Thursday, February 25, 2010

Administrator Jackson and the EPA and Strong Arm Tactics

In April 2009, the EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson signed a proposed endangerment and a cause or contributes findings for greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. If you will recall at the end of the comment period Alan Carlin and John Davidson of the US EPA’s National Center for Environmental Economics detailed their concerns about the science underpinning the agency's "endangerment finding" for carbon dioxide. The two said the US EPA accepted findings reached by outside groups, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, "without a careful and critical examination of their own conclusions and documentation." The duo raised questions about what data if any that EPA had used to develop the proposed finding. The EPA dismissed these concerns and barred the two from working in this area in the future.

The hacked emails from the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit (CRU) a collaborator with the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the recent revelations from the IPCC provide support for the concerns of Alan Carlin and John Davidson. The US EPA is required to make its own evaluation of the underlying science not depend on the findings of others for its Endangerment Determination and must determine that greenhouse gases are harmful to human health based on the science. Phil Jones, the University of East Anglia scientist and a target of the e-mail hack, acknowledged that there hasn't been statistically significant climate warming since 1995; thought the carbon dioxide level has continued to rise. In an interview with the BBC, he said "the vast majority of climate scientists" do not believe the debate over climate change is settled. Mr. Jones continues to believe in global warming but acknowledges there's no consensus in the scientific community.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) purported to proclaim the final word on Climate Change in 2007, in a 3,000 page report that have been revealed to be less than scientific truth. The IPCC now admits that its prediction that the Himalayan glaciers might disappear by 2035 was a mistake, based on an inaccurate citation to the World Wildlife Foundation. This advocacy group was also the basis for a claim the IPCC has backed away from—that up to 40% of the Amazon is endangered. Now the IPCC has also backed away from the predicted impacts of climate change on agriculture in Africa. The IPCC report mistakenly doubled the percentage of the Netherlands currently below sea level to the dismay of the residents. John Christy, a former lead author of the IPCC report, now says the "temperature records cannot be relied on as indicators of global change." As these fictions have been revealed, the top U.N. climate-change bureaucrat, Yvo de Boer, announced his resignation.

Although the EPA could have delayed until March the announcement of findings, they instead choose to announce their Endangerment Determination in the wake of the disclosure of emails hacked from the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit (CRU). The emails released revealed some researchers willingness to suppress or massage data, hide weather data and rig the peer-review process to control the publication of scholarly work, the EPA dismissed any questions raised as a the “couple of naysayers,” deniers and dismissed them out of hand. The Endangerment Determination was a political decision and not a scientific finding. The Administration chose the first day of the United Nations global warming conference in Copenhagen as a way to signal full US acceptance of the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change determinations. However, support for an accord had eroded and despite the President’s arrival at Copenhagen no accord was reached.

Rather than make an independent determination whether carbon dioxide is a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, the EPA made a political determination and in the process crushed two dedicated employees for the greater political good. Those kinds of actions should not happen in the United States. Administrator Jackson owes and apology to Alan Carlin and John Davidson and the American people. The true shame is that we should be paying attention to the carbon dioxide level in the atmospheres; w e remain ignorant of the true functioning of the climate system. Hiding and distorting data, dismissing other points of view as deniers is not how we will come to understand the climate system. The University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit (CRU) should release the data to the scientific community to allow them to utilize what data we have to further our understanding of the climate system instead of pushing on political agenda. On Monday, the EPA announced that it would comply with the request from Kenneth Cuccinelli, Attorney General of Virginia and several other states to delay regulation of carbon dioxide from point sources. The endangerment determination should be reexamined in light of the recent disclosures.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Running on Empty in California

Attached to a fast-tracked Senate jobs bill is a piece of legislation from California Senator Dianne Feinstein disguised as an employment program for California's Central Valley. California's Democratic Senator Feinstein has proposed legislation that would divert a large portion of California's public water supply to Southern California agribusinesses to allow the farms to plant. This is the beginning of the end. The short sighted measures to solve the loudest problem. Senator Feinstein has abandoned her environmental principals to try and help the agribusinesses that depend on reliable water deliveries by increasing the agricultural water allocation four fold in the next two years. However, this will not solve what is the fundamental problem. There is not enough water.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta (Delta) is a natural estuary of more than 738,000 acres, the Delta is the key pathway linking the water transfers from northern to southern California. This is how more than 25 million people and 2.5 million acres of productive farmland receive their water. The Delta is a patchwork of nearly 60 islands and tracts surrounded by natural and man-made channels much of which is below sea level. The Delta relies on more than a 1,000 miles of levees to protect land and key infrastructure from floods and daily high tides. Delta levees prevent salty water from San Francisco Bay from intruding into the Delta and contaminating the fresh water that supplies communities and farms. The Delta waterways convey water from Northern California rivers to pumping facilities in the southern Delta.

The SWP was constructed in the 1960s and early 1970s by the Department of Water Resources. Construction of the CVP began in 1935 and various facilities were added in subsequent decades. Except for the construction of the SWP’s Coastal Aqueduct in the 1990s, no significant improvements have been made to either system in nearly 30 years. Modern day California exists because of massive water diversions and the water infrastructure built in the past. Although 75% of precipitation falls in the northern portion of the state, more than 75% of the demand for water is in the southern portion of the state. California’s elaborate network of water storage and delivery systems has allowed the state to meet it diverse and ever growing water needs year-round by storing and moving water when and where it is needed and mining irreplaceable groundwater supplies. Water demand has continued to grow

Only in drought years is the true stress on the system obvious. Precipitation varies widely from year to year. Multi-year droughts have occurred throughout the state’s history, as have devastating floods. In California varied climate it’s possible to have both floods and drought in the same year. California’s water system was developed over decades to address that variability and provide more reliable water supplies year-round. The original intent to smooth the variations in annual precipitation was corrupted to divert water to the most powerful. California has a long history of water wars over water rights and diversions. State officials recently projected that California’s population will reach 50 million by 2032 and 60 million by 2050. There simply is not enough water. California local water agencies have invested in water recycling, conservation, groundwater storage and other strategies to stretch supplies, but the demand has outstripped supply for over 50 years as evidenced by the groundwater usage in the central valley.

The truth is that California has been using more water than is renewably available to support the population, businesses and agriculture of the state and the majority of water, almost 80% goes to agriculture. For more than a half a century the Central Valley of California has been one of the most productive agriculture regions of the world. This has been made possible by the ample supply of water used for irrigation. The limit to California’s agricultural is water availability. Water available is a combination of surface water diversions and groundwater pumping. Approximately one sixth of the irrigated land in the United States is in the Central Valley (Bureau of Reclamation, 1994) and approximately one eighth of all groundwater pumped in the United States is pumped in the Central Valley. California uses almost 31 billion gallons of water a day for irrigation. Agriculture uses 80% of the water to produce 2% of the revenue. Either food in America is grossly underpriced, or California is misallocating their resources. This is 351 gallons of water a day for each agricultural dollar earned each year. While a portion of irrigated water is recharged to groundwater, some is lost and California does not have enough water available annually to keep up this usage level. It is too much demand for water and cannot continue. This is a misallocation of our water resources and to add an $11 billion bond to build more water infrastructure to try to squeeze a little more water out of the system will not change the fact that there is not enough water for this to continue, thought maintenance of the existing infrastructure is essential for continued life in southern California. The wealth of the giant agricultural ranches in California is based on the cheap water for irrigation and these agribusiness will fight to keep their wealth and the majority of the annual water flow of the state.

Water allocations in the state exceed the entire water budget available. The time has come for California to determine how much of it’s water can be allocated to agriculture in good years and bad and limit agriculture to the size that can be supported by allocated water.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Agricultural Run Off and Nonpoint Source Pollution

National Water Quality Inventory Report to Congress was intended to identify widespread water quality problems of national significance. This has served as a proxy for the quality of the waters of the nation despite a non systematic approach to identifying water quality by the states. Many states target their limited monitoring resources to waters they suspect are impaired and, therefore, assess only a small percentage of their waters. These may not reflect conditions in state waters as a whole and tend to reflect areas of concern in the “water community.” The US-EPA in its report to Congress in 1994 identified agriculture as the leading cause of water quality impairment of rivers and lakes in the United States. Agriculture is also cited as a leading cause of groundwater pollution in the United States. In 1992, forty-nine of fifty states had identified that nitrate was the principal groundwater contaminant, followed closely by the pesticides in the samples taken. The US-EPA (1994) concluded that: "more than 75% of the states reported that agricultural practices posed a significant threat to groundwater quality." The way to reduce impact of these non point source pollution on the environment is to implement what has been called “best management practices.”

Agriculture contributes significantly to water pollution problems in many areas of the United States. Many synthetic pesticides (organic chemicals) behave largely in an unknown fashion in nature; their persistence, transport through food chains, and degradation patterns are often not well-understood. Pesticide runoff is a large contributor of known pollutants to the watershed. In April of 2009 the US EPA issued the Final List of Initial Pesticide Active Ingredients and Pesticide Inert Ingredients to be Screened Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act as potential endocrine disruptors.

The current generation of herbicides and pesticides were developed with the encouragement of the US EPA. These newer herbicides were encouraged by the US EPA because they are applied at much lower levels, were broken down more quickly in the environment and were less toxic to animals. The new generation of herbicides was based on sulfonylurea and imidazolinone, but unintended consequences have come to light. Now it seems that the degradation products of these new herbicides are far more persistent in the environment that originally believed or hoped. Pesticide runoff may be carrying undesirable nutrients and endocrine disruptors to the waters of the nation and now we should again examine older, natural pest solutions.

Some of the more natural pesticides were introduced in the 19th century, and are based on, pyrethrum which is derived from chrysanthemums, and rotenone which is derived from the roots of tropical vegetables. Others like boric acid (used to kill amongst other pests termite colony invasion inside homes and ant hills) and soap salts are just older and though modesty less effective are believed to be far less toxic. These older, naturally occurring pesticides based on, pyrethrum and rotenone both derived from plants are not as effective, but believed to be safer than the new generation of herbicides developed during last quarter century.

The state of Washington has performed private well testing in various regions of the state over the years. In the 1980’s their sampling program in Yakima, Franklin, and Whatcom Counties, which are strongly agricultural tested 81 wells for 46 pesticides and nitrate contamination. Of the 81 wells tested, 23 tested positive for at least one of the pesticides and seven exceeded drinking water standards. Sixty-one of the wells tested positive for nitrates, at concentrations ranging from .10 to 24.4 mg/L, and 18 exceeded the 10 mg/L standard for drinking water. Additional testing in the 1990’s found ethylene dibromide at 62% of the sites and nitrate plus nitrite-nitrogen in all tested wells though only a few of the wells tested exceeded drinking water standards. None of the wells were tested for endocrine disruptors because at the time even proxy testing was not done for these things. The point is that the agricultural and routine use of pesticides needs to be reexamined in the light of increasing use of groundwater and growing populations. The risks involved with biocides and toxics impacting our water may be large and are uncertain, but could impact current and future generations.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Agriculture a Source of Pollution and Environmental Impact

Non-point source pollution is cumulative in nature. While any single contributor of non-point source contamination may be insignificant, the cumulative effect of many such sources is measurable and leads to significant pollution of ground and/or surface waters. Surface and groundwaters are interrelated. Groundwater is surface water (lakes, rivers, streams, or overland flow from precipitation) that has percolated into and then through the ground to an aquifer. Groundwater may move back into surface water bodies through seepage, springs, or base flow into a river or lake depending on the geology of an area. Contaminated groundwater can move into uncontaminated aquifers or return to surface water, depending on the geology. Section 319 of the Federal Clean Water Act mandates development of programs for control and reduction of non-point source pollution of both surface and ground water.

Non-point source contamination comes from run off both agricultural and urban as well as other small sources such as septic and AOSS. Agriculture is reported to be one or the main non-point sources of water pollution and in studies done in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and Sacramento River Delta and other locations the contamination from agriculture runoff has been the major source of contamination. Pesticide runoff is a large contributor of known pollutants to the watersheds and may be a significant contributor of endocrine disruptors to the freshwater supply. Both rain feed and irrigated agriculture are sources of contamination of fresh water. In April of 2009 the US EPA issued the Final List of Initial Pesticide Active Ingredients and Pesticide Inert Ingredients to be Screened Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act as potential endocrine disruptors. These pesticides need to be further investigated and our use of pesticides reexamined and rethought.

In rain fed agricultural land, the precipitation washes agricultural chemicals (pesticides and herbicides) along with soil sediment to surface water. In addition, irrigation of the fields can increase the run off. Other sources of non-point souce contamination are confined animal feed lots, grazing, plowing, pesticide spraying , fertilizing, planting and harvesting a crop which can all contribute to run off of contaminants and sediment. The National Water Quality Inventory Report to Congress was intended to identify widespread water quality problems of national significance. This has served as a proxy for the quality of the waters of the nation despite a non systematic approach to identifying water quality by the states and significant limitations to the substances tested for. Many states target their limited monitoring resources to waters they suspect are impaired and, therefore, assess only a small percentage of their waters. These may not reflect conditions in state waters as a whole and tend to reflect areas of concern in the “water community.” The US-EPA in its last report to Congress identified agriculture as the leading cause of water quality impairment of rivers and lakes in the United States. Agriculture is also cited as a leading cause of groundwater pollution in the United States.

There are other significant environmental impacts from agriculture. When agricultural land is irrigated, the water balance in nature is altered. Water is withdrawn from a river, spring, or groundwater and added to agricultural fields. The environmental impact of an irrigation system is dependent on the nature of the water source, the quality of water, the method of delivery and the local geology and climate. Withdrawing ground water beyond the recharge rate may cause the land to subside as happened in the Central Valley of California. Aquifers may become saline. All water contains dissolved salts that attached to the water molecules as it washed over the land or percolated in the ground. Rain also contains some salts. The salts are generally at very low concentrations in “fresh” water’ however, evaporation of water from dry earth leaves much of the salts behind. Over time the salts concentrate. The problem is acute in the Central Valley of California, in China’s North Plain, in Soviet Central Asia (the –istans), parts of the Middle East and the Colorado River Basin. These are all semi-arid areas where irrigation is the basis of agriculture.

Withdrawing both groundwater and surface water can dramatically change the natural hydrology of rivers and water streams, water temperature, and can impact the aquatic ecosystem associated with the surface water. The San Joaquin River in California has been dewatered as has been Owens Lake. The Colorado River runs dry before it reaches the Ocean most years as does the Yellow River in China. The riparian ecosystems and delta estuaries associated with these areas no longer receive fresh water recharge and have been destroyed.

However, irrigation has vastly improved crop yields in many semi-arid climates. As population grows, and the demand for food increases irrigation is unlikely to be discontinued. Methods and control of irrigation can determine the extent of the environmental impact from the irrigation. Improved field irrigation practices are critical to limiting the impact. It is reported that irrigated agricultural land is two and a half times more productive than rain fed agricultural land and the limits of irrigation really are the fresh water resources, the capital costs and the saline buildup over time in the farm land and aquifers. To feed the populations of the earth and protect the earth mankind needs to utilize intelligent and environmentally balanced farming practices employed .

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Irrigation and Sustainability in Water Use

"Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own need is sustainable." (World Commission of Environment and Development, 1987)

Irrigation has the potential to increase farm yields dramatically. Irrigated land is far more productive than the same lands fed only by rainfall. However, irrigation can also impact the condition of natural resources (riparian zones, wetlands, etc), while impacting the balance of surface and ground water. Not all irrigation is bad nor is it good. Irrigation like all agricultural practices must be preformed sustainability and often it is not.

In 1996 it was estimated that developed countries, irrigate on average 10% of their agricultural area, and countries in development irrigated 23% of their agricultural land, and that combined they irrigated 18% of the total agricultural area. Chronic water scarcity is away of life in large parts of Africa and the Middle East, the northern part of China, parts of India and Mexico, the western part of the USA, north-east Brazil, and in the former Soviet Union and the Central Asian republics. China, India, the United States and Pakistan have the largest quantity of land in irrigation; however, the United States with the largest total area of cultivated land has only about 9-10% of that land in irrigation. (FAO AGROSTAT Database 1998)

In 1900 the world’s population was 1.6 billion; by 1950 it had increased to 2.5 billion and 6.1 billion by the year 2000. Despite a general decline in human fertility rates world wide, world population is still growing. It is projected that world population will reach more than 7.5 billion by 2050. This alone will increase demand for food and place enormous pressure on the environment. The increased need for water to support the growing population is becoming urgent, and environmental degradation related to water usage is serious.

Fresh water (not locked in ice caps) represents less than 2% of all water on earth. Agriculture is the major user of freshwater, with a world’s average of 71% of the water use. In agriculture water is used for irrigation, and small quantities for watering animals. There are large regional variations in water use. In Africa 88% of fresh water is used for agriculture and less than 50% in Europe. The USGS estimates that 40% of fresh water in the United States is used for irrigation. There are huge variations in water use across the country. In California it is estimated that 80% of fresh water is used for irrigation that is approximately 30,700 million gallons a day for irrigation. In Virginia, in the far wetter southeast, agriculture uses only 1.5% of the annual fresh water used annually, which translates to 21 million gallon a day for irrigation. The differences between the states is the climate, California is semi arid and requires irrigation on almost all crop land, but can produce several crops a year. It rains in Virginia, but the growing season is confined to the warmer half of the year.

What the above data tells us is that California needs to get more agricultural value out of their water usage. They are producing more than three time the revenue per agricultural acre but it is requiring 123 times the water for each dollar of revenue. California is mining their water. They are using more water than is renewably available. Water is a resource that needs to be valued. The nominal price of water in California does not reflect its value and scarcity, nor does it reflect the amortized cost for mining this resource. They are misallocating this resource. The price of the food produced does not reflect to costs to produce it.

The large and growing proportion of the population living in urban areas will put considerable pressure for continued transfers of water out of agriculture to supply growing urban centers in California and the rest of the world. Other competing uses include hydroelectricity, protection of aquatic ecosystems (e.g., restoration of Delta estuary), and recreation will put severe pressure on fresh water supplies. It is important that our farming practices as well as all of man’s activities have the smallest impact on the natural balance; we can only do this by valuing and allocating our resources appropriately.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Groundwater Management in Virginia

The Virginia Ground Water Management Act of 1992 mandates the regulation of large groundwater withdrawals in certain portions of the Commonwealth to prevent adverse impacts due to over utilization of the resource. There are currently two proposed changes to the regulations. It has been proposed to expand the Eastern Virginia Ground Water Management Area to include the Counties of Caroline, King and Queen, Gloucester, Mathews, Middlesex, Essex, King George, Westmoreland, Richmond, Lancaster and Northumberland; parts of Spotsylvania, Stafford, Prince William, Fairfax and Arlington Counties; and the City of Alexandria. This would expand groundwater withdrawals beyond the confines of the Tidewater, west of the fall zone, into another groundwater basin. Currently, this Ground Water Management Area includes every county and city south of the York River and its tributaries and east of I 95, except Gloucester, Mathews, Middlesex Counties. The proposed expansion would bring these three counties on the edge of the Chesapeake Bay, and the corresponding area north of the York and its tributaries, into the regulated area. The boundaries of the Eastern Shore Ground Water Management Area would remain unchanged.

Ground water levels in the Tidewater region of Virginia’s coastal plain are continuing to decline. Impacts from groundwater withdrawals are propagating along the fall zone into the coastal plain and have the potential to interfere with wells in these areas. However, you cannot manage the several groundwater basins as if they were a single basin, but you cannot ignore the interrelation between the basins. The smallest of examples in this area is Bull Run which feeds the Occoquan Reservoir originates in the Piedmont. The coastal plain has been the area of the most intense growth and the area was forecast by Virginia Tech to have inadequate reserves to meet the next drought if not addressed. Given current ground water declines, the entire coastal plain aquifer system must be managed to maintain a sustainable future supply of ground water. Virginia is blessed with what appears to be rich resources of water, but they are not infinite. Surprisingly little hard data on the groundwater has been collected. As a much wiser man than I pointed out, without data there can be no understanding of our resources and our planet. What level of withdrawal does the Agency propose to allow in each basin?

The second proposed change is a little frightening because it both ambiguous and seemingly ambitious in its reach: the Board and DEQ propose “to consider amending the Ground Water Withdrawal Regulation, 9 VAC 25 610 to address the increasing demand on limited groundwater resources, changes to the administrative review process, and regulatory changes necessitated by new information on the coastal plain aquifer system.” Virginia is estimated to use 188 million gallons of groundwater each day to supply public water systems, industry, agriculture, commercial operations and mining. This excludes over 40 million gallons a day that supplies private domestic well in the state including my well. While applaud the agency’s proactive stance, to take action to manage and maintain our water resources before crisis strikes, I wonder how can the DEQ even propose regulations on diverse geology, demand and groundwater basins and do so without data. Though the goal is laudable, what methods are they proposing to manage, control, protect and allocate a resource that is not well understood? The agencies’ reasons for proposing this action echo and elaborate on their explanation of reasons for proposing to expand the Ground Water Management Area, but that is not enough.
Even more ominous, the Board is preparing “to address for which users and for what purposes this finite resource should be allocated” and “to address what constitutes an adequate margin of safety and what technical criteria are defensible for determining whether or not to issue a permit and for what amounts.” All of this appears to signal a readiness and desire to control the most valuable resource in the commonwealth of Virginia. Without water there can be no life, no economy. More importantly, the Agency seems to have determined that allocation of water resources will be performed by government with a strategy or manner of its choosing. The agency proposes to allocate the most valuable resource in the commonwealth of Virginia without answering the question of How should water be allocated. The Agency is determined to proceed to avoid ground water declines. Before the Agency proceeds to manage the groundwater use for Virginia, the people must determine how this resource should be managed.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

California, What Are You Doing?

California’s natural hydrology is too limited to support growth in population, industry, and agriculture and possibly the current level of water use. Not only is California relative arid, but subject to, seasonal and climatic variability that threaten a reliable water supply. Approximately 70 percent of the State’s average annual rain and snow melt runoff occurs north of Sacramento, while about 75 percent of the State’s urban and agricultural water needs are to the south. Most of the State’s precipitation falls between October and April with half of it occurring December through February in average years. Yet, the peak demand for this water occurs in the summer months. Climatic variability includes dramatic deviations from average supply conditions by way of either droughts or flooding. California has dealt with the limitations resulting from its natural hydrology by developing an intricate system of reservoirs, canals, and pipelines under federal, State and local projects.

However, a significant portion of California’s water supply needs is also met by groundwater. Typically, groundwater supplies about 30 percent of California’s urban and agricultural uses. In dry years, groundwater use increases to about 40 percent statewide and 60% or more in some regions. California is mining its groundwater, using it at a rate higher than can be recharged. The groundwater in California may be a relic of the last ice age and is not being replaced or likely to be replaced under the current climate conditions.

For more than a half a century the Central Valley of California has been one of the most productive agriculture regions of the world. This has been made possible by the ample supply of water used for irrigation. On less than 1% of the total farmland in the U.S. the Central Valley produces 8% of the agricultural output (as measured by value). In 2002 this translated to $17 billion in crop value. This is all made possible by a combination of surface water diversions and groundwater pumping. Approximately one sixth of the irrigated land in the United States is in the Central Valley (Bureau of Reclamation, 1994) and approximately one eighth of all groundwater pumped in the United States is pumped in the Central Valley. It is possible that this irrigated agricultural model is not sustainable. California's current budget crisis have brought to the forefront the idea that federal taxes on the citizens of California support a disproportionate amount of the federal budget (an argument for smaller government). When will California realize that they have spent a sizable amount of their non-renewable water subsidizing the ranch landowners and cost of food in America.

When you withdraw the groundwater from fine-grained compressible confining beds of sediments and do not replace it, the land subsides. The incredibly fertile Central Valley was identified by the research efforts of Joseph Poland as the location of maximum subsidence in the United States. Once the land subsides, it looses its water holding capacity and will never recover as an aquifer. Groundwater mining in the Central Valley has slowed, at least until the recent water crisis. In 2007 the USGS estimated the rate of groundwater mining to be only 300 cubic feet per second. This change is due to the surface water agricultural deliveries of 13,000 cubic feet per second while groundwater irrigation deliveries are now (or at least were) at 5,900 cubic feet per second.Nonetheless, the clock is running. California’s non renewable water resource has been subsidizing the food budgets of America. California has been using up their water to produce cheap food for America and make ranch owners (the term for the mega farmers in California) richer. California is squandering its future and making decisions that almost certainly will require desalinization to support the population unless they recognize the true cost of water and make realistic decisions on its allocation.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Water Sustainability

Without water there can be no life. Water is our most valuable resource and how we manage its use or allow its abuse may determine the fate of mankind. The earth's total water supply is vast, estimated to be about 333 million cubic miles of water, over 96 % of which is saltwater. Fresh water represents only 4% of the total water of the earth. Over two thirds of the freshwater on earth (68%), is locked up in ice and glaciers, about 30% of freshwater is in the ground as groundwater, and thus, surface-water sources (such as rivers) only represent about 2% of the fresh water and 1/10,000th of 1% of total water, yet rivers are the source of most of the water people use. The interaction between surface water and groundwater is complex, site specific and not fully understood.

According to the US Geological Survey about 26 % of the freshwater used in the United States in 2000 came from ground-water sources; the other 74 % came from surface water. Groundwater is an important natural resource, especially in those parts of the country that don't have ample surface-water sources, such as the arid West. Groundwater is a renewable resource, but not in the way that sun light is. Groundwater recharges at various rates from precipitation and other sources of infiltration. The US Geological Survey estimated that the nation receives about a trillion gallons of recharge to the groundwater aquifers each day. (USGS circular 415). The recharge is not spread evenly across the nation or even where the water is needed.

There are costs and limits to the amount of groundwater available for extraction from the aquifer. Wells need to be drilled, pumps installed and operated and water moved through a delivery system. These represent the direct expenses of groundwater pumping. There are indirect costs. The amount of groundwater removed from an aquifer needs to be sustainable and should ideally match the recharge rate. Water captured by pumping a well will result in changes in the local or regional hydraulic balance- a reduction in discharge to surface water at some other location, an increase in recharge from surface water, or a loss of storage in the aquifer by falling water table or some combination of these effects. Changing the recharge rate by diverting water from the system can change the entire water balance and ecology of a region. Pulling large quantities of groundwater from one well rather than a series of smaller geographically spaced wells will have a much larger impact on the groundwater basin.

Groundwater availability and recharge rates vary locally and regionally and can be impacted by man. Over pumping of groundwater that results in compaction of the soils and subsidence which is permanent loss of water storage capacity in the region. Over pumping of groundwater in costal regions can lower groundwater tables or in a confined artesian system result in salt water intrusion. Development often is characterized by pavement and building that prevents the infiltration of precipitation that occurred before development. In some areas of the country (and world), groundwater currently being pumped entered the aquifer a millennia ago when the climate in that area was wetter. That water is not being replaced under these climate conditions and may ultimately be used up. Centralized wastewater systems further compound the problem by collecting the used groundwater, treating it and releasing the water into a stream or to the ocean in costal areas. Decentralized, managed and density controlled alternative onsite sewage systems may be a better solution for maintaining the groundwater resource, or as is done in areas of Florida and Long Island land application of the treated water from waste water systems.

Our freshwater resources need to be managed as a whole. The utilization of groundwater resources in an unsustainable manner can result in impacts to the entire region, including the decrease in water level and aquifer storage, reductions in stream flow and lake levels, loss of wetland and riparian ecosystems, land subsidence, saltwater intrusion and changes in groundwater quality. Each groundwater system or basin is unique and must be managed individually, and the data necessary to understand and manage water resources must be gathered locally over time to track and respond to changes in groundwater quantity and quality as well as stream flow. All groundwater is not equal and there a consequences of withdrawing water from an aquifer beyond its recharge rate. Water is critical to life and we need to manage this most valuable resource before our cities and western states run out.