Numbers need to include only what is drinkable, accessible water, and not "maybe in the future". The impression exists that future plans reach to obtain the highest population figures possible to 2035, rather than what is reasonable. We want to preserve our quality of life and not resemble Hesperia, CA. We need to factor in dropping water tables, climate change, global warming, long-term drought, or whatever you want to call "it" that we are experiencing.
Numbers need to subtract any waters involving expensive and/or unethical importation projects. I already have firsthand knowledge about what happens when you try to clean up highly mineralized water. It does not work. We spent at least $1 million, maybe $2 million, trying that in STMGID and it failed. Extracting all the costs became impossible. You can clean up arsenic but not other minerals tied to geothermal. It is hopeless, trust me on this. We are not paying for any more of these cleanup experiments with geothermal. If it worked, there would be ample water everywhere.
Update all "approved but unbuilt" and other planning information so TMWA and TMRPA can plan better. The regional entities only reflect what is being approved at the local level.Reno especially should consider revisiting all its future service areas (FSA) as there are some that are downright scary to contemplate. For instance, anecdotally, lands to the east of Damonte High School up into the Virginia Highlands have no water and the developer does not have the money for any infrastructure. Developers like this cannot ask us to build another Geiger Grade and haul water, sewer, electric, gas, and public services up 6,400 feet into wildlands filled with herds of horses. I don't want to seem a NIMBY, but I am writing only about what I know. Some of these lands are islands, disconnected, and so steep you cannot walk up or down the slopes. Think in terms of the Geiger Grade lookout.
Anecdote #2: How much water can Vidler really deliver? Years ago I added up all the development planned in the North Valleys plus Spring Mountain, in which developers said they were going to use Vidler pipeline water from Fish Springs in the Honey Lake area. The numbers far exceeded the 8,000 AF estimated yield. I totaled all this, sent it to two water experts, and one responded that I was asking very good questions and needed to get answers. I am asking now for the answers. Reno might want to revisit Spring Mountain, for instance, and ask this (Winnemucca Ranch) owner not to count on Reno to supply all the public services for an area 25-30 miles away. This is too far away, too remote, not contiguous, without sufficient water for 12,000 homes. This developer needs to be told he needs to build his own separate town with its own public services. I recommend strongly that you eliminate this from your TMWA or it will sink Reno. Already services such as police and fire are stretched thin over an ever-expanding land mass. I figure 12,000 homes equals at least 24,000 people plus people travelling there to work in gas stations, health clinics, etc. I view it as a small town of 30,000. Not only does Reno need to protect existing property tax payers from this, county and Sparks residents need to be protected from this kind of sprawl draining resources. What experts have told me repeatedly over the years is they fear disjointed, leap frog, disconnected, discontiguous development because the costs of the pipelines alone will bury us in massive debt. I speak out for those in government, or with families in government, or consultants, who do not feel comfortable speaking out for obvious reasons.
(Sidebar: It is my understanding, too, that while Vidler did turn all this over to the county, it will not allow waters other than its own to be put in its pipeline. This could be perhaps to protect it from mineralized waters, or just to be self-interested, I don't know. So if anyone did rely on other waters in the North Valleys, it would have to be placed in another pipeline if this is correct.)
Improve the quality of the information reported to taxpayers. Agenda items need to include more detailed information when millions of dollars' worth of bonds are being issued.
Some citizens feel that TMWA's call for a 10% reduction did not go far enough. I do give a shout out, too, to David Bobzien for calling attention to this. He is a conservation policy expert and was criticized by some TMWA board fellows for opining that TMWA did not go far enough. He had every right to say publicly what many were saying privately. My friends were asking on Day #1 why not 20%? So kudos to David, who has now formed a separate citizens' climate action initiative in Reno. That said, I thought TMWA handled this pretty well, it was well-publicized, the citizens did respond. For those not in TMWA I was impressed that I received a notice after a few months telling me about my usage, commending me for cutting back above the 10%. etc. I commend TMWA, too, for developing a master plan, and making the effort to seek so much community input. It is a good start. The 10% might not have been enough, maybe we all dodged a bullet, but now we know we can at the very least do that. Hopefully El Nino will save us but that is not a good long-term strategy.
Beyond just the water, I think it fair to say we all are concerned about our quality of life here. Everyone wants economic development and jobs, but it needs to be tempered with our limited financial and water resources. We all cherish our natural surroundings, our independent spirits. One consultant came here years ago and addressed public officials, planners, staff. In some government TV program he cautioned the audience not to "kill your golden goose". What we have here is special. We need to guard it by growing sustainably, not greedily.
And Jenny, I give you another shout out for standing up against more billboards, glaring signage, and digital, turning us into more carnival atmosphere in Reno. You have boldly led the charge even though it has cost you politically. This is what I mean about quality of life. And among those who support you and Scenic Nevada in this are many conservative, Republican pro-business types. No one wants our area visually trashed or our limited resources spent unwisely, regardless of political persuasions. Everyone who pushed for more signs and digital talked about money. They did not talk about visual impacts and quality of life, or people being blinded and put in harm's way. So I thank you for standing up for everyone. That is yet another ballot measure in which residents said no to more billboards and elected officials ignored it. Thousands of Reno residents signed a petition opposing a casino on the Mt. Rose Highway and the former mayor and council ignored that, too. The former mayor said, "Those people don't count." Voters said no to the train trench costs which have buried Reno in debt and that too was ignored. Then governments turn around and ask for community input. What?
Hopefully WC-3 won't be ignored. That is my community input (for now). With warm regards, and thanks for your serious consideration of the contents herein,Pamela E. GallowayVoices for a Sustainable Washoe CountyVirginia Foothills
USA TODAY 12/11/15
PUMPED DRYTHE GLOBAL CRISIS OF VANISHING GROUNDWATEROUR WATER IS RUNNING OUTMANY U.S. AQUIFERS IN DECLINE
Ian James and Steve Reilly 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: As the water table dropped, another well on his family’s farm was starting to suck air.The Garetson family has farmed 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, Garetson was out among the cornfields at the well, trying to diagnose the problem. The pump hummed 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 feared, he saw fine bubbles in the water.“It’s showing signs of weakening,” he said. “It’s just a question of how much time is left.”The High Plains Aquifer, which lies beneath eight states from South Dakota to Texas, is the lifeblood of one of the world’s most productive farming economies. In areas where aquifers are being severely depleted, new wells are being drilled hundreds of feet into the earth at enormous cost.Jay Garetson looks into a cornfield next to a pump on his family’s farm in Kansas. He said contemplating the challenges ahead “leaves you gasping for air.”
The aquifer, also known as the Ogallala, makes possible a large share 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.The severe depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer is symptomatic of a larger crisis in the USA and many parts of the world. Much more water is pumped from the ground than can be naturally replenished. 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.
NOT JUST CALIFORNIA
In a nationwide examination, 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. Heavy pumping caused major declines in many areas. The analysis of U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) data reveals that:u Nationwide, water levels have declined in 64% of the wells included in the government database during the past two decades.u 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.u For 13 counties in Texas, New Mexico, Mississippi, Kansas and Iowa, average water levels fell more than 40 feet since 1995.u 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.u 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 more than 100 feet in 20 years.
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, over-pumping has become a widespread habit. While the symptoms have long remained invisible to most people, the problem is analog ous to gradually squandering the balance of a collective bank account. As the balance drops, there’s less to draw on when it’s needed.Falling groundwater levels bring increasing costs for well owners, water utilities and society. As water levels drop, more energy is required to lift water from wells, and pumping bills are rising. Where aquifers are severely depleted, new wells are being drilled hundreds of feet into the earth at enormous cost.
That trend of going deeper can go on only so long. In particularly hard-hit communities in California’s Central Valley, homeowners have been left relying on tanker trucks to deliver water. So much has been pumped from parts of California that the ground has been sinking, causing major damage to roads, bridges and canals. As sections of some U.S. aquifers collapse, their capacity to hold water is permanently reduced.Since the beginning of the 20th century, the USA has lost more than 1,000 cubic kilometers of water from its aquifers — about 28 times the amount of water 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% of the country’s total depletion.The declines in groundwater in the USA mirror 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 dramatic drawdown.
The latest satellite data, together with measurements of water levels in wells, reveal widespread declines from North Africa to India.“Groundwater depletion is this incredible global phenomenon,” said Jay Famiglietti, a professor of earth system science at the University of California-Irvine and 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.”
BEYOND NATURAL LIMITS
The USA is one of the largest users of groundwater in the world. The federal government estimates the country used 76 billion gallons of fresh groundwater per day in 2010. That’s 117,000 cubic feet per second, roughly comparable to Niagara Falls.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 natural limits, water scarcity batters farms, undermines economies and intensifies 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 express concerns about what sorts of businesses can help sustain their economies as water supplies dwindle.In Haskell County, Kan., windswept fields of sorghum and corn stretch to the flat horizon in a swaying sea. The huge farms, many in the thousands of acres, still appear lush and productive. But driving along the country roads, Garetson points out spots where wells have gone dry — on his family land and other farms.All that’s left at one decommissioned well is a round metal cover on a concrete slab. Opening the well’s lid, Garetson 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, 3 feet at the very bottom of the well that the pumps can’t effectively access anymore,” Garetson said.He and his brother, Jarvis, drilled this well in the early 2000s when a shallower well failed. It lasted less than a decade. 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.“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.”
Over the past five years, the pumping capacity of the Garetsons’ wells decreased about 30% 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 Garetson’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 water pumped from the ground.
POCKETS OF DEPLETION
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. About 30% of the groundwater used for irrigation in the country is pumped from the aquifer.Groundwater levels have changed relatively little in some wetter areas as rain and snowmelt offset the amounts pumped out. But even pockets of the Northeast and upper Midwest experienced serious declines. Average water levels in Cumberland County, N.J., 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.Saltwater has been seeping into declining aquifers along the Atlantic coast in places such as Hilton Head, S.C., and Savannah, Ga., and beneath coastal Florida cities such as Jacksonville, Miami and Tampa. When saltwater intrusion taints drinking water, it can force water districts to use different wells or invest in costly solutions such as desalination.There have also been long term declines in groundwater levels around urban areas including Chicago, Milwaukee, Memphis, and Houston. Large rice farms in the Mississippi River Valley depend heavily on water pumped from wells. So do fields of cotton, soybeans and corn across parts of Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Missouri. Farms draw out significantly more than is naturally replenished, and the valley’s alluvial aquifer system is declining.Arkansas, the country’s top rice-producing state, is updating its water plan with proposals to cope with a growing “groundwater gap” in the eastern portion of the state. Officials recommend building infrastructure to make surface water the primary irrigation source for areas that depend on declining groundwater.Regulatory changes aimed at addressing strains on groundwater are being debated elsewhere, in wet regions as well as dry.
In Arizona, lawmakers are under 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 worry about unregulated pumping and are pushing to limit the expansion of irrigated farmlands and to charge fees for groundwater use.In each state, groundwater use falls under different laws. In many areas, agencies charged with managing water have allowed aquifers to fall into a state of perpetual overdraft while water levels recede by the year. Even where regulations exist, pumping often remains largely unchecked.“Like your bank account, you can’t keep depleting it forever. That’s a non-sustainable condition,” USGS scientist Konikow said. “Society will have to do something about it.”
“Very simply, we’re running out, and it’s happening far faster than anybody anticipated.”Jay Garetson