Monday, November 29, 2010

Would it Work?

I think there are several ways to define or achieve "sustainable" groundwater use here in NW Kansas.  You have to pick your poison, though, because they all entail using less water than we are today.  One intriguing approach involves the possibility of irrigating virtually every acre of the district to a lesser degree, rather than the 15% of the district we now irrigate fully.

The idea is based on limiting irrigations to match the long-term annual recharge rates - to assure an average dryland production rate every year, for whatever crop is grown.  In theory, we should achieve long term sustainability if we can do so.  For example, if it rains an average of 18 inches per year in Thomas County, and this precipitation regime produces a long term average dryland production of 60 bushels per acre of corn, how would we fair if every acre in the County was irrigated every year for the 60-bushel corn production level?  When it rains 18 inches or more, no irrigation would be required or allowed.  When it rains less, every acre could be irrigated only for the 60 bushel production target.

Another way to say this would be irrigation only as a supplement to average dryland production rates - be it wheat, corn, sorghum, beans or whatever.  I wonder how a 60 bushel per acre corn production history on every crop acre, forever, would compare socially and economically to the 225 bushel per acre production levels we're now achieving on 12% of the acres - while the declining groundwater table continues to promise us an eventual end to this practice?  I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that the long term economic outlook is positive, but I'm not sure how the current economy would respond.  Cratering our current economic base to achieve any long term sustainable goal is always going to be problematic.

I'm sure there are a few things that would need to be factored in - like the very limited non-irrigation water use we have here (less than 2.5% of the total); the fact that crop production is not linear in it's regard to water use; the fact that annual rainfall is not known until after the crop year; and a few other things, but, these could be compensated for by either reducing the irrigated acres, or the crop production targets to some degree.

Such an approach would absolutely guarantee that the highest percentage possible of average annual precip would go toward crop production. Natural recharge would essentially cease, but with vitually no groundwater use coming out, the water table should stabilize over the long term (it'd still fluctuate a little bit in response to mid-term drought or wet cycles).  With no surface water issues to be held accountable for, this situation could actually become an economic and hydrologic advantage.

I'd be interested in anyone's thoughts on these ideas.  GMD 4 is NOT promoting this concept, but it'd be nice to know if it could ever be an option or not.

Monday, November 22, 2010

NMR Tried out on Kansas Index Wells

A $200,000.00 piece of logging equipment was tried out here in NW Kansas on the Thomas County index well several weeks ago before being shipped back to the manufacturer and on to Australia.  According to Jim Butler of the Kansas Geological Survey (KGS) the group was able to look at several of the Western Kansas Index wells.  In a prepared statement, KGS wrote:

“This tool is a miniaturized version of the NMR [Nuclear Magnetic Resonance] tools used in the petroleum industry. It is designed to provide data on water-filled porosity and the percent of that water that will readily drain from the pores (specific yield). We are going to use the tool to get a better feel for water storage both in the saturated and unsaturated intervals at the Thomas County site. We can also use the information to get estimates of permeability within the saturated zone. The tool was developed as part of a DoE research project we are participating in with a small NMR company from Seattle, Stanford, and [a Salina-based company]. Although this will be our first application of the tool to the High Plains aquifer, we have been testing it here in the Kansas River alluvium and we are excited about its potential to provide estimates of water in storage and what portion of that is readily available - also, I think information about water storage in the vadose zone could help improve insights into how much water is moving through that zone.”

Early results seem to confirm the original resistivity log on the well, and indicate that the vadose zone (above the water table) is fairly dry, but surprisingly, quite variable as to its capacity to hold water as recharge events eventually translate downward.  This seemed to be stark confirmation of our dry conditions of late.  I had to leave before seeing the results of the logging on the saturated zone, but will see these data soon.  I'm just hoping these zones are really porous AND fully saturated!  

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Water as an Economic Good

There are many out there that claim the solution to our water scarcity is an economic one - simply price water appropriately and society will collectively begin using it sustainably.  In pricing the water, suggestions have been to price it in terms of its replacement and delivery costs - not only its delivery costs.  Seems to make sense at some levels, but...

It's never clear whether these proponents are suggesting one price for all water, or, variable pricing for different water uses, or who would set the prices, by what convention.  I can't see how a single price can possibly work for all the various usages, so I hope this is not their goal.  And if every use type has it's own pricing, how is that any different than what we have today - other than the fact that everyone's water will get more expensive under such a plan - a lot more expensive. 

In our part of the world (a groundwater management district where 97% of the total regional water use is for irrigation) pricing irrigation water to cover replacement costs would be so prohibitive that all irrigation would cease immediately.  Moreover, all the costs of delivery have been and will be individually paid for by the appropriators.  There is no single unit responsible for water delivery.  And just pricing water appropriately for domestic and municipal use would be so fruitless here that it's actually a bit scary.   Could it be that the proponents of "appropriate water pricing" are actually aware of this and the whole idea is actually a euphemism for "let's eliminate irrigation"? 

I can see some cases where more appropriate water pricing could be effective in reducing water use, but even in these cases, the reduced water use would still exceed sustainable supplies, so the economic solution would be no long term solution at all - just a bandaid.  I have to ask what the appropriate pricing of water needs to be to reach sustainable water use?

Some have suggested an all-in auction as a way of deriving the appropriate pricing and setting the appropriate goal.  Great idea if you have the money to play and the water value is not excessively high and everyone has to play.  I submit that agriculture will rarely have the money to play and will thus lose water-standing significantly - if it decides to play at all.  In Kansas water rights are personal property rights to the use of the water.  As such, I don't see how they can be forced to participate in the auction.  If this is the case, how can an auction be run when and if 97% of the universe is not enrolled?  

If anyone can show me how appropriate pricing will work on a large scale, over all the water uses, to achieve a sustainable water use level in a fair manner (everyone participating from an equal vantage point) I'll be happy to champion their cause.  And maybe they're all right and I just don't get it!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Abandoned Wells - A Few of Our Experiences

Most activities by locals and state governments regarding the handling of abandoned water wells is to offer a cost-share incentive program.  Some are fairly well funded, most are not.  While this makes most people feel good, it is probably the most inefficient and wasteful way to address the problem yet devised by well-meaning activists (pun intended).

We start with the likely premise that abandoned wells are probably illegal by state and/or local law. So why should we be using taxpayers money to help correct an illegal situation?  Even if they're not illegal, which they are in Kansas, we have found the following to be true:

1)  What a land-owner deems an abandoned well and what any responsible cost-share program would deem one to be are very, very different;
2)  Most landowners aren't even aware of the fact that an abandoned well exists on their property even if they did agree on the definition;
3)  Too many landowners don't feel obliged to put any money into a useless object - regardless of the potential liability.

These findings all point to the need for a comprehensive survey by qualified persons if serious about remediating the problem.  Otherwise it's like fixing a few holes in your roof while leaving many more unaddressed.  You also need a process to keep new wells from getting abandoned.  We work with the well drillers and for every redrill, we account for the former well.  A process to follow through is important also. Can't tell you how many reminders were necessary in our program - even to those who initially agreed to plug the well.

I've not seen a single, voluntary cost-share plugging program in Kansas or surrounding states that has lasted long enough to come even remotely close to mitigating their abandoned well problem. And even if they do last, they get wells plugged at such a slow rate that it's likely abandoned wells are being added faster than they are being remediated.  If this is true, then whatever money they spent (or are spending) doing a partial job was (is) totally wasted.  Our board felt that the taxpayers were more likey to give them grief for not efficiently spending their dollars on an important water program than they would for implementing a tough, efficient, regulatory program that was going to work. 

We created a regulatory program that inventoried virtually every tract of land in the district and remediated just over 2200 abandoned wells in 3.5 years.  We did so such that our definition of abandoned well was used, the well drillers became part of the program for maintenance, and at a total administrative cost (taxpayers money) of about $32.00 per well - considerably less expensive than the cost-share efforts on-going at the same time in Kansas. No program or approach is perfect, but I'll hold our effort up against any in the country for efficiency and results.