Saturday, January 30, 2010

Federal Water Policy - Oh My!

Here we go again - discussing the pros and cons of a federal water policy.  This time at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. 

Some of the water experts present said that federal authorities should better use the influence they already have over how residents use water before they (the feds) look to expand it. 

Others said that a new layer of central control over water policies could lead to lumbering, reactionary management over a resource feeding the multibillion-dollar agribusiness driving Lubbock's economy.

Still others chimed in that federal legislation could override water planning Texas began more than a decade ago, and/or, focus on environmental demands instead of balancing the needs of industries that demand a water supply.  Yes, there was plenty of general opposition to the federal water policy idea in Texas that day.

A Texas Legislator opined that national farm and energy policies held clear recent examples of how easily a federal program could drain away the Ogallala - citing the ethanol push that inspired big crops of water-thirsty corn (ill-suited to most of the Ogallala) that basically forced farmers to use their water for economic gain.  Another example is the $38 million spent last year in Texas from the AWEP program to upgrade irrigation efficiencies.  Seems everyone but the feds know that in the closed High Plains Aquifer system improving irrigation application efficiency has been shown to have no effect on reducing consumptive water use.  Yeah, we need the feds in charge of water policy, all right!

But I still contend the most compelling reason not to move this way is simply a matter of logistics.  If you were opposed to your local water policy, would you rather try to change the minds of your local or state policy makers, or the Federal Government?  Perhaps the Texas Legislator said it best:  "If we were to wait for Congress to develop a national water policy, it wouldn't matter, because by the time they got done with it, the Ogallala wouldn't have any water anyway."  'Nuf said!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Smart Market for Groundwater?

Another call for water markets to save the day - this time "Smart Markets" from the University of Canterbury.  Claiming to be a "triple win" situation.  The developers say:  "The “smart market” consists of a daily or weekly auction in which commercial users could trade water, cleared by a computer model. The computer model balances water in the catchment over time, ensuring rivers have flows and aquifers have sustainable levels."  What's a commercial user going to do if no water is available that week?  I guess he either raises his offer price or forgoes the use of water - hardly viable options for municipal water providers and many others.

They go on to say:  "Groundwater is even more complex due to underground flows and more serious due to over-allocated catchments. The new work solves all these problems in one stroke."  Great writing - makes one believe that solving these problems in one stroke is painless and easy as pie.  The market simply prices out enough people that sustainability is achieved.  It will be no less painful than any other method of achieving sustainability.  Besides, I still contend that purely allowing water to go to the highest bidder will affect agriculture (food production) unless other conditions are applied to compensate.  Currently ag use is the majority use in most areas with the least ability to compete in a market situation against municipalities and industry.  The triple win for water supply looks to me to be a tripling in everyone's grocery bills.

As always, maybe I'm missing the point completely, but achieving sustainability by any means is a daunting social, economic, legal and hydrologic task.  Markets usually address just the economics and hydrology of this problem and tend to ignore the social and legal aspects (trouble ahead?).  I'm just not convinced they are the best way in any situation but for the simplest of cases - small area, limited number of use types, not severly overappropriated, etc.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Kansas' Largest Earthquake

Just read that central Oklahoma (where I lived before moving to Kansas) had another small earthquake this morning - 3.7 in the Jones, OK area.  In reviewing the technical info on this quake from a USGS site, I traveled over to the Kansas site out of curiosity (Kansas Earthquake Info) and looked at the largest quake (of record) to hit Kansas - a 5.1 quake that struck the Riley County Area (Manhattan, KS) on April 24, 1867.  This quake is noted here because its USGS record has 3 references to water as follows:

This earthquake inflicted several minor injuries, cracked walls, and loosened stones from buildings. At Manhattan, a 0.6-meter wave was observed moving south to north on the Kansas River. Chimneys were downed in Louisville (Pottawatomie County) and Leavenworth. One side of a large building that houses a newspaper office was knocked down at Paola, south of Kansas City, in Miami County. East of Manhattan, the earth opened and ejected much water on a farm about 5 kilometers south of Wamego.  Additional minor damage occurred in Iowa at Dubuque (plaster fell); in Kansas at Junction City (a well being dug was destroyed),..
It's comforting to know that there has been little earthquake activity in Kansas since 1990 - I count only 13 or so.  (Map from the same USGS site linked above).  Now tornadoes - quite a different matter!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Colorado Water Law - Chapter 4 Review

Back to the review of Colorado Water Law for Non-Lawyers.  Chapter 4 is an introduction to federal and interstate issues.  It largely focuses on the interstate compacts, but touches briefly on the federal water presence in the states.  It is comforting to read, for example, that outside of federal reserved water rights, all other federal water use must be within the states' water rights system.  Of course, the scope and size of federal reserved water rights is constantly a litigated concept, so this is no small concern of the states.

The Chapter seems to support the idea that water agreements between states must be approved by all the participating state legislatures and ratified by Congress.  The only other way to divide waters across state boundaries is for the U.S. Supreme Court to adjudicate said supplies when states cannot agree.  I wonder how many interstate agreements there are on water that have not had Congressional approval?

The chapter also covers some of the most important Colorado people in water in the early stages - Elwood Mead and Delph Carpenter - and concludes with a short description of the 9 interstate compacts that include Colorado's rivers.  According to the authors, there are just over 30 interstate compacts in effect at this time that involve water.  It was interesting to learn that interstate compacts between states were begun in 1777 under the Articles of Confederation, but the first interstate compact involving water was in 1922 on the Colorado River.  More later.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Groundwater Management

One of the problems of effective groundwater management (assuming you consider groundwater as a more or less common pool resource) is the tendency of individual users to maximize their use in the near-term lest their neighbor(s) beat them to the gains - most often referred to as "the race to the well".  The prior appropriation system of water rights was supposed to address this condition (and many others) by preventing new appropriations whenever they were likely to impair those that already existed.  Thus protected, there is no pressing need to maximize one's gains immediately - at least not because you're afraid your neighbor will get to your expected benefits first. 

However, in an overappropriated prior appropriation system, the race to the well mentality is rekindled - and becomes stronger the more the overappropriation level is.  Of course the question is:  What are the ways this problem can be addressed?  One way is to administer the system by eliminating junior water rights until you're back to sustainable withdrawal levels.  Another way is to recognize the finite timeframe of the current use and convert all existing water rights (from annual authorized quantities) to absolute quantities based on their share of the pool and how long you want the pool to last.  In actuality this resembles an appropriation correlative rights system.

Administering the system will achieve groundwater sustainability, and relieve the need to maximize individual profits before your neighbor does, but it will also never allow the water remaining in storage to be utilized at all.  The only water available is the long-term annual recharge.  Converting all water rights to absolute quantities can allow the system to achieve stabilization at any pre-chosen level - thus allowing the use of as much or as little of the storage as the governing body chooses. 

In cases where the junior water users are the most efficient, the administration approach leaves only the least efficient users left in the system.  The other approach allows everyone to continue pumping to some extent. Moreover, converting all water rights to an absolute total appropriation allows one to save his or her remaining water right for whatever reasons; makes any potential water market more vibrant, allows users to adopt as aggressive of a conservation strategy they choose, and can even incorporate the senior/junior priority system by the relative weighting of all conversions based on priority.  The proposal can also be staged in to encourage and reward early conservation by individual uses or groups of users.  With all these features, it virtually eliminates any need to use your water early (while it doesn't prevent it), and can actually create advantages for saving your water for later use or marketing.  Maybe we'll discuss this more in a later post.

Friday, January 15, 2010

NV - UT Agreement; Constitutional?

Wikipedia says:  "An interstate compact is an agreement between two or more states of the United States of America. Article I, Section 10 of the United States Constitution provides that "no state shall enter into an agreement or compact with another state" without the consent of Congress.  Frequently, these agreements create a new governmental agency which is responsible for administering or improving some shared resource such as a seaport or public transportation infrastructure."

I guess it could be argued that the Nevada/Utah agreement over the division of the Snake River Valley groundwaters must receive the blessing of Congress before it can be consumated.  I believe that all the surface water interstate agreements (like the Republican River Compact between Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas) had to have Congressional approval.  In these cases the sole issue was dividing up the supply of water.

I wish I knew more about the legal issues along these lines, but alas, I don't.  Are there any legal types out there that would like to weigh in?  For those opposed to the agreement, maybe a consultation with a legal firm with a strong Constitutional Law background would pay dividends.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

"Warshing Clothes"

The following is a set of instructions for washing clothes that a Kentucky grandmother gave to a new bride in days gone by.  It has been presented just as it was written and found in a scrapbook, and despite the spelling, it has a bit of philosophy and some good ole common sense.   If you have to ask a grandparent or another appropriate "old timer" to explain some of this, you're either way too young or you've lost touch with your roots!  Enjoy!

Warshing Clothes

1.  Bilt fire in backyard to heat kettle of rain water.
2.  Set tubs so smoke wont blow in eyes if wind is pert.
3.  Shave one hole cake of lie soap in bilin water.
4.  Sort things, make 3 piles, 1 pile white, 1 pile colored, 1 pile
work britches and rags.
5.  To make starch, stir flour in cool water to smooth, then thin down
with bilin water.
6.  Take white things, rub dirty spots on board, scrub hard, and then
bile.  Rub colored, don't bile, just rinch and starch.
7.  Take things out of kettle with broomstick handle, then rinch, and
8.  Hang old rags on fence.
9.  Spread tea towels on grass.
10.  Pore rinch water in flower bed.
11.  Scrub porch with hot soapy water.
12.  Turn tubs upside down.
13.  Go put on clean dress, smooth hair with hair combs.
14.  Brew cup of tea, sit an rock a spell and count your blessings.

There you have it.  While water was not so much scarce in those days, having to tote it all made one think conservatively and to make it do double duty!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Separation of Data and Policy

In the Kansas water world agencies like the Kansas Geological Survey (KGS) are responsible for scientific data collection that the regulatory and policy agencies have access to.  These guys are very well-heeled and make double sure that the data they collect and store is scientifically "top notch" (completely supported by scads of meta data) and is basically unquestionable.  While they are very good at what they do, they do NOT offer up policy recommendations or management approaches.  These decisions are in the realm of the state regulatory agencies who rely on the data to make the right policy decisions. 

This is the same with the United States Geological Survey (USGS), or so I thought.  I recently ran across a federal government sponsored (OMB) group directly under the chair of the USGS that is working on a number of data issues - including a national data procedure that will easily accept all other data the USGS can get its hands on.  While this effort is appropriate, the committee has other subcommittees that are working on issues much closer to policy-like efforts - most notably sustainable water directions.  This places the USGS out of character at the very least, and possibly in an inappropriate role. 

The committee?  The Water Information Coordination Program (WICP).  You have to look pretty deep into the group before you find the policy issues being developed.  One sub group sanctioned by WICP is the Advisory Committee on Water Information (ACWI).   This group has 8 sub committees - one of which is the sub committee (Roundtable) on Sustainable Water - whose mission statement is:

"Serve as a forum to share information and perspectives that will promote better decision making in the U.S. regarding the sustainability of our nation's water resources."

ACWI's alternate chair and two executive secretaries are USGS employees.  Why is the USGS coordinating discussion on policy issues?  There are two other sub committees under the WICP that are also expressly chaired by USGS personnel.  From the OMB resolution forming the entire shebang: 

"At the national level, the procedures shall include an Interagency Coordinating Committee for Water Information and a Federal Advisory Committee on Water Data for Public Use. The U.S. Geological Survey shall chair and provide support services for these committees. OMB shall be a member of the national committees."

I don't know what these folks are working on yet - data or policy.  It should be noted that the ACWI mission statement above does not say who will be making the better decisions their discussion will be promoting, so it's too early to break down the doors.  However, traditional separation of data and policy doesn't even come close to this arena.  Traditionally the USGS would stand completely down and develop the data required by a regulatory agency only upon direct and specific request.  Their being directly involved in the framing of the data needs would too easily allow a USGS policy agenda to manifest itself.

Anyway, this arrangement should be looked into in my opinion.  I'm not so sure the whole national water policy and sustainable watersheds efforts are not related to these activities, too.  If they are, the USGS is clearly stepping beyond its data responsibilities and is promoting national water policy.

** Update:  January 27, 2010:  From USGS Circular 1261, Anderson & Woolsley, 2005:

"The new role of science will be to support environmental decisionmaking to achieve some new level of sustainable use that will provide an assured supply of good-quality water for humans and for stream and riparian ecosystems."

Who doesn't think this statement is supporting a specific policy agenda by the USGS?