Saturday, October 31, 2009

Just Thinking Out Loud...

Just thinking out of the box here, but I've been interested in the Nestle bottled water flap happening across the country of late.  Seems that Nestle has been seeking water sources for its bottled water at various places in the US, and have been vehemently opposed just about everywhere - Newport, WI; Mecosta County, MI; McCloud, CA; Shapleigh, MA; and Salida, CO to name just the most recent skirmishes.  While I'm not remembering all the water quantities Nestle has been bargaining for in all the locations mentioned, in Salida, CO that figure is from 200 to 300 acre feet (AF) a year - according to the newspaper account I read.

Here in our part of the world (NW Kansas) 300 AF is the proverbial drop in the bucket.  Not only that, but if done right, such an endeavor could actually improve the groundwater situation in the area - provided Nestle was willing to buy, say, 500 AF of existing consumptive water use and convert it to the 300 AF of use they need.  The exchange would actually reduce the local draw on the aquifer to the mutual benefit of all.  Think of the positive PR this kind of transaction would produce.  Moreover, with the water rights as they exist now, Nestle would be dealing with individual water right owners - not local governments which, in the cases mentioned above, have apparently been too subject to politics and pressure.

Most of the other arguments made by the opposition don't seem to apply here either.  Our consumptive water now is largely being exported in the grains we grow by irrigation anyway.  There are no rivers, lakes or wetlands which can be affected by the water use that have not already been affected by the current water use and would be expected to actually improve with the net reduction of water use proposed.  The environmental impacts of the plant itself can and should be dealt with appropriately for our local comfort.  One of the solutions to our current water problems is to reduce consumptive water use while increasing the economic return on the lower usage.  This arrangement seems worth exploring, at least.

On the other hand, the efficacy of bottled water itself is a tough one.  The full resource footprint of the plastic bottles does not go away, and the morality of supporting a company that continues to "sell" people on the benefits of bottled water over regular tap water is, well, embarrassing. 

I don't know what's right, but there would seem to be some distinct advantages to Nestle to look here.  No, this is not an invitation - I'm just thinking out loud.  I'd welcome any reactions to these thoughts - or setting me straight if need be.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

GMDA - Association of Groundwater Management Districts

If you're interested in groundwater I might suggest you visit the Groundwater Management Districts Association - a non-profit organization established to provide groundwater developers, users, owners and other individuals and organizations concerned with the management, development, conservation and protection of groundwater, the opportunity to exchange ideas, develop or influence programs for the development, utilization, conservation, protection and management and control of groundwater; and in furtherance thereof the Association shall endeavor:

a) To be informed of and exchange ideas on current trends and problems as they affect groundwater, including those which have, or may have, technical, legal, administrative and economic implications.

b) To review and analyze methods and techniques employed by members and their associates in conducting studies and research on management of groundwater and in designing and obtaining solutions to problems associated therewith.

c) To review, analyze, propose and influence legislation and policy as they affect groundwater.

d) To evaluate activities and plans of governmental bodies and other organizations and associations as they relate to groundwater and to take appropriate action.

e) To develop and propose joint or coordinated plans of action to meet national, interstate and/or regional groundwater problems and needs, including affiliations or memberships in other similar organizations or associations.

f) To assess and encourage, as appropriate, the conjunctive use and management of both surface water and groundwater supplies with due consideration for the unique and limiting properties of each resource.

g) To foster the general public's knowledge and appreciation for the economic advantages of private enterprise and development of groundwater.

h) To promote orderly and equitable development, conservation and management of groundwater through local government.

GMDA also maintains a historical web site for the association that is more about the past, but it has a lot of interesting material as well.


Thursday, October 8, 2009

Cool, Cool Summer

I have lived in Colby for some 33 years now - not as long as many of the "old timers" - but long enough to have experienced some pretty strange weather. As I write this post it's snowing here. Yep, it's October 8, a full 9 days ahead of the long term, average, first frost date for the area.

I guess the real novelty of this summer's weather pattern is not this early snow as much as it's the abnormally cool summer we've had. I believe that there have been only four days this summer reaching triple digits. One day in mid September had a daytime high of only 58 degrees - very unusual. And rain well above average as I noted in an earlier post.

I'm guessing El Nino is the culprit, or at least partly responsible. With Kansas weather you never really know. Even in strong El Nino years Kansas always seems to be just between regions that the NWS characterizes as "moderate chance for cooler temps" or "slight chance for less rainfall", etc. We almost always get "an equal chance of cooler or warmer temps". Drives me crazy.

Oh well, I guess there's no need to complain. I admit that I enjoyed the cooler, wetter summer this year very much. Its the next 7 months of snow that I'll not be happy about.
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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Some Essential Elements of Water Conservation

Where funds are limited to do a set amount of work, it seems that priority setting should be an elemental and valuable undertaking.  In the case of water conservation, examples of priority setting perhaps may be:  1) anywhere a federal, state or local regulation or policy or court order exists to conserve water, lessen use, slow depletion, or however else a mandated or policy goal may be worded, that area should be prioritized over all other areas where no such goal, order or policy roadmap exists; 2) any area that is completely closed to new appropriation or development of water should be prioritized over all other areas that have no such restriction on new water development;  3) any area that is proposing a permanent reduction of water use should be prioritized over any area contemplating temporary reductions (unless there is a resultant price reduction for the temporary reductions which yield a proportional or less cost); and 4) those efforts reducing real, actual water use should be prioritized over efforts reducing unused (paper) water rights or phantom water use.

Summing up, conservation program funds should go first to anyone proposing, as a court ordered mandate or a state or local order or policy decision, to permanently reduce real, actual water use in areas formally closed to new water development.  This is where the most conservation will occur.  It's mostly a matter of common sense.  If you're really interested in water conservation, what good does it do to reduce water use where anyone can subsequently develop new uses?  Why reduce phantom water use or water rights - whether you pay for the reduction or not? 

These points should be considered carefully as we all look to next year's offering of the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP) by NRCS.  AWEP is part of the 2008 Farm Bill authorized to assist ag producers in implementing agricultural water activities on agricultural land for the purposes of conserving surface and groundwater.  One of its stated goals is to help producers meet state and local regulations or the interstate compact compliance mandates of the courts relative to water conservation.  A careful look at last year's program, which doled out $57 million dollars for such conservation efforts, doesn't seem to fit much of my common sense priorities.  I'm hoping the 2010 program will do better.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Monarchs On The Move

Just two weeks ago the monarch butterflies were in my part of Kansas on their migration southward - presumably to Mexico.  There were hundreds of them in my backyard each day for about a week enjoying the cool mornings, the many Fall flowers and our watering holes - a pond and two bird baths.  We haven't seen them for the past three or four years, not really knowing if their migration paths had just taken them farther east or west of Colby, or if we were too busy with other things and simply didn't notice.  But we certainly enjoyed them this year.  The photo at right (and many others just as wonderful) were taken by Karrie Pennington who, with her husband Dean (from Mississippi), just happened to be spending the night with us on their way West and North.  The only thing any of this has to do with water is that Dean and I both manage groundwater management districts.  And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Karrie works for NRCS.  Maybe some day the bald eagles or the whooping cranes will stop over, too.  Go ahead and click on the photo - I kept it full size for your more complete enjoyment.

Ag Water Conservation?

Been reading a lot about water conservation lately where some claim the solution is as simple as controlling price – raise the price and conservation will occur. This seems logical for some situations – most notably for domestic and industrial uses which are supplied by a common water system under a common water right that is controlled by someone else who is responsible for both the delivery system and the new conservation ethic. Easy as pie and quite frankly you meet two goals at once. Not only do you encourage less water use, but you also gain the capital to maintain and eventually replace the delivery system for the common good (as long as you don’t price yourself out of the market).

But my concern is conservation in an irrigated ag setting - a compilation of thousands of individual delivery systems controlled by the thousands of water right owners using the water for individual profit motives and answerable to no one as long as they don’t exceed their water right. The most obvious way to control the price of ag water would be a mandated government severance tax on water (either via traditional means or being couched in terms of a pump tax, water right maintenance fee or whatever). But since the government doesn’t have any system to maintain, the only reason to impose such a severance tax on ag would be to use less water as a means to conserve. This will also reduce production and economic returns.

If “conservation” is defined as either maintaining current production with less inputs, or, increasing production with the same inputs (both increases in efficiency) then the severance tax is wrong because it will do neither. Yes, I know what you’re thinking – just increase the efficiency of the ag water use and conservation (less water use) happens automatically - without a severance tax or any other stimulus. Our experience has been that it costs so much money to increase ag water use efficiency that the producers are obligated to increase production to pay for it, and the exact opposite of water conservation occurs in nearly all cases – they consumptively use more water. I have discussed this issue before here.

Anyway, I’m asking all the water-mavens out there to offer ideas on “conserving” irrigation ag water – using market stimuli or otherwise – that does not also unreasonably impact the local economy. Email me here if you would rather not respond blog-publicly.