Monthly Archives: September 2012

Across the United States, we hear the regulatory discussions about managing groundwater supplies.  There are 20 year plans (which many think is the long-term perspective), 50 year plans and 100 year plans; no doubt a myriad of others.  The concept of managing groundwater seems reasonable, but the query here is whether or not managing for a finite period demonstrates good leadership.

In most cases, the concept of managing aquifers for finite periods is associated with the need or desire by local and state officials to develop a certain region, and obtaining the necessary water to meet development projections.  “Sustainability” for elected officials and developers is distinctly different than that of water resource professionals. The whole intent of elected officials and developers is to continue to build more, attract more people and business and, well, to use more water.  This is in contrast to the fact that water supplies in most basins is relatively finite or fixed, which means that inevitably the supply will be exceeded by local demands, the opposite of “sustainability” from a water resource perspective.  Compounding the problem is that water resource professionals are normally pretty creative in stretching finite supplies with reuse, conservation, use policies, restrictions and augmentation with other supplies, actions and programs which actually may work against their long-term goal of sustainability – there is a finite number of reasonable solutions that may work, each with increasing cost to the customers, which works against the goals for the elected officials to limit costs to customers.  As a result, a conflict over the differing views of “sustainability” are inevitable.  As solution requires leadership.

Leadership is understanding that there are constraints to the resources.  Leadership is understanding that there is a limit to the reasonable solutions and a limit to development, or the type of development that can be accommodated.  For example in Colorado, Denver Water, going back 100 years, built tunnels and reservoirs to transfer water from the west side of the Rockies to the east.  This worked for 70 years or so, until the Denver area started to explode, exceeding the capacity of those transfer systems.  As this occurred, groundwater was far less costly than tunnels, reservoirs and acquiring access to water supplies west of the Rockies (and the downstream water delivery contracts impacted this as well).  A 100 year management plan was developed and approved by the State Legislature in 1985 to allow water to be withdrawn from the Denver Basin, despite very limited recharge.  This is not to say that the plan for management was not a good leadership start (certainly it is an improvement over doing nothing), but what happens in 70 years?  We assume some up with a solution to extend the life of the aquifer, but when will that occur and who will lead that charge?   What will be the political backlash when the initial rumblings begin?  The good news is that the major users are utilities, which have resources to pay for treatment, aquifer storage, indirect potable reuse, direct potable reuse and a host of other potential options, but not every basin is so lucky.  If the major users are agriculture or ecosystems, who pays that bill?  If the answer is no one, what happens to the industry?  The jobs?  Communities?  People?

The query begs the question, how do we align competing definitions for sustainability, as defined by local officials, developers, water resource professional and others?  And how do we educate the local officials and the populace of the perils of over-allocation of water supplies?  This is a legacy leadership issue, and it requires hard and sometimes unpopular decisions that can change the course of history.

Legacy leadership is defined by what is left behind not by the current condition.  It’s how we change our thinking and actions to adapt to the changed conditions.  We look back as great water projects of the 20th century – Hoover Dam, the channels carrying water to Los Angeles from the Colorado River and central California that allowed southern California to develop, or the numerous dams across the west that permitted crops to grow in arid regions.  You can search out who led those projects.  That is their legacy.  Those that came afterward reaps the rewards created from the efforts of these leaders.  Now we face a changing condition in the 21st century.  Who will take the 21st century leadership mantle?  And how will we change our viewpoint to protect our resources?  We can start by trying to change the perception of deeper groundwater, especially confined systems, as primary water sources, when they may better serve us in the long-term as back-up or emergency sources in many regions, with surface water as the primary sources.  Where surface waters and surficial aquifers do not exist, perhaps development as desired by local officials is not the sustainable way to go?  So who takes the lead in those areas where there are insufficient resources and tells the developers, no you can’t develop here?  That will be leadership….



The demand for more food crops to feed a hungry world has expanded the need for irrigable lands.  Few want to risk the 1930s dust bowl or the droughts of the 1950s, especially with ongoing recurrent drought periods across much of North America on a regular basis.  The access to electricity and modern submersible pumps over the past 80 years has permitted a huge expansion in the amount of irrigation performed with groundwater.  Fly over the western United States and look for “crop-circles” where center wells act as the spoke for rotating irrigation systems.  They are obvious.  But virtually all of them are located in areas where surface water is not available and groundwater is the only source of water available for irrigation.  This might work where the groundwater is surficial, but if the groundwater were surficial and found in large quantities, wouldn’t there be surface waters that intercept the groundwater?  The groundwater would feed rivers, lakes and streams.  But in most places with center pivot irrigation, the groundwater is located well below the surface, and low rainfall means that recharge to these deeper aquifer systems is limited.

Irrigation use accounts for 40% of total water use in the United States.  USGS reports that in Arkansas and Nebraska, 90% of irrigation is groundwater.  These states are two largest groundwater users in the country.  California and Texas are right behind them in total use, with groundwater accounting for 80% of irrigation use.  Idaho, Oregon, South Dakota and Washington are among the states with irrigation accounting for in excess of 90%+ of total groundwater use, although their total use is much less than that of the other four states.  The areas irrigating with groundwater in all of these states competes directly with rural potable users, both individual and small cities, and with ecosystems that may support tourism, fishing, hunting and other outdoor activities.  Unfortunately USGS also reports that in all of these states, there are areas with severe declines in aquifer levels.  For example in South Dakota, USGS estimates that 70% of the water has been withdrawn in 30 years.  So the answer in 20 years will be……  There is no answer at the moment.  Some think we should just drill deeper, but this normally comes with added costs, assuming aquifers actually exist at these deeper levels.  But agriculture can’t afford to pay for treatment, meaning they it will be difficult for them participate in a solution.  Too few people in cities means alternative supplies like reclaimed water are not available.

The irrigation from deeper aquifer that do not recharge readily is indicative of a resource management paradigm that suggests we manage water supplies for a certain period of time (usually our lifetime or work period).  The consequences beyond that timeline are not considered because it is “beyond our lifetime” or planning periods, or we assume “someone will come up with something…”  Non-surficial groundwater supplies throughout the United States and probably the world should be viewed like a scratch-off lottery card.  Once in a while you have a winner, but it’s never enough to sustain you for the long-term, let alone pass it to your kids. And once it is spent, it’s gone.  Likewise once deeper aquifers are drained….  Bryan Fagan suggests most civilizations ultimately failed as a result of water woes.   If we want our civilization to survive well beyond our time, perhaps we should revisit history.

The long-term civilization model suggests we should consider a paradigm shift with respect to non-surficial groundwater.   Non-surficial groundwater is a resource that is finite – water that is stored, but once depleted, cannot be readily replaced.  That is not a sustainable solution and suggests that these types of groundwater sources should not be looked at as primary water supplies for irrigation, or for power or urban or domestic use for that matter – they should be considered back-up sources to protect us from surficial droughts that occur periodically.  The dust bowl impacts would have been lessened if we had back-up irrigation supplies from wells.  But in the future, if the aquifers are dry, and surficial droughts occur, the impact directly affects our food supplies and our economy.  We are often caught in defining the “long-term” as 20 years, but the US is 235 years old, but still considered young.  Our perspective of 20 years as long-term is only a quarter of a lifetime, which clearly falls short of long-term from the perspective of civilization.   Something to think about….



A comment I heard recently from an elected official was that it was inappropriate to use public dollars for their water agency to market their water product.  Interesting, and it suggests a major barrier to the development of local utility systems.  The cell phone companies, cable television, bottled water companies and security agencies all market constantly to our customers.  Virtually all of them charge more for their service than we do for water and wastewater.  The costs for all have increased faster than water and sewer.  But try surviving in the desert with only cable tv and no water.

Utilities compete with every other vendor for the same dollars.  They want our customers to value their products more.  They want our customers to divert dollars to them, so they need to increase the value of their products in the minds of our customers.  This is what marketing is all about.  If you cannot show the value of your product, the value diminishes in comparison to other products.  So while the needs for water and sewer systems increase, we see more of our customers’ dollars go elsewhere and the accompanying  demands to control our rates.

Water and wastewater systems must market their product.  Clean healthy water is available to virtually everyone.  People expect their faucet will turn on and provide good quality water, and that the toilet will flush.  They take it for granted, yet much of the world does not enjoy the same quality of consistency in service.  Water service is a commodity, and comes with a cost.

We say we want to operate the utility like a business, and many systems are run this way.  Most charge based on usage (or should).  But we fail to pursue one of the basic tenets of running a business:  marketing our product.  The annual CCR is not a marketing tool.  Water bills can convey messages, but they do not really function as marketing either.  Water conservation programs can help, but here the message is use less, not the benefit of the product.  We simply do not market water.  It is why the bottle water industry continues to grow, despite the fact that public water systems offer water at least as safe and healthy as bottled water, subject to more regulatory oversight, at a fraction of the cost.

So given that utilities, the majority of which are owned by local governments, are operated like a business, why shouldn’t we spend money on marketing the benefits of clean, safe water?  Why not market the benefits of 24/7 service?  Why not highlight the efforts of dedicated employees that ensure the system operates 24/7?  Why not raise consciousness of the water commodity to increase its value in the public’s eye?  The only reason not to market is the benefit competing services.  That does not benefit the public good, nor support the need to recover the costs of service and repair and replacement needs of the system.

Creating a marketing plan, or branding program for your utility is a major undertaking.  DC Water spent year re-branding their system to raise consciousness.  Creating marketing programs to engender success requires multi-media outlets, consistent messages, and vision.  It requires that employees and elected officials be on the same page with their customers.  We need to understand customer expectations of the service to raise value in their minds.  If marketing can sell pet rocks, we can market the value of water.  It is in our best interests to do so.

Water management is a fundamental need for the development of civilizations. Always has been.  If you have any question about this, ask yourself what differentiates the developed world from the undeveloped.  Water supply, sewage management and flood control rank 1-3 among the differences.  Safe drinking water and good sanitation go back beyond the Romans, and is a necessity to insure that the populace, and those performing work are productive as opposed to sick all the time.  At present there are agencies that operate to manage water supplies and drainage, and a few that do both.  Mostly these are regional agencies, which belies the need for local decision making to respond to local conditions.

An example – in 2007/2008 the State of Florida was in the midst of “sever drought.”  The water management agencies spent considerable time and political capital working on water conservation strategies, limiting utility withdrawals, cutting permit allocations and demanding conversions to alternative supplies in the future.  The southern half of the state was hard hit.  Utility customers cut their demands significantly.  Unfortunately the customers’ reward was surcharges to make up lost revenues to overcome large operating shortfalls and potential defaults on borrowing documents.  The short-term implementation was designed regionally, but had significant local consequences that were not considered.

But more interesting was the actual “drought” conditions.  It seems that the hard hit areas were in the central part of the state, not the southeastern coast.   The central part of the state, including the Everglades had received about 60% of the average rainfall, but along the coast, the two year shortage averaged less than 10%, and most residents realized that their rainfall accumulations were not as severe as inland.  Since most of the southeast coast’s water supplies were local, not based on the central part, the local question rose, “why were the water conservation measures required of these utilities and residents? and  Why was this not a locally driven issue?”

The case highlights the fact that while most water resource planning efforts are regional, the impacts occur locally, and often local impacts are not fully considered.   Credibility of the utilities is critical for emergencies or difficult situations.  During this condition, a survey of coastal utility customers found that the customers were better informed on rainfall totals than the regional information provided, which undercut the credibility the local utilities were trying to build with their customers, which impacts future needs for cooperation at the local level.  Something about crying wolf…

I was cruising through Glacier Bay National Park when I wrote this.  Just an inspirational moment.  If you have never seen it, you should, especially as a water professional.  The entire park is a testament to the power of water and the result of changes in climate cycles that affect the hydrologic cycle.  I will post video of the journey separately, but suffice it to say that the inherent beauty of the place is difficult to describe.  Needless to say with a large concentration of glaciers in the area (most retreating), there is copious amounts of water (for now).  The Pacific Glacier has retreated 65 miles, yes MILES, in 300 years in part because of changes in oceanic moisture and evaporation.  The native people, Tlingets, moved and survived based on glacier flows end ebbs.  But that’s not my point.  Seeing this much water leads to an entirely different perspective, one that is helped by Brian Fagan’s book, Elixir which outlines the history of civilizations as they were affected by harnessing of water, or the lack of ability to do so.  Same thing applies to the Tlingets here.

Historically the key was to rely on surface waters where they were consistent, to manage water locally and carefully for the benefit of all, and when surface waters were not consistent enough to be reliable year after year, quanats, shallow wells and other mechanisms were used to extract water from glacial till or adjacent to rivers (riverbank filtration or infiltration galleries in today’s vernacular).  Or people moved or died out. The ancient people did not have the ability to dig too deep, but were creative in means to manage available supplies.

Contrast this to today where over the last 50 years we have been able to extract water from ever expanding, generally deeper sources, but to what end?  Certainly we have “managed “ surface waters, by building dams, diversions and offstream reservoirs.  These supply half the potable water use in the United States and Canada as well as a lot of irrigation.  But groundwater has been an increasing component.  Fagan makes the point that deep groundwater sources are rarely sustainable for any period of time, and that many in the past have recognized this limitation.  But have we?

Maybe not so much.  A couple years ago I was at a conference out west.  The session I was speaking at involved sustainable groundwater, a major issue for AWWA, ASCE, NGWA and the utilities and agricultural folks around the world.  One of the speakers was a geologist with the State of Utah.  Her paper concerned the issues with decreasing groundwater levels in the St. George and Cedar City, areas in southwestern Utah, where population growth is a major issue.  Her point was that despite the State efforts, they had significant drawdowns across the area.  Keep in mind that the USGS (Reilly, et al, 2009) had identified southwestern Utah as one of many areas across the US where long term decreasing groundwater levels.  My paper was a similar issue for Florida, so I stopped partway into my paper and asked her a question:  has any hydrogeologist or engineer trying to permit water in the area ever said the water supply was not sustainable?”  The room got really quiet.  She looked at me and said, “well, no.”  In fact the audience chimed in that they had never heard this from their consultants either.  The discussion was informative and interesting.  Not sure I really finished my presentation because of the discussion.

To be fair, consultants are paid to solve problems, and for water supplies, this means finding groundwater and surface water limited areas like Utah when their clients request it.  So you don’t expect to pay your consultant to find “no water.”  But where does that lead us?  The concept of sustainable yield from confined aquifer systems is based on step drawdown tests.  Ignoring the details, what this constitutes is a series of short term tests of the amount of drawdown that occurs at different pumping levels. AWWA’s manual on Groundwater can give you the details, but the results are short-term and modeling long-term results requires a series of assumptions based on the step drawdown test.  This is that had been submitted in support of permits in Utah (and many other places).  As discussed in the conference session, clearly there is something wrong with this method of modeling and calculation because, well, the results did not match the reality.  The drawdowns increased despite modeling and step drawdown tests showing the demands were sustainable.  Clearly wrong.  Competing interests, the need to cast a wider net, and many other issues are often not considered.  The results play out throughout the world.  Confined aquifers are often not sustainable, a potential problem for much of agriculture in the farm belt of the US.  Are we headed the same direction as ancient people?

The good news is that these same hydrogeologists and engineers have the ability to help solve the sustainability problem.  We need a new definition for “safe yield.”  We need a better means to estimate leakance in aquifers.  A project I did with injection wells indicated that leakance was overestimated by a factor of 1000 to 10,000, which would drastically alter the results of any model.  More work needs to be undertaken here.  The overdraw of confined groundwater is a potential long-term catastrophe waiting to happen.  And the consequences are significant.  The question is can we adapt?

It’s been two weeks since I last posted.  My apologies.  It is amazing how dependent we are on technology working.  So I was in Alaska.  Upon my return, the internet was not working.  Then I find out the hard drive on my 1.5 year old computer is crashing and must be replaced, and for whatever reason I cannot find my emails even though they were backed up :(.  Tropical storm Isaac came by.  More travel to Denver.  All the while, I don’t have access to the internet.  It throws a light on the dependency we have on technology.

We all depend on technology.  Much of the increase in productivity experienced in the US in the 1990s, when we made more strides in productivity than any other nation, was due to technology.  It makes our lives easier, delegates repetitive tasks to computers, and can allow us to be more creative.

It got me thinking bout all the ways the utility industry has been a benefactor of technology.  Reports, tracking data, mapping and work orders can all be computerized to permit easier development of operating information.  Water and wastewater plants run better, and more efficiently with technology like variable speed drives and control systems.  Of course they come with a cost – spending money to save money.  When the systems fail, well, that can be a problem.   Kinda like the last two weeks for me….

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