Friday, July 30, 2010

Fed Program Changes?

I recently asked a host of entities (NRCS, KWO, DWR, SCC, GMDs, etc.) to begin a Kansas dialog on the potential benefits of tweaking EQIP and AWEP so that these 2 programs can be applied toward reducing consumptive water use (conserving water) AND minimizing any economic impacts as the water conservation is happening.

Both programs are now recognizing the much greater water conservation benefits of transitioning irrigated acres to dryland production – thus truly conserving 100% of the historic consumptive water use. To this end, the program developers are to be commended. But both programs have been focusing on complete water right set asides or conversions in order to qualify.

New economic and hydrologic modeling is convincingly showing that reducing the least efficient portion of water use from a number of irrigation systems will have less economic impact on a region than reducing the same amount of water use completely from fewer systems. These two approaches have the same hydrologic results, but different economic impacts.

GMD 4 is wondering if it is time to consider approaching USDA, NRCS and perhaps others in asking that water conservation programs such as EQIP and AWEP take fuller advantage of the modeling results to lower the economic impacts of their water conservation benefits? To do this, these programs will need to allow for partial consumptive water use reductions from a larger number of participants. This means that EQIP and AWEP are going to need changes accordingly. Are these issues important enough to start developing?

GMD 4 welcomes any comments, ideas or suggestions regarding an open dialog on this issue. Perhaps a specific set of AWEP rules should also be discussed as operating AWEP under EQIP rules has brought to light a few glitches – at least what we consider glitches.  Anyone else tracking these issues as well?

Oh, I sent the email request on July 7, and have not heard a word yet from anyone.  I hope they're still mulling it over.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

New Conservation Use Type

Last Legislative session the idea of a new type of Kansas water use - “conservation” – was floated as an alternative to the elimination of the Water Rights Conservation Program (WRCP). It stalled in a Senate committee when the chair did not see enough consensus. Kansas Ag Secretary Svaty has since indicated his continued interest in the idea, and there are indications it may be considered for interim Legislative study.

The essence of the program is that anyone wanting to conserve their water right by not using it would change the right from its current use type (irrigation, M&I etc.) to the new “conservation” beneficial use type created by the Legislature. The change would be permanent until an application is filed again to change it to another use type. As left last year, any water right in the state would be eligible and there would be no time limit a water right could exist as a conservation use water right.

While seemingly simple, this idea has some challenges. Some wanted only areas closed to new appropriations to have this option – believing that participation in non-closed areas could prevent new water right applications from being approved - thus underutilizing the state's water resources. Others felt the future change process from conservation could subject the water right to new (as-of-yet-developed) criteria - in other words, less assurance of what the water right will become when changed to some other use type in the future. Still others objected to the permanent nature of the change and felt there should be a time limit set. 

The Ag department had last session addressed the first of these issues with the promise of a regulation that would basically allow its division of water resources to let term permits for new uses that did not exceed the extent of water existing as conservation rights - and only for as long as the conservation rights existed.  This construct basically crafted a state brokerage in this regard.  While a creative fix, and close to being workable, it was offered very late in the process and never got enough time to gel. 
It is my opinion that the largest issue is that of the fundamental change in the water right when initially changed to a conservation use type. I can't help but think there will be hoops to jump through in changing it back to some other use type, and those hoops will benefit the state more so than the water right holder.  If we discuss this issue again in Kansas, my focus will be on this issue - not so much to be an opponent, but to insure that the process is clearly stated so that the water right owner understands what will have to be done, and what he or she will end up having, when the time comes.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

AWEP - Conservation Log - Day 27

I am amazed yet again at the veritable speed at which this program is coming together.  We have finalized the majority of decision-points related to implementing our conservation proposal of transitioning irrigated acres out of irrigation, and are now seriously servicing the questions of potential applicants.  And there is a lot of interest and a lot of questions.  There is also a program eligibility change which I corrected in my July 19 Blog article (previous entry below).

We are confident that we can retire 2,000 irrigated acres within our 6 high priority areas in our first program year.  Keep in mind, these acres will be non-irrigated for 6 years only.  We are also hoping to leverage the state's Water Transition Assistance Program (WTAP) with this effort to permanently retire perhaps 800 of these acres in year 1. 

With 2 more years of AWEP funding available (pending Congressional funding and local participation) we'll eventually retire from 6,000 to 7,000 acres for the 6 years.  This activity should catch the attention and interest of the Kansas Legislature to fund WTAP sufficiently over the same 3-year period so we can continue making permanent conversions by leveraging the two programs.  If it doesn't, I can only conclude that our Legislature is actually disinterested in reducing groundwater use - regardless of what they pontificate otherwise.  Yes, I'm throwing the gauntlet down and challenging the Kansas Legislature to step up.  (Yeah, I'll bet they're really worried now.)

No seriously, I think we've put together a pretty responsible program to convert irrigated acres in our most critical areas - exactly what our state water plans says needs to be done - with the heavy lifting being done by the NRCS' AWEP program.  To not support this effort with state funds will be "penny wise and pound foolish" as Ben Franklin would say. We'll see.  

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

AWEP - Conservation Log: Day 19:

A bit more detail has come out on how the Partnership program is going to operate in our 6 HPA's.  Any irrigator within our 6 areas can now visit their local NRCS office and make application - again, to receive 5 years of payments per acre in lieu of not irrigating for 6 years.  The annual payments will be based on ones benchmark acres - average acres irrigated per year between 2005 and 2009.  Moreover, the benchmark acres must equal or exceed 66% 45%* of the authorized irrigated acres and must have been watered at least 2 of these 5 years.  Finally, the acres must have received at least 6 acre-inches of water applied.  These are the eligibility criteria.

All the eligible applications will then be ranked.  If your irrigated acres are from 70% 60%* to 79.9% of the authorized acres, you'll get additional points.  If from 80% to 89.9%, more points, and if more than 90%, more points yet.

If you applied from 8 - 12 13 acre-inches of water per acre (average over all years irrigated) you'll receive additional points.  If you applied more than 12 13 acre-inches per acre you'll receive more points.

Finally, if you had submitted an eligible Kansas Water Transition Assistance Program (WTAP) application  in the last go-around and were not accepted, you get additional points.

As you can see, this program is seeking to convert the acres that have been irrigated the most - hence will result in the most groundwater conservation.  I won't apologize for this although water users who have seriously reduced their water use over the past 5 years will tend to not fare as well - especially if they have eliminated acres to do so. 

A common question is what will happen to the water rights?  Being in a designated HPA, the water rights will be protected from non-use issues for the entire time and will be completely usable after the 6th year.  However, our intent remains to permanently convert the irrigated acres enrolled.  We will be seeking other programs to make this happen.  Bottom line:  If you are keenly interested in a permanent retirement, don't ignore this program just because it's temporary. 

Others ask about overlapped water rights. Overlapped water rights must be all enrolled to ensure water conservation.  Also, enrolling part of a single water right will not be allowed.

We've received calls or visits from folks in every HPA as of just a few minutes ago, so there appears to be sufficient interest.  We hope it continues.

NOTE:  * corrections are updates to the program rules that have been made after the original date of this post.  Blog corrections made by WAB on 07/27/2010

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Log of Our AWEP Experience

Over the next year I'll try to capture my experiences with the AWEP award we received earlier this month from NRCS.  For those who do not know, AWEP stands for Agricultural Water Enhancement Program.  It is a fairly new initiative within NRCS that was created in the 2008 Farm Bill.  It is actually part of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which we'll discuss in a bit.  AWEP is a voluntary conservation initiative that provides financial and technical assistance to ag producers to implement ag water enhancement activities on land for the purposes of conserving surface and groundwater and improving water quality.

On July 2 it was announced that our proposal (from a partnership between GMD4, 4 county conservation districts, a county Farm Bureau group, and the Kansas Water Office) was awarded, and that in FY 2010 $2.666 million was being made available toward our plan - a 3-year, $9 million effort to permanently convert irrigated acres in our six high priority areas (HPAs) to non-irrigation uses - thus saving 100% of the groundwater irrigation use on these acres.

It must be noted here that we proposed to permanently convert acres with program payments between $1350 and $2250 per acre - depending on how much historic water had been used on them.  The acres with the most water used, would receive the highest payments.  Our proposed payment levels were based on just over 100 actual bid offerings from producers under a competitively bid water rights retirement program offered by Kansas last year. When awarded, we assumed that the entire program was approved.  This turned out NOT to be the case.

Remember that AWEP is implemented under the EQIP program - an on-going effort already with it's own rules.  Turns out that EQIP can only pay on the producer's lost income for adopting the conservation practice (converting irrigated acres to dry land production) and for only 5 years.  It was unlikely that any irrigator was going to give up irrigation forever for just 5, annual, lost income payments. Under these constraints, we requested that the award be changed to a 6-year irrigation set-aside for the same 5, annual, lost income payments.  NRCS approved. 

The temporary suspension of irrigation in our HPAs would help, but we were disappointed that permanent conversions would not be possible.  The fact is we were close to being disgusted that NRCS was good with paying $1100 an acre to not irrigate for 6 years, but not OK with paying $200 to $800 more an acre to conserve the water forever - all because of an EQIP rule.  To add insult to injury, NRCS also imposed an unbelievably short timeframe on this first year - setting an August 13, 2010 deadline for all producer applications. Recall, the program just got announced yesterday.

However, after more thought, we were wrong think that permanent conversions were out of reach and that AWEP was useless to us.  We now are embracing the AWEP award as a significant first step to this very goal - it'll just take another program or two to make it happen, and we have 5 years to craft whatever it is that we need.  And actually, since permanent conversions are off the table, the August 13 deadline is also not near as daunting.

In my next entry, I'll cover the details of our AWEP program and outline how we're expecting to work it with other programs to make these conservation efforts permanent.  As always, questions can be directed to me.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Words, Words, Words

OK, I'm a sucker for word games and such.  Those who have been following me on Twitter probably already know this from my water "Anagram" posts.  I have found two more word thingies that are pretty cool.  First is "Wordle" - a web site where you can make word clouds from your own text, such as this kansas groundwater cloud I just made.  You can control the colors, the nature of the cloud, the font and much more - so you get just that right look.  The more text you put in, the busier the cloud.

I also just started participating in Artwiculate - an internet word game that is creative.  Artwiculate provides a bodacious word every day that you are to use in context in a tweet.  Everytime someone votes for your tweet on the Artwiculate page, or retweets your tweet in Twitter, you get a point. At the end of the 24 hour period, most points (cleverest tweet using the word?) wins.  My first attempt yesterday on the word "Asinine" netted me a top 20 finish.  I hate to say it, but I used an anagram to get 18th place - 40 votes.  My tweet was:  "Asinine = is inane (an anagram for those who don't recognize one)".  Today's word is Debacle.  Vote for my entry if you get a chance. 

This stuff keeps me busy when Twitter and the Blogsphere is slow.  Several of my Twitter followers would probably do pretty well at these sites!  You know who you are - AO, GL, JF, & MR.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Saturated Thickness Variability

I'm often asked:  "What's the water table doing?"  It's a perfectly good question, but a difficult one to answer as succinctly as asked - especially in our area where the variability of conditions - from rainfall to actual measured declines - is so variable.  And averages only seem to confuse the issue, so I try to stay away from them. 

Case in point:  our water level elevation data from Thomas County - the heart of our GMD area.  The graph below shows four of the sixty-seven wells measured every Janauary to describe both the water table elevations and the saturated thickness.  (Click on the graph to enlarge it)  The wells are measured to the nearest 1/100th of a foot.  These 4 are the observation wells with:  the most saturated thickness (ST) in 1965; the least ST in 1965; showing the most decline (1965-2008); and showing the least decline (1965-2008).  I have also included (heavy black line) the annual average of all 67 wells.

From these 4 wells we start to see the variability within 1 County - not only in saturated thickness (from 62 feet to 175 feet) but in decline rates as well (from 5 feet to 38 feet).  And if you think spouting average values is misleading (or at least less than helpful) try answering with ranges of values.  Even less helpful to most.  And I've not even gotten into the variability over time, which finds our decline rates at any location changing from decade to decade - due mostly to longer term precipitation variability.

It wouldn't be so bad if it was just water level data, but it's other data as well.  The variability of our rainfall numbers for example stagger even the most hardened meteorologist.  So is the life of a groundwater manager.  Maybe I take it all too seriously.  Maybe people are asking me the rhetorical, ice-breaker question and really aren't that interested anyway.  And maybe that's why I keep all this stuff on our web page - so you can conclude your own answers. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Agchat - Practical Sustainability

I've mentioned this before, but I log into #Agchat from time to time on Twitter to discuss ag issues.  This past Tuesday (July 13) the topic was Sustainability in Ag.  I thought this could be an interesting discussion - especially if the sustainability of Ag water was discussed.  To offer this as a topic, I shot in the following question (not knowing if it would be used by the moderator or not):  "How important is water resource sustainability to your Ag operation?  If it is, how much control do you have over the issue?"

Anyway, the discussion began with question 1:  "Begin by defining ‘sustainable farming’ and ‘un-sustainable farming’ (with examples)."  The discussion that followed had me scratching my head more often than not.  Right off the bat several of the participants offered:  "..our citrus crop in CA uses 76% less water than conventionally grown citrus & produces 5X more fruit per acre"  and  "Citrus crop uses dense plantings and newer technology" and  "sustainability = producing more with less" and "switching our corn/soys to 20" rows has increased yields and increased use of each acre".  

First of all, I'm pretty sure these folks' definition of sustainability was geared more toward sustaining their own farm/operation than toward sustaining their input resources - like irrigation water.  Simply stated, anytime production yields increase, consumptive water use increases - regardless of how much more or less water you physically apply to the crop.  More often than not the newer technologies transfer the inefficient (non-consumptive) water application to consumptive crop use - hence you don't have to pump as much, but actually use more (demonstrated by the increased yields).  If everyone did this, how can we hope to achieve sustainable water use as our water use continues to increase?

To be fair, there were some good responses too.  One said:  "Regardless of your definition, future impacts must be considered."  I think this participant was seeing the broader picture - at least I hope he or she was.

My question did get posed, but the discussion was ... well, polite.  Responses were:  "is vital to sustainability of life" and "Very important & controlled" and "My friends do a great water training on how to install drip".   Not at all what I was hoping for.

This is when I posed the following discussion point:  "What happens if you have a series of individually sustainable farms, but collectively they are unsustainable?"  It seemed like everyone was focused on what sustainability was for their farm, but refused to consider that collectively they could be having a very unsustainable impact - not so much from what they do to the land, air, water, etc., but certainly from what they take from the land, air and water.  My question was not discussed or even acknowledged.  What do you think?  Was it too cryptic?  Too close to home?

All in all, it was a lively discussion, as it almost always is, but I'm thinking Twitter is simply too limited a venue to seriously discuss any topic - especially in a 2-hour session.  This is where I think Google Wave could do a much better job.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Value of Water - Murray-Darling v. Ogallala

Just read a recent article in the Australian that was reporting on the reduction of irrigation water use in the dwindling Murray-Darling system.  The article reports that:  “The federal government has so far bought back 803 billion litres of water entitlements, which has cost $1.28 billion.”  I have always thought that the Murray-Darling basin of SE Australia is much like the Ogallala Aquifer of the central US in that the overdraft levels, the irrigation footprint, and perhaps most importantly, the rhetoric about the importance of water is very similar between the two areas.  It got me thinking - If my sense of the similarities are true, shouldn't the offered price to retire water rights look similar as well?

The AU calculations are roughly:  803 billion liters equals 615,000 AF.  A cost of $1.28 billion AUD = $2,075 AUD per AF.  The current exchange is:  1 US $ = 1.217 AUD.  In US dollars, the cost to the AU government of buying these 615,000 AF is roughly equal to $1,700 US per AF.  At $1,700 US per AF, and 1.22 AF being applied to each acre in our Ogallala HPA’s, each acre of land would need to be paid $2,078 US to match the Australia situation.  

Based on 100 or so bid proposals to permanently retire water rights in our GMD, the going rate was hovering right at $2,000 per acre of irrigated land needed to retire the full consumptive water use on each acre.  

Unless my calculations (or logic) are wrong, seems like the value of irrigated water in our two areas is far more similar than dissimilar, and we're very much in the ballpark with the Australian government's assessment of the value of water rights.  Jeesch, I hope Zetland doesn't get a hold of this evaluation!