Web Extra Thursday, March 20

Congress confronts a depleting aquifer

Approximately 30 percent of the groundwater used for irrigation in this country comes from a single source: the High Plains Aquifer. The aquifer lies beneath 174,000 square miles of land, including portions of eight states. For years, people thought the aquifer's supply would not end. Irrigation withdrawals in 1990 exceeded 14 billion gallons per day. However, intensive pumping since the 1940s has steadily lowered the water level in many areas. Costs of pumping have risen sharply, becoming prohibitively expensive in some places. On March 12, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources amended and passed a bill that would provide a scientific basis for extending the usable life of the aquifer.

The sands and gravels that hold the aquifer water settled out of rivers flowing eastward from the Rockies over the past several million years. The thickness of the aquifer varies, but averages 200 feet. Its high permeability facilities large-volume pumping, but also means that the cumulative effects of pumping many wells over many years can draw down the water level over hundreds of miles. Such pumping can also decrease the volume of water discharging out of the aquifer into streams and springs. For example, pumping in Colorado decreased flow in the Arkansas River, which flows through Kansas. In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that Colorado would have to compensate Kansas for the decreased flow.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and state geological surveys have been studying the aquifer depletion for the last half-century, says Kansas State Geological Survey Director Lee Allison, who spearheaded the development of the bill. "The problem is the work has been uneven in terms of the kind of science and the quality of science; each state has worked largely on its own."

In June 2000, the geological surveys from each of the High Plains states - South Dakota, Wyoming, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska - formed the High Plains Aquifer Coalition, in alliance with the USGS. The coalition's goal is to coordinate future research efforts among the state surveys and to efficiently use existing research data.

The coalition led the drafting of the new bill. One of the bill's main scientific objectives is to coordinate federal, state and local data, maps and models into an integrated geological characterization of the aquifer. While the specific research agenda remains undecided, the coalition expects it will include detailed quadrangle-size (1:24,000 scale) surface and subsurface geologic maps, and research on processes controlling the quantity and quality of water recharging the aquifer. In a testimony given to the Senate Subcommittee on Water and Power on March 6, Allison and New Mexico State Geologist Peter Schoelle wrote that research sponsored by the bill "will allow us to better predict future water levels and ultimately lead to development of improved approaches for enhancing and extending the life of the aquifer and other factors useful for management purposes."

While the bill does not specify an amount of funding, Allison says that $10 million per year is in the right ballpark. Half would go to the USGS; the other half would be awarded to state and local agencies on a competitive basis. A federal review board, composed of USGS members as well as a representative from each High Plains state, would evaluate proposals based on the scientific merit and benefits of the proposed activities.

Funding for the program would run from fiscal years 2003 through 2011. The bill requires that the Secretary of the Interior submit an interim and a final report to the governors of the High Plains states on the status of the aquifer -- ensuring that the scientific information makes it into the hands of state and local water groups.

The bill is now on the Senate Legislative Calendar and the Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Ten) will decide if, and when, the bill will come up for a vote in the Senate.

The bill does face a few hurdles. While the USGS provided technical support in the development of the bill, its parent agency, the Department of the Interior (DOI), does not view the bill as a top priority, says William Alley, Chief of the Office of Groundwater at USGS. "Ultimately it comes down to funding. … DOI is revising its strategic plan and is noncommittal as to where the High Plains plays out in that strategic view." There is no funding for the program in the Bush administration's fiscal year 2004 budget proposal, he adds. Funding would be subject to available resources.

The American Farm Bureau opposed an original version of the bill, concerned that the bill might lead to a federal takeover of state water rights, Allison says. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan), a cosponsor of the bill, recognizes concern over federal control of water resources. In a statement to the Senate Subcommittee on Water and Power delivered March 6, he wrote: "The bill is aimed at collecting the much needed accurate data about the Aquifer, not forcing the Federal government into regulating use of water. I am confident that the bill does not infringe on the rights of the states …"

A similar version of the bill passed the Senate last year, but was not acted on by the House. Allison is optimistic that any lingering concerns about the current bill can be resolved, and that the bill will make it through Congress this time around.

Greg Peterson

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