Monday, August 31, 2009

Geography & Politics of Solutions

Why is it that so many seek federal solutions to problems the state and locals can't seem to fix?

S. 787 is supported by many arguing that their states are ineffective in safeguarding surface water quality. Rather than jack up their state and local water quality management institutions and roll up their collective sleeves - they choose to support federal regulatory expansion over every bit of surface water in their state. What if the feds can't solve the problem, or worse yet, work at solving it in ways the supporters object to? The regulated stakeholders are toast.

The working draft of the Sustainable Watershed Planning Act is another example. Let's give POTUS and EPA the authority and funding to achieve sustainability in our top ten poster-watersheds. The public in these areas better hope they do it the way the locals think it should be done, or they're maybe going to wish they stayed more involved.

Deferring these solutions to the federal government simply insures that someone is eventually going to have to "fight city hall" or try to "turn the battleship on a dime". The regulated stakeholders will almost invariably be better off directly involving themselves in the problems and solutions. The federal role should be restricted to technical and funding support - ONLY when asked by the state and local folks working on the problem. This is especially true in water issues.

The harder these problems and solutions are, the more complex they are, and the less you want the federal government fixing them. There, I've said it.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Water Rights Conservation Program

Somewhere around the late-1970's as the water supplies became fully developed, Kansas consciously began the transition of its water law interpretation from "development" oriented, to a "water management" orientation. The laws weren't actually changing much, but their interpretations were - and I think rightfully so.

One of the knottier issues in this change was the "use it or lose it" mindset. Under development mode, those not using the water needed to give way to others who wanted to use it so that maximum economic benefit could be achieved right up to the moment of fully appropriating all the water supplies. By the process of forfeiting non-used water rights for maximum economic gain, non-used water rights were disadvantaged - some say penalized.

However, in the new, management phase of water, non-use needed to be rewarded rather than disadvantged - especially in areas that were over-appropriated and no one else could be given the water to use if it was forfeited. The common perception was that owners were using the water simply to keep their water rights intact. If this were true, where is the conservation ethic in this system? This is where the Kansas Water Rights Conservation Program (WRCP) came into existence.

WRCP allowed water rights in over-appropriated areas to be set aside for 5 to 10 years for conservation, and to re-enroll for another 5 to 10 years afterwards. Each of these years was then considered "due and sufficient cause" for non-use (enrolled in a government program for conservation) so the water right could not be forfeited for non-use. This allowed water right owners the choice of not using their water while retaining ownership - but only in over-appropriated areas. Today, there are 977 water rights in this program statewide, not using 260,000 acrefeet of appropriated water.

Due to budget cuts, the state is poised to end WRCP, which by the way is not a statutorily mandated effort, but was crafted in this new, management-oriented interpretation period by regulation. I don't know how many of the people enrolled will start using their water again as they come out of their current contracts, but I suspect most will rather than face abandoning and forfeiting these property rights. This decision simply appears to me to be "penny wise and pound foolish" as the colonials would say, and certain to make water management a bit harder as we move on from here.

I think the state may also be concerned about keeping all the WRCP water rights "on the books" for the next few decades as this will pose other water management problems for a later time. But these later problems I think will be less-knotty then than the problems related to eliminating WRCP are going to be now.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Federal Water Interests

Seems our federal government is getting much more active in water these days. Last year two bills were introduced to work on the process of developing a national water policy. S. 2728 and H.R. 135 both propose the creation of a new group called the "Twenty-first Century Water Commission" - a group of federally appointed folks who are to study and develop recommendations for a comprehensive water strategy for future water needs. Similar in scope and nature, S. 2728 calls for a 9-member commission appointed by the President, Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader. They are provided $9 million and are given 3-years to make their recommendations.

H.R. 135 is an 11-member group appointed by the President, the Speaker of the House, the Senate Majority Leader, the Minority Leader of the House and the Minority Leader of the Senate who are to be provided $12 million and be given 5 years to work their magic. While there is much borrowed language between these bills, H.R. 135 has far more detail as to what is to be studied. In both cases, there is much that the states and local water folks should be concerned about.

And just making its way into the process this year is the current working draft of a new bill (not numbered as of yet) called the "Sustainable Watershed Planning Act". This calls for a new federal agency - the Office of Sustainable Watershed Management (OSWM) to do much the same stuff - only with far more layers of boards and commissions, and a lot more money - $30 million/yr for the OSWM, and $250 million/yr for this group to entice their partners (states, locals, tribes, stakeholders and other interested entities) to see their vision. The Director of OSWM is slated to become the new and singular, federal water czar. There is even more to be concerned about in this draft bill.

There is the expected obligatory language that the planning groups (3, nested layers) are to consider state & local management activities, and are to be respectful of state water laws and state water jurisdictional responsibilities, but it never says these are exclusive to the states as they virtually are now. It even mentions that personal water rights cannot be affected - from transboundary aquifers only. This bill draft actually looks eerliy familiar to the earlier (failed) Western Water Policy Review Commission (WWPRC) effort of 1997. It also has a long way to go in my opinion.

On the positive side, if the federal OSWM and its nested boards could be trusted to share your state's water visions, there will be a lot of money available to implement many worthwhile programs - for the 10 pilot basins selected by the Director. This selection process probably won't be political at all, so it's a no-brainer that we should all jump on board and support this bill. Oh, and in his or her spare time, the Director is also charged with crafting a national water policy overarching everything. If you are interested in water, you should have a look.

One last point. As H.R. 135 was being debated, some wanted to revisit the work of a similar effort back in the late 1960's - that of the National Water Commission (NWC). The following is from that report:

While many support better coordination of federal water activities and a clearer national “vision” for water management, Congress has not enacted overarching water policy legislation since the 1965 Water Resources Planning Act. Instead, water policy has largely evolved through executive and judicial actions, in many cases in response to piecemeal legislation. Congress continually modifies federal water projects through amendments to existing projects and programs through Water Resources Development Acts (WRDAs), Reclamation acts, water quality legislation, and appropriations decisions. Incremental and ad hoc evolution of water policy, however, is not surprising. Water management is complicated by past decisions and investments affecting a wide range of stakeholders pursuing different goals. Specifically, federal and state laws and regulations, local ordinances, tribal treaties, contractual obligations, and economies dependent on existing water use patterns and infrastructure all affect water management. Attempts to untangle such complexities involve many constituencies with differing interests, and success is difficult to achieve. Expectations for a commission to achieve change in a complex system resistant to transformation may be unreasonable; instead, the influence of a commission may lie in how its recommendations combine with other drivers to support policy evolution.

I have to ask what has changed since 1973 and 1997 that makes me feel comfortable that a new, Twenty-first Century (federal) Water Commission has got the right handle on the complexities of water?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Part 1: Public Interest

In considering the approval or denial of a new water right application, K.S.A. 82a-711 says if a proposed use neither impairs an existing right nor prejudicially and unreasonably affects the public interest, the chief engineer shall approve it so long as it is made in good faith, in proper form and proposes a beneficial use. The only exception is an application for fresh water where other waters are economically and technologically feasible.

The act goes on to say that in determining if the public interest will be affected, the chief engineer shall consider established minimum desirable stream flows, safe yield and recharge rates, the priority of all existing claims to use water, the amount of each existing claim to use water, and all other matters pertaining to such question.

The act finally says that impairment shall include the unreasonable raising or lowering of the static water level, the unreasonable increase or decrease of stream flow, or the unreasonable deterioration of water quality beyond a reasonable economic limit.

An interesting issue regarding impairment is that K.S.A. 82a-711 defines it in terms of the unreasonable raising or lowering of the static water table. While it almost sounds like impairment cannot actually occur during the pumping season (non static conditions) this is not likely the case, as K.S.A. 82a-706b says that no person can prevent any waters of the state from moving to a person having a prior right to the use of the water. This more clearly covers all supply problems – in the pumping season and otherwise.

In reality the local GMD 4 regulation prohibiting new appropriations, adopted by the chief engineer for our district alone, is actually defining the local public interest in regard to new water rights for GMD 4. It is also not hard to see how important public interest is in Kansas water law, and how flexible it can be when “all other matters pertaining to such question” are lawfully defined as part of the public interest.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


There was a recent conclusion by Michael Campana ( AKA Aquadoc) that a federal watermaster should have been appointed in the long-standing Georgia, Florida, Alabama dispute on the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River system. (This picture is my kind of watermaster!). Anyway, normally an appointed watermaster would only administer the final settlement agreement adopted either by mutual agreement of the parties, or the courts. Mr. Campana, however, suggested in this case the watermaster should be appointed early - to help mediate the settlement agreement, then continue on to administer it. On its face, this sounds reasonable enough.

But, some states that have gone through a watermaster situation (Texas and New Mexico on the Rio Grande River) have found out first hand the incredible influence wielded by this person - in essence a lightning rod. And being a federal appointee, this makes the prospect even more problematic for a died-in-the-wool supporter of "states rights" in all things water. And to have such an influence in the settlement development phase prior to the administration phase could be double trouble. I don't think this is as good an idea as it may sound on the surface. If Georgia, Florida and Alabama want to retain the maximum state control over their water resources and uses, the last thing they want is a federal watermaster appointed - for any involvement in this dispute.

To be fair, Mr. Campana recognized my concerns. He wrote: "This step might be viewed as some as an unwarranted Federal intrusion..", and " a drastic step, but a watermaster is needed to “persuade’ Alabama, Florida, and Georgia to resolve their differences..". I have to ask: How does appointing a federal watermaster "persuade" these states to solve their differences? It's the proverbial federal foot in the door to influence the process. The threat of placing a watermaster should motivate these states sufficiently - assuming they're not all asleep at the switch. And if after this step they cannot solve their differences? They deserve a federal watermaster and the rest of the US can watch and learn what needs to be avoided - again. I'm going to completley ignore Mr. Campana's recommendation for who his watermaster should be. Talk about lightning rods.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Water's Uniqueness

Scientists currently speak of 66 unique, anomalous traits that water has - including varying density qualities, a large capacity to store heat and a higher surface tension than other liquids. It is a really remarkable substance when you get down on the molecular level.

I would propose a 67th anomalous trait - the ability to stress out everyone and everything that uses it - especially when there is too much or too little of it, it's in the wrong place, comes to us in the wrong form (snow, hail, etc.), gets dirty, is too hot or too cold, has the wrong critters in it, someone wants your share, or others want to tell you how to best use it.

It's managing this stress that makes man's desire to manage water so intense at times. Many claim the next wars will likely be initiated over water - not the normal political/cultural/religious differences we have or any other natural resources such as oil & natural gas, precious metals or gems, etc. It's hard to say if this will be borne out, as others argue for an equal probabilty that water differences will lead to cooperative solutions because it is so universally fundamental and unique. My guess is..., I'd better not say.

Anyway, I have a feeling we're not done discovering the true uniqness of water yet, or the creativity man will apply to manage it - for themselves or for you.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Modflow Modeling in NW Kansas

Our GMD just started using a Modflow groundwater model developed by Steve Larson of S.S. Papadopolos, Inc. Actually, it is a converted version of the Republican River Compact model co-developed by the states of Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska under order of the US Supreme Court as part of the compact settlement stipulation. We have run about 6 different scenarios - 1 representing continued pumping as in the past (status quo) and 5 scenarios of reduced irrigation pumpage in our 6 designated high priority areas (HPAs). One of these runs was no irrigation pumpage at all in the 6 HPAs.

The status quo was, well, status quo. The water table declines continued downward over the next 60 years on an very consistent trend as we've seen in the past 40 years. The various percentage reductions (90%, 70%, 50%, 20%) showed virtually proportional trends for each run. It was the zero pumpage run that showed some interesting results.

For this run (100% reduction of irrigation water pumpage) the water levels in all 6 HPA's drifted upward (negative decline) for about 20 years, then started a much slower decline trend for the last 40 years - to finish 60 years out at slightly below the model starting levels. The model is likely telling us that halted pumpage immediately benefits the specific region that does it (for about 20 years) as the long term pumping cone fills back in. Eventually, the pumpage outside the HPA (which continued the entire time in excess of safe yield) begins to affect the HPA causing it to begin to decline again, but at a much slower rate.

The model confirms the common notion that the very slow rate of groundwater movement will find all benefits of an area's reduced pumpage accruing to that specific area for about 2 decades. Our next step is to couple an economic model to tell us the economic impacts of reducing any pumpage rate by any specific method. We feel that if there are 4 ways to reduce pumpage by 30%, for example, the economic impacts are likely to vary between the methods. It'll be fun and games for a while in GMD 4.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Can't Help But Shake My Head!

Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute has been defending irrigation efficiency improvements as a significant part of the water supply crisis of CA. Just today he Blogged:
Two separate companies that manufacture state-of-the-art irrigation efficiency technology have approached me and lamented the difficulty of working in California, where they feel irrigation districts and farm lobbyists work to hinder efforts to improve efficiency, rather than help farmers seeking to improve water use.
I agree with these folks most of the time, but on this issue I really believe they are not right. There are too many reports, models and studies out there that conclude the exact opposite - an increase of consumptive water use upon the adoption of such technology.

Pfeiffer & Lin (University of California, Davis); Samani and Skaggs (New Mexico State University); Amosson & Almos & Golden (Ogallala Aquifer Initiative); Kendy (Montana Hydrogelologist); Bredehoeft (1997); and others have all come to the same conclusion - increased water use efficiency increases consumptive water use. It's not the technology that makes this happen, but the inability of the water managers to recognize it and compensate appropriately. Of course any mandated reduction in irrigated areas, or mandatory cropping restrictions, or irrigation scheduling needed to offset the reduced recharge and higher CU will have economic, social and legal consequences, but these are easy to get by, right? Probably NOT. Anyway, I hope we don't pin our future water supply hopes too much on improved irrigation technology until we're sure of the sacrifices needed to accomplish it.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

AWEP Misses the Conservation Mark

A week or so ago NRCS announced that the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP) approved 63 conservation proposals in 21 states committing just over $57 million. AWEP is supposed to provide financial and technical assistance to farmers and ranchers to improve water conditions on their land to protect and preserve U.S. water resources - or so the press release states.

Many of the approved proposals are going to improve irrigation efficiency. We already know that this more often than not leads to slightly higher consumptive water use - even if total pumpage decreases. Some of the largest proposals are in states that do not control new development, so even if some conservation were to occur, what's to stop new development from offsetting what our tax dollars pay to conserve? Many of the approved proposals are not in any of the eight designated priority areas.

The good news seems to be that 3 or 4 of the approved proposals actually plan to return irrigated land to dry land production - a very good conservation effort. However, the press release does not tell us if these are permanent or temporary conversions, or, if the payments are based on actual used water or a combination of used water and "paper" water rights. These details need to be known to accurately assess the conservation we'll really get from these efforts.

Based on these realities, AWEP is almost assured of spending a lot of money for not as much long term conservation as we could have had. We're also aware of at least 3 proposals that did not get approved which were for permanent conversions of irrigated land to dryland, based on actual historical use, in administratively closed areas (no new water rights allowed) and within one of the designated high priority areas. Yet somehow these proposals did not compete well.

There should be a serious accounting called for on this program before next year's increased allotment of $76 million gets doled out.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Water Use Efficiency? Maybe Not.

Most people and governments are supportive of and even promoting irrigation water use efficiency as a way to conserve water. Take an old gravity irrigation system applying 1000 gallons of water on an irrigated patch. This 65% efficient irrigation system will consumptively use (transpire and evaporate) only 650 gallons of the 1000 pumped and applied. The rest deep percolates below the root zone to rejoin the groundwater table (a non-consumptive use). So, 650 gallons are annually used consumptively (lost to the hydro system).

The irrigator is now paid a nice government incentive ($48K - $400 an acre on 120 acres - a typical Kansas incentive rate) to upgrade to a new, 90% efficient pivot so he can conserve water. He now pumps and applies only 850 gallons to the same patch - a 15% reduction (conservation). The new system now allows the crop to transpire and evaporate 90% of the pumped water while eliminating the inefficient water use (deep percolation) totally. This government incentive has just allowed the user to increase his consumptive draw on the aquifer from 650 gallons annually to 765 gallons each year (90% of 850 gallons). While inefficient water use is eliminated, and the pumped water is reduced 15%, the consumptive water use (CU) actually increases. Believe it or not, the change in the water table of a typical aquifer system changes as a result of consumptive water use, not gross pumpage. This conversion will actually increase the groundwater decline rate - all else being equal.

As if this were not bad enough, how many pivot conversions actually irrigated more acres than the original flood system? If land is available, we usually find a 15% increase in land when 15% more water becomes available due to efficiency improvements. And every newly irrigated acre increases consumptive use above the numbers discussed here.

Without clear and restrictive polices to control irrigated acres as system conversions are being made, consumptive use will tend strongly to increase as a result. And even if CU doesn't actually increase, it usually doesn't go down much at all. And even if it does happen to drop a bit, the system pays a premium for the 1-2% reduction which is easily offset by most of the other conversions that increase CU. This is a very inefficient way to seek water conservation.