Friday, February 26, 2010

And I Thought No One was Listening!

Just got off the phone with my long time USGS friend Walt Aucott in Lawrence, KS.  I called him to ask what he knew of the new WaterSMART initiative within DOI.  After finishing our discussion of WaterSMART, which was most informative to me, Walt asked me if I was reconciling all my issues with the USGS? 

I knew instantly what he was referring to - my past Blog posts regarding the USGS involvement in the WICP and ACWI efforts (December 7, 2009 and January 5, 2010).  As it turns out, someone in a USGS position above him called to ask about the posts and to decide if my federal "conspiracy" bent was something to be concerned about.  There you have it - someone actually reads this stuff!

I explained to Walt that my posts were written fairly provocatively for a reason - to get folks thinking very clearly about the issue of a federal, scientific agency being involved in the actual framing of policy - especially when it's that very agency's job to collect the data needed to support that policy.  If the USGS is NOT engaged in framing or influencing policy, the matter is closed.  I just have not been able to discern this from the tracking I have done thus far in this specific process, and quite frankly I believe it's a valid question.  I certainly do NOT believe every USGS employee is actively engaged in or advocating a secret, agency water policy, or that every USGS activity is policy-oriented.  However, I'd like to make sure no one in the agency is doing so, and that none of their activites are policy-specific.

As a matter of fact, I have made my concerns known in writing to the participants of ACWI and WICP and have asked to be dropped from their process.  The agency will either walk the data/policy line appropriately,  or they won't.  I'm glad to know they are aware of my questions, though.

I learned two things today.  First, that if I ever have an issue with USGS I should call Walt Aucott and discuss it with him.  He is a credible scientist and an all-around gentleman.  He also shares my belief that the agency should NOT be advocating policy.  Secondly, there is always someone watching you in and around the web.  And this is how it should be. 

Saturday, February 6, 2010

One Reason Why Groundwater is So Hard to Manage

I have long felt that the success to our local groundwater management efforts would rise or fall with our ability to translate the pulse of the people into groundwater policy.  If we created an effective enough public discourse process, then the district could move forward whatever majority positions were expressed. 

One annual meeting many years ago (early in my career) I set out to test my hypothesis.  There were 109 folks at this meeting and I had a single question survey that I asked them to complete.  The question something to the effect of:  "If the board were to stabilize the water table, at what percentage of current remaining saturated thickness should this be done?"  The choices, one of which each person was to circle, were listed across the page under the question and consisted of:  0%;  10%;  20%;  30%;  40%;  50%;  60%;  70%;  80%;  90%;  100%.

I was expecting a fairly nice bell curve probably centered around the 60% or 70% choice.  Boy was I surprised.  It was a flat-line graph with virtually equal responses for every choice.  So much for having any kind of consensus - at least on the issue of how much water we should retain. 

There were only about 75 responses, so it's not like the survey was scientifically valid, but it was an eye-opener.  Bottom line is everyone has their own ideas of what should be done, how, when and why it should be done, and who should be doing it.  Maybe a weighted, super-matrix approach...

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Drought Tolerant Crops and Low Flow Shower Heads

Monsanto and others are working ferverishly on bringing to market a drought tolerant corn variety - one that yields respectably with 30% less water.  As good of news as this is, I'm wondering if it'll save any water or just increase yields considerably with the same water use (or more).

It's the classic question of how's it going to be used?  Remember the low flow shower heads that were supposed to save water.  Turns out most people didn't particularly like the weak water stream and ended up taking longer showers - resulting in..., well you can complete this sentence yourself.

Until the irrigation water supply is reduced enough (either by water right and use restrictions or by physical limitations of the supply) my money is on an increase of water use by producers who almost always act toward maximum profit motives.  Yes, we will achieve more yield per unit of water, a production efficiency measure that is usually considered good, but the sad truth is that more water will be used, too.  This situation can be a real problem for areas needing to reduce consumptive water use.

To be fair, this is not the fault of the seed breeders - it is the responsibility of the water managers to restrict water use if it is desired that this new technology should reduce water use while maintaining production levels (income).  Heck, what we really need from Monsanto et. al., is a corn variety bred to yield 300 bushels per acre on 10 inches of irrigation water and which immediately dies when the 11th inch of irrigation water is applied.  Now we're sure to get water savings and increased income.  Good luck with this one. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Groundwater Districts in Kansas

If you needed groundwater information about Kansas, I'd suggest you contact any one of the five groundwater management districts or the division of water resources.  The links to these web pages are provided for the sake of convenience.

Western Kansas GMD 1:
Equus Beds GMD 2:
Southwest Kansas GMD 3:
Northwest Kansas GMD 4:
Big Bend GMD 5:

Division of water resources:

There is a wealth of information about groundwater management in each one of these pages - including maps, data, related links, programs, contacts and much, much more.  You are hereby invited to visit!  And let me know if you have any comments or questions.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

New, Conservation Water Use Type for Kansas?

Kansas Ag Secretary Josh Svaty just announced what is being billed as a "groundbreaking" new initiative for voluntary water conservation in the state.  The press release goes on to say that this new initiative is a replacement for the Water Rights Conservation Program (WRCP) that had to be eliminated due to budget shortfalls. How does it stack up?

First, a look at WRCP.  This program allowed a water right owner to enroll the water right for 5-10 years, via a contract with the state engineer, for conservation purposes.  There was no cost for the right owner or any incentive provided by the state to enroll.  The state's application review was basically for two conditions - to ensure the water right was within an area closed to new appropriations, and that it was valid (non-forfeited due to nonuse).  The benefit to the right owner was that every year of enrollment constituted "due and sufficient cause for nonuse" - thus keeping the water right active during each year of the contract.  The benefit to the state was the set aside of the water right for conservation purposes.  This program cost the state less than $50,000 per year, and when eliminated on December 31, 2009, had 977 water rights enrolled which had 266,000 acrefeet of water appropriated.  Of course, not all of this water was being pumped each year, but most agreed that the real conservation of water was well worth the $50,000 it cost to run the progrm. 

The real salient issues of WRCP were:  the contractural arrangement provided absolute certainty for the water right owner that:  his or her conservation (nonuse) was an accepted cause for nonuse; and the water right would be whole and valid when the contract was over.  The owner could even remove the pump from the well and properly store it for protection.

Now, the new, groundbreaking proposal.  The state is proposing to amend the Kansas Water Appropriation Act (bill introduced in concept, no specific language yet) to create a new water use type - Conservation.  Through the existing "change of water rights" process a water right owner could apply to change his or her right from its current use type, to the new Conservation use type.  Once the use type has been changed, the non-use would be considered a beneficial use, thus keeping the right active.  There would be no reduction of the quantity, rate or place of use when changed into Conservation.  Another change of use type application would be filed whenever in the future the owner wanted to start using the water right again for its original purpose or any other purpose.

The beauty of this approach is its simplicity - all the elements are there once the Legislature creates the new beneficial use type.  I personally believe the cost of this approach actually increases for both the water right owner and the state, but it's not a hugely significant cost increase.  The salient issues of this approach are (and remember, the actual bill language is not yet available):  How can there be a guarantee that an application to change a Conservation use type back to some other use type in the future will be approvable?  Is it possible that the state engineer, who must consider the "public interest" in all change applications, might deny a change back to irrigation use in an overappropriated area based on his or her belief that it does not serve the public interest?   

With no assurance that any water right will be approved for a change back to its original use - either in whole or in part - it seems like too much of a risk for people to participate.  If this is true, their "groundbreaking" approach to voluntary conservation will be much ado about nothing.  Perhaps the bill will address this issue and also create a way that everyone's expectations can be guaranteed, but, it's a sticky wicket, that one - at least in Kansas!  I continue to hope for the best.