Thursday, September 24, 2009

Water and Groundwater in the West

One of the most important elements of the ecosystem is potable water. Without water there can be no life. Water is needed for drinking, bathing, to support irrigated agriculture, industry and maintain the ecology of the earth. People’s lives and livelihoods depend on water. Demand for clean water generally increases with population growth, but not always in a straight line affected by factors such as conservation efforts and industrial and agricultural balance. As seen in the US Geological Survey Circular 1268 above, from 1950-2000 daily water use increased from approximately 175 billion gallons a day to 260 billion gallons a day, however; the peak water use was in 1980 at 280 billion gallons a day. Based on the 2000 data from the US GS, 65 billion gallons a day of fresh groundwater used daily in the United States.

The legal and institutional systems for managing and protecting groundwater resources are complex; and are often separate from parallel systems for governing surface waters, even though ground and surface waters may be interconnected. In the west settlement and then development evolved in tandem with water laws. A more arid portion of the country, the west is straining at what appear to be the limitations of its water supply. Unfortunately, when the water laws governing the west were created the interrelationship of groundwater and surface water was not understood. So the governance schemes were different. Surface water in the western sixteen states was governed on a priority scheme. Appropriations are allocated based on when they first began receiving water. Early on in most western states access to groundwater basins was minimally restricted by some variant of the “reasonable use” doctrine which is still in effect in 3 of the 16 western states (Arizona, Oklahoma and Texas). Nebraska currently attempts to coordinate the management of ground and surface water recognizing their connection. Of the 12 remaining western states, 11 govern groundwater under the prior surface water appropriation scheme mentioned above and California does not fall under any of these schemes but uses an inconsistent local ordnance system. The eastern states which typically have more water do not as a rule regulate groundwater use. Though in the past decade there have been several regions to study the recharge characteristics of their water sheds with an eye to regulate density. The western states have not been successful in devising management schemes to resolve groundwater problems. The end result is the resources have been poorly understood and managed. Water is used unsustainably throughout the west.

In response to the growing western water crisis, the Environmental Protection Agency is planning to expand it WaterSense Conservation program. I believe the intent is to encourage conservation and thoughtful use of water, but I question the method. The program will now include a voluntary label that has a landscaping component that would limit the quantity of turfgrass participating builders plant. One of the two approaches that the EPA is considering is the Water Budget where a regionally appropriate amount of water is allowed for the landscaping. According to the EPA the average home in the US uses 30% of its water outside. However, none of us is average and turfgrass is not always bad. Living in Virginia where there is plenty of rainfall during the warmer months of the year, I do not need to water my landscaping. I believe that residential landscapes should be predominately native species that will thrive with benign neglect. What passes for a lawn on the three open acres closest to my house is the original pasture grasses supplemented with what compost I make, and over seeded with fescue each fall. I don’t fertilize, I don’t use weed killers and I don’t water. The lawn and weeds grow and I have hopes may improve over the years, but it is green. My home is saved by the beauty of the lovely trees and shrubbery I have planted. With only a few days of watering in the early weeks after planting my 43 trees have thrived with no effort on my part. I wonder if this WaterSense program is the appropriate response to the water supply problems of some states. Is it like recycling and energy star where a generation learns new habits to thoughtfully use the earths resources.

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