Political Scene

Water is for Fightin’
David Applegate

The problem seemed straightforward enough. The Ogallala and associated aquifers are being depleted. This immense groundwater reservoir, called the “lifeblood of the High Plains” (and rightly so), underlies parts of eight states, providing drinking water for rural communities and critically important irrigation water for agriculture that feeds the entire nation. Many local, state and federal projects are underway to improve water conservation and to study individual areas within the High Plains aquifer system, but the last comprehensive hydrologic assessment is more than 20 years old, and there has never been a comprehensive geologic assessment. Meanwhile, water levels in parts of the aquifer have dropped 60 feet. A four-year drought shows no sign of letting up, placing additional strain on an already stressed and very complex system.

Recognizing that extending the life of the aquifer will require improved hydrogeological characterization and understanding of the system as a whole, geological surveys in each of the eight affected states formed a coalition in partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to press forward such investigations. Senators Jeff Bingaman (D) and Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico, joined by Sen. Sam Brownback (R) of Kansas, introduced legislation — S. 212, the High Plains Aquifer Hydrogeologic Characterization, Mapping, Modeling and Monitoring Act (quite a mouthful) — to accomplish the goal. As stated by Sen. Bingaman: “Having knowledge is key to our ability to plan for the future.”

“We in the states who are struggling to extend and preserve the life of the High Plains aquifer know that ignorance is dangerous.”

Lee Allison
Kansas State Geologist

The bill would establish a cooperative program between USGS and the state surveys patterned after their successful collaboration on geologic mapping. The legislation would also make funds available to the affected states, with USGS supporting state requests for technical expertise; a review panel predominately from those states would award funding based on scientific merit.

Lawmakers made changes in the original bill to give more control on project selection to the governors of the High Plains states, and the revised legislation sailed through the Senate by unanimous consent in April. It then made its way across Capitol Hill to the House Resources Committee, whose Subcommittee on Water and Power held a hearing on Oct. 30, 2003.
At the hearing, however, it quickly became apparent that this bipartisan bill intended to stimulate additional coordinated research on a resource issue of national importance was anything but motherhood and apple pie. In his opening statement, Subcommittee Chairman Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) noted that there were concerns that S. 212 was the “camel’s nose under the tent for federal water regulation.”

A string of witnesses from the National Corn Growers Association and American Farm Bureau Federation, among others, bore out Calvert’s statement. In their view, the bill was an attempt to establish federal regulation of groundwater and otherwise usurp state and local authority. According to one witness, the bill was even going to steal jobs from migrant farm workers in Texas by leading to new restrictions and regulations. Although some witnesses admitted that the legislation did not explicitly mention regulations, they questioned the purpose of a new federal program that they perceived would duplicate and divert funds from existing efforts.

Even the bill’s proposal to establish a fair and noncompulsory system for determining which projects to fund was held up as evidence of ulterior motives. In the words of Scott Wall, a farmer from Yuma, Colo., who said that he left his fields at harvest time in order to testify on behalf of the corn growers: “S. 212 is a complex bill. Governors must request assistance. A review panel must be created. The review panel must evaluate research proposals and prioritize program activities. Funding must be split with the states. Reports on program implementation and the state of the aquifer must be generated. Why is this so prescriptive? It makes me wonder about the real reason for S. 212.” And what might that reason be?

Wall continued: “Another intrusion, no matter how innocuously drafted to help states or to conduct research, eventually opens the door to more laws and new regulations.” Yes, it’s a slippery slope. Scientists could go to school on the tactics displayed by these powerful interest groups.

Defending his bill at the hearing, Bingaman stated that he and his colleagues sought to provide new funds to states to ensure a sound and objective scientific base about the geology and hydrology of the aquifer. He emphasized that the legislation did not have a regulatory component, nor did it represent the first step toward federal regulation of groundwater, affect existing federal programs, or otherwise adversely impact the ability of states and localities to manage their water. He was supported by Reps. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Tom Osborne (R-Neb.), who noted the interconnected nature of the aquifer and the need to understand interactions across state lines.

One of only two witnesses testifying in support of the bill, Kansas State Geologist Lee Allison testified: “This bill provides a mechanism for states to develop or enhance their own capabilities in hydrogeology … This bill puts the states on a more equal footing with the federal government.” Allison had already taken to closing his e-mail messages with the old western adage: “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.” (In another century, John Wesley Powell learned that lesson the hard way — we might call him a visionary now, but his critics regarding irrigation and the settlement of the arid West used other terms.)

Three of the witnesses who testified against the bill were from the Texas panhandle district of Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R). Recently elected in a special election after the sudden retirement of former House Agriculture Committee Chairman Larry Combest (R), Neugebauer sought to portray the bill not only as creeping federalism but also was adamant that the resulting program was duplicating existing activities — local water districts were already “doing a lot of mapping.” Moreover, he feared that with a cost estimated by the Congressional Budget Office to be roughly $10 million per year,the bill would take money away from existing water conservation programs funded by the Department of Agriculture. The casual observer might be forgiven for seeing the logic in such a statement; in actuality, the proposed research would be funded in an entirely separate agency and funding bill.

On one point, however, Neugebauer was absolutely correct: The federal government already has the authority to conduct such studies and work in partnership with the states. USGS Associate Director for Water Robert Hirsch testified as much. So why is new legislation necessary? In Bingaman’s words, the bill "sends a clear signal" that this particular topic is of high importance.

Moran referred to the bill as "encouragement to states," acknowledging that the impediment was not legal but rather a matter of priority and will. Because authorization bills do not actually release any dollars — the domain of the appropriations process — they serve primarily as a bully pulpit. The bill’s supporters did not have to take this route; they could instead have simply asked a sympathetic member of the Appropriations Committee to earmark the necessary funds. But such an approach likely would have taken a slice out of other USGS programs and might not have resulted in the kind of carefully conceived, comprehensively vetted system that bill proponents agreed was needed.

Some of the other concerns at the hearing might also prove correct. The more that is known about the state of the aquifer, the more restrictions that local water districts or states might decide to put in place. But they might also realize that they are being overly restrictive of certain activities, or alternatively use the information to make a stronger case for additional funding of water conservation, or otherwise help their farmers become more efficient and thus more competitive in the process. As Allison said in his testimony: "We in the states who are struggling to extend and preserve the life of the High Plains aquifer know that ignorance is dangerous."

For scientists already leery of the political fray, this hearing might certainly provide added impetus to stay far from the action, but there is a larger lesson to be drawn and it leads in quite the opposite way. The opinions expressed by Neugebauer and a number of others at the hearing reflected a strong sense that they already had the information they needed. We as scientists can’t assume that policy-makers will come knocking on our doors for data and analysis. In the absence of scientists making a concerted effort to bring the information to them, policy-makers may well be satisfied that they already understand what’s going on.

At the outset of the hearing, Calvert called on the administration to provide a cross-cut budget of all current activities related to characterizing the High Plains aquifer, and he later obtained Bingaman’s assent to adding a provision that would prohibit any use of the data collected under the bill for federal or interstate regulation.

Whether such additional information and language changes will weaken opposition remains to be seen, but the eventual outcome — a better scientific underpinning for tough resource decisions — is worth the effort that Allison and his colleagues have put into it, and then some.

Applegate directs the American Geological Institute’s Government Affairs Program and is editor of Geotimes. E-mail:

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