Thursday, June 24, 2010

An Ogallala Groundwater Concept Rarely Discussed

Much has been and is being written about the Ogallala Aquifer and its groundwater situation.  Most articles do several things that I always want to question.  First, they tend to discuss a specific part of the Ogallala, but attach a headline that applies to the entire aquifer.
Take for example a recent Twitter post:  "Decline of the Ogallala Aquifer - a classic common pool resource problem."  When you follow the link and read the article, it's solely about the High Plains Texas portion of the aquifer, and moreover, the situtation (problem) is attributed almost exclusively to that states' groundwater management scheme - the Rule of Capture.  Yet, anyone skimming headlines only will come away thinking the entire Ogallala is a classic common pool resource problem - even though there are 8 different management approaches to the entire aquifer and only Texas uses the Rule of Capture.  I have probably 4 times over the past 6 months left comments to this effect on blogs and replied to twitter posts.  This will be a hard practice to correct, I'm afraid.

Secondly, a lot of the articles couch the problem of declines in a constant time frame - and predict a future-certain "plane crash".  For example, they say something to the effect that the water table is declining at 1.5 feet per year, and at this rate, 50% of the aquifer will be gone in 40 years and the aquifer will be dry in 80 years.  What is not commonly understood is that while a constant decline rate will predict the future, there will NOT be a constant decline rate because the wells producing the water and causing the decline will NOT be able to maintain a constant rate of production as the water table continues to drop. 

In fact, even if you are aware enough to know that reductions in saturated thickness will result in reduced pumping rates, most consider these reduced production rates as linear, and therefore predictable over time.  Not true.  A well's production rate decreases ever-faster as the saturated thickness dwindles.  In other words if you find a 10% reduction in your well yield with the last 20 feet of decline, the next 20 feet of decline will reduce your well yield significantly more than 10%, and so on.  The exact relationship is dictated by the aquifer characteristics so they vary from place to place - even within the same aquifer, but the relationship is a geometric one rather than arithmetic.

What this means is that the economic end of pumping will be closer than most think, AND the predicted future water level elevation of the aquifer will be higher than predicted as a result, AND an aquifer (in the sense it is being used in the article) will never be pumped dry.  Said another way, our "plane" will land softer than everyone is predicting.  However, of course, the core issue remains - any overdrafting will eventually see the plane land, while most would prefer that it keep flying forever (sustainability).  This, however, is an issue for a later blog.   

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Are They Kidding?

I ran across an article on the Western Premier's Conference (Western Canada) which headlined:  Western Leaders Draw Water Charter to Protect Resource.  The article opened with:   Immediate action must be taken to conserve Canada's fresh water supplies, a group of western premiers and territorial leaders agreed Tuesday...The leaders agreed to a Water Charter...that makes protecting the resource a priority.  All well and good - the formality of a "water charter" sounds to me like a fairly serious affair in which the premier's steadfastly agreed to get aggressive over the water resource conditions they currently are worried enough about to have a conference on.

I read on with baited breath, asking myself rhetorically:  What novel and/or forward thinking approaches did they include in the Charter?  The report continues:  The western leaders agreed to support a federal public awareness campaign called WaterSense, which will label products to help Canadians choose low water-use appliances such as dishwashers and washing machines.  Yikes!  Is that it, I ask as I continue to read.  No! There's more:  Campbell said the Western leaders will also work with public and private sectors to make the next World Water Day on March 22, 2011 a national event to promote water conservation.  Now this decision comforts me in ways that I can barely express.  Yep, that's all that is reported as having been done in the water resource arena.  Check it out yourself.

The report did mention that:  Tuesday's meeting builds on a 2008 agreement created by the premiers called the Western Water Stewardship Council, which was created to work toward lowering national and provincial consumption rates. I sincerely hope the 2008 effort was where the lion's share of the water conservation decisions were made, because these two efforts alone probably fall far short of an effective water conservation program.  It's also possible the reporter simply missed all the salient decisions and agreements made during the session.  There must be more to it than this.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

And Speaking of Google..

And speaking of Google Wave, I have created a set of linked Waves intended to elicit discourse, comments or questions regarding anything groundwater management.  My hope is that all the groundwater management types will join in and participate.  Google Wave, if you're unfamiliar with it, is a vehicle to discuss and collaborate on documents, ideas, thoughts, proposals and who knows what else.  It's like a wiki in this regard - an open architecture format that allows anyone to create a document, idea, or discussion point and anyone else to respond with edits, supporting material, a refute or whatever else they want to say about the issue at hand.  The operating system is like IM'ing, but more real time - you actually see what others are typing as they make their inputs.

The site I made is called:  All Things Groundwater Management.   You'll have to create an account in Google Wave and once you do you can find the GMDA Wave by searching on "with:public Tag:groundwater".  (Once you find it, you'll want to add it to your Inbox to keep track of it)  The main Wave is the intro and currently has 3 linked Waves - 1) Issue Discussions (w/ 5 starter discussion topics); 2) a GMDA meetings Wave; and 3) a GMDA Board Meeting Wave.  The discussion waves currently are completely open, but may change to "access by request only" if we all feel a need to restrict it.  In fact, I'm taking a poll inside this wave on the "open issue" right now (Discussion Topic # 4) so feel free to chime in.  The Board Meeting Wave is by request only and is being reserved for GMDA board member participation only.  You can see it, but cannot comment or edit any of the material therein.

I have to admit that the learning curve is a bit higher than normal, but the utility of Wave to conduct open (or controlled) discussions and collaborative development is very promising.  For starters, most versions of IE don't even support the newer format, so you'll have to download and install a Google Chrome Frame, or, just use a compatible browser like Safari, Firefox or Chrome.  On the plus side, I'll wager the polling widgets alone would keep Zetland busy for at least a year!  

Anyway, come by for a visit if you can and help build the groundwater management community Wave. 

Sunday, June 13, 2010

I Wonder If...

Agchat is a pretty lively discussion group on Twitter made up of ag groups, ag supporters, Extension folks, producers, ag journalists, cattlemen (and women), and a host of others who meet each Tuesday evening to discuss the ag topic of the week.  I have joined in a few times, and while the conversation is lively, I have always felt that the Twittersphere made this task more difficult than it needed to be.  First of all, Twitter doesn't always cooperate and from time to time actually crashes.  Secondly, the comments made are short, 134 character blitzes taken in the order they arrive - sometimes addressing a tweet made by someone else back in the stream about 15 or 20 tweets ago.  Finally, the archive of the session is only available a day or so later after someone puts it together.

I wonder if the organizers of Agchat have considered Google Wave as a venue to conduct the same sessions?  The longer blips allowed in Wave would provide a better way to express most of the ideas offered.  Also, the ability to respond directly to a specific comment, at any time in the discussion (or even a day later) keeps a better discussion going.  Finally, the Wave stands alone as its own archive without any extra organization or management.  Each Tuesday's discussion can be its own Wave session, and related waves can be easily linked.

Anyway, while Wave has a steeper learning curve, it is far more functional than Twitter for the Agchat venue. I just wonder if they are aware of it.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Always Bothered Me

I ran across the following in a newsletter today:  "State law prohibits the occurrence of uncontrolled irrigation runoff...It is illegal to operate an irrigation system that contributes to wasting groundwater."  The article goes on to say that the management entity has budgeted cost-share funds for the installation of irrigation reuse pits, and that additional state and federal cost-share funds are also available.  I have to ask:  Why is anyone using tax payers money to cost share on fixing an illegal activity?  Especially one that will save the irrigator lots of money.

We ran across the same situation in Kansas years ago regarding the plugging of abandoned wells - also illegal - and also cost-shared by the state and some local entities.  GMD 4 chose to regulate the plugging of these wells over enticing the owners with cost-share funds.  We got 2,000 wells (after an inventory) plugged for an average GMD4 cost of about $30.00 per well.  The cost share programs were getting wells plugged for about $200.00 per well.  Our effort got all the located wells plugged in our district.  Theirs got only 75 or so plugged from conscientious landowners over the rest of the entire state.  Like patching holes in the roof - what good does it do to fix 5% of the holes?

Our program educated and involved the well drillers so that very few new abandoned wells were coming into the system. Theirs was business as usual at the close of the program with landowners walking away from wells at the same pace as before.  The problem would simply return over time.

The regulatory approach was not always easy, but it was remarkably efficient and effective.  I always thought the public footing the bill for this work would take us to task quicker if we chose to use an inefficient and/or ineffective approach to solve the problem. This is actually a bigger waste of public funds in my opinion.  Our board agreed with me and went the regulatory path. Anyway, good luck with cost-sharing these solutions.