United States legislative sessions loaded with water bills; new study shares global problems

Mar 1, 2013

Water bills are a hot topic in the legislative sessions across farm and ranch country, and in several states, the water wars are heating up.

In Montana, one of the state’s bills, Senate Bill 19, allows developers to escape state review of the effects of large-scale groundwater use in new subdivisions—which occurs when they use large, easily monitored centralized wells—by sanctioning the clustering of an unlimited number of exempt wells. The cumulative effect of developments with many exempt wells can reduce groundwater recharge of connected trout streams. The loophole also can harm irrigators with senior water rights in connected streams that are already overused, which is primarily why agricultural groups oppose the bill.

Ariel Overstreet-Adkins, director of communications for the Montana Stockgrowers Association, said SB 19 passed third reading in the Senate, 26-24, last Wednesday. “[Montana Stockgrowers] will work to kill the bill in the House,” she added.

Overstreet said a House bill that was almost identical to SB 19, HB 561, was voted down by the House on a 33- 67 vote the same day.

The bill, supported primarily by Realtors and developers, codifies a loophole in the state’s groundwater permitting system. This loophole allows unlimited use of so-called “exempt” groundwater wells, which individually cannot exceed 30 gallons per minute or 10 acre-feet a year.

Key points of the opposition include:

• It sanctions unlimited use of groundwater without any determination of how it will affect senior water right holders, such as local irrigators.

• It will result in depletions of local streams where existing users already have water rights.

• It will reduce streamflows in important fisheries.

Alternatives to the bill have been offered that ensure future groundwater development can occur, but on an orderly basis without loopholes that can harm existing users.

The bill “will define combined appropriation for exempt wells. This bill puts a bad existing DNRC [Department of Natural Resources and Conservation] rule into law by defining a combined appropriation as ‘water… from two or more wells… that are physically connected into the same system.’ This definition is the status quo that has incentivized the use of individual exempt wells over community water systems or connecting to municipal water systems for residential development. The expansion of the use of exempt wells in high-growth areas, where all surface water rights have been appropriated, has already caused problems for senior water right holders in some areas,” according to Sen. Bradley Hamlett.

In water-deprived Colorado, House Bill 1130 is making waves through the ag industry.

According to Republican State Rep. Clarice Navarro, HB 1130 seeks to extend the operation of interruptible water supply agreements in Colorado. “Because of the arid nature of our state, the Legislature entrusts the Colorado water courts to oversee the decreed water rights in order to ensure that people with junior water rights are treated equitably with those who have senior water rights,” she wrote.

Basically, the bill would change the system to favor large cities, at the expense of rural Colorado, Navarro said.

She said the bill gives the Colorado water engineer the ability to grant interruptible supply agreements in three-year increments outside of court oversight for up to 30 years. Only after the state engineer has made a determination can someone appeal to water court.

“This simply entrusts the state engineer with more authority, and it will lead to rural Coloradans losing the water to large, metropolitan areas of the state,” according to Navarro.

In Texas, a group is working to get legislators to take two billion dollars for the Texas Rainy Day Fund and put it toward water projects.

The Texas State Water Plan has been described in media reports as a $53 billion wish list, full of local projects, proposed by regional water districts.

The 2013 Texas Ag Water Forum met last week to look at options to fund the plan and try to come up with solutions. Agricultural groups worry that their water needs might be sidelined this legislative session.

A current Senate bill designates 10 percent of the money for rural use, but a similar House bill does not. The feeling among many of those at the forum was that both bills should set aside funds for rural projects.

Global water changes

While the water wars continue in the U.S., a new study sheds light on changes that could affect agriculture on a larger scale, despite U.S. agriculture’s plight to create backup plans for drought-stricken areas.

A new study using data from a pair of gravity-measuring NASA satellites finds that large parts of the arid Middle East region lost freshwater reserves rapidly during the past decade.

Scientists at the University of California, Irvine (UC Irvine), NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, CO, found during a seven-year period beginning in 2003 that parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran along the Tigris and Euphrates river basins lost 117 million acre feet (144 cubic kilometers) of total stored freshwater. That is almost the amount of water in the Dead Sea. The researchers attribute about 60 percent of the loss to pumping of groundwater from underground reservoirs.

The findings, published Friday, Feb. 15 in the journal Water Resources Research, are the result of one of the first comprehensive hydrological assessments of the entire Tigris-Euphrates- Western Iran region. Because obtaining groundbased data in the area is difficult, satellite data, such as those from NASA’s twin Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites, are essential. GRACE is providing a global picture of water storage trends and is invaluable when hydrologic observations are not routinely collected or shared beyond political boundaries.

“GRACE data show an alarming rate of decrease in total water storage in the Tigris and Euphrates river basins, which currently have the second fastest rate of groundwater storage loss on earth, after India,” said Jay Famiglietti, principal investigator of the study and a hydrologist and professor at UC Irvine. “The rate was especially striking after the 2007 drought. Meanwhile, demand for freshwater continues to rise, and the region does not coordinate its water management because of different interpretations of international laws.”

Famiglietti said GRACE is like having a giant scale in the sky. Within a given region, rising or falling water reserves alter earth’s mass, influencing how strong the local gravitational attraction is. By periodically measuring gravity regionally, GRACE tells us how much each region’s water storage changes over time.

“GRACE really is the only way we can estimate groundwater storage changes from space right now,” Famiglietti said. The team calculated about one-fifth of the observed water losses resulted from soil drying up and snowpack shrinking, partly in response to the 2007 drought. Loss of surface water from lakes and reservoirs accounted for about another fifth of the losses. The majority of the water lost— approximately 73 million acre feet (90 cubic kilometers)—was due to reductions in groundwater.

“That’s enough water to meet the needs of tens of millions to more than a hundred million people in the region each year, depending on regional water use standards and availability,” said Famiglietti.

Famiglietti said when a drought reduces an available surface water supply, irrigators and other water users turn to groundwater supplies. For example, the Iraqi government drilled about 1,000 wells in response to the 2007 drought, a number that does not include the numerous private wells landowners also very likely drilled.

“Water management is a complex issue in the Middle East—an area that already is dealing with limited water resources and competing stakeholders,” said Kate Voss, lead author of the study and a water policy fellow with the University of California’s Center for Hydrological Modeling in Irvine, which Famiglietti directs.

“The Middle East just does not have that much water to begin with, and it’s a part of the world that will be experiencing less rainfall with climate change,” said Famiglietti. “Those dry areas are getting dryer. The Middle East and the world’s other arid regions need to manage available water resources as best they can.”

Study co-author Matt Rodell of Goddard added it is important to remember groundwater is being extracted unsustainably in parts of the U.S., as well.

“Groundwater is like your savings account,” Rodell said. “It’s okay to draw it down when you need it, but if it’s not replenished, eventually it will be gone.” — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor