Tag Archives: water mining

Big week – water and otherwise.  Here are a couple discussion boards/blogs that might be of interest to follow as they evolve:

And an ethical consideration to contemplate:

  • There is an interesting ethical issues that arises in this discussion also. Engineers are entrusted to protect the public health, safety and welfare. When there were few people, projects did not impact many so little thought was given to the “what could possible happen” question. We are still paying for that. Now that there are more people, conflicts become more likely and more frequent. Most times engineers are not asked to evaluate the unintended consequences of the projects they build. Only to build them to protect the public health safety and welfare while doing so, but from a specific vantage point. So if you know a project will create a long-term consequence, what action should you take? There are many water supply examples, where we have engineered solutions that have brought water or treated water to allow development. South Florida is a great example – we drained half a state. But no one asked if that development was good or appropriate – we drained off a lot of our water supply in the process and messed up the ecological system that provided a lot of the recharge. No one asked in the 1930 if this was a good idea. Designing/building cities in the desert, designing systems that pump groundwater that does not recharge, or design systems that cannot be paid for by the community – we know what will happen at some point. So the question is whether there is a conflict between engineers meeting their obligations to the public and economic interests in such cases?

    And finally, when considering the ethical issue:


Spring is in the air, at least in some places, so it gives us a chance to take stock of where we are after the winter.  Boston actually is seeing the ground after record snow.  The west is seeing lots of ground, even though some areas should not be seeing ground at this point.  I recall the Colorado Rockies having snow at 8000 ft a couple years ago, but not this year.  Some ski resorts in western Colorado never opened.  Not a good sign.  Snow was 10% of normal in parts of California which means the drought will continue.  12% in Oregon and Washington is some part – not good for places that rely on snow for water supplies.  So the question is whether the current drought is the start of a longer climate driven issues and/or the result of where demands have permanently exceeded supplies?  And if the latter is true, conservation is one option, but has obvious financial and supply limitations since urban use is less than 12% of water total use (agriculture is 40% and power plant cooling water is 39%).

Better management is part of a toolbox, but when the supply is finite, the economics says that costs will increase, shutting out certain sectors of the economy.  This is where the “market system” theory of economics fails large sectors of the population – at some point finite supplies become available only to those who can afford to pay, but water is not one of those commodities that is a luxury – we need it to survive.  Certainly the argument can be made that water is underpriced, but like energy, low water prices have helped fuel economic development while improving public health.  It is a chicken/egg conundrum where the argument that conservation will solve all problems is not realistic, nor is using the market or curtailing economic activity.  This is where the market fails and therefore governments have a role in insuring that all sectors are treated fairly and the commodity can be provided to all those in need of it – serving the public good.  The public good or public welfare argument is often lost in the political dogma of today, but our forefathers had this figured out and designed regulations to insure distribution after seeing the problems that arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  We have forgotten many of those lessons.

The public good or welfare does not mean unlimited distribution to areas that would otherwise be bereft of the commodity.  The early engineers in Los Angeles realized that development could only continue if water was brought in.  So massive water movement projects were developed.  The economic benefit was the only consideration – the impacts of these changes were not considered.  Likewise the Corps of Engineers was directed to drain the Everglades, but no one asked if this was a good idea or would have negative impacts.  Loss of the Everglades permitted economic development that is southeast Florida – 40% of the economy of the state, but it impacted water supply and places millions are risk for future sea level rise impacts.  Worse, agriculture was fostered in the upper Everglades as the federal government sold off the acreage to private interests cheaply to encourage sugar cane and winter vegetables.  That agriculture is now planning to develop the Everglades if the property is not purchased by the state.  But purchasing the property rights a prior error in consequences – it is likely in the public interest as an effort to restore water supplies in the Biscayne acquire that feed southeast Florida, and to increase water flows to retard saltwater migration in the southern Everglades.  These are both ”sins” of the past, made with good intentions but with very little thought of consequences beyond the economic benefits.  Both have resulted in water shortages in the areas they were meant to serve as climate patterns have changed.

The question is whether we continue to make these mistakes.  Development in desert areas, areas known to be water poor, and deepening wells to get groundwater supplies who’s levels continue to decline are all poor long-term decision, despite the short-term potential gains.  California farmers continue to deepening wells but those aquifers have a limit in depth.  Deepening wells means those wells do not recharge (otherwise the aquifer levels would not continually decline).  What happens when the wells run dry permanently? Clearly the sustainability criteria is not met.

Meanwhile lower aquifer can divert surface waters into the ground – not enough for full recharge, but perhaps enough to impact surface water flows to other farmers, potable water users, and ecosystems.  Droughts are climate driven- and we have persevered droughts before, and will again.  However in light of the California drought, perhaps we should all assess more closely the long-term trends – lowering groundwater, increasing demands, lessening availability and make better decisions on water use – not only in California but in many parts of the US and the world.  Changing water use patterns is great, but it is just part of a larger issue — do we need to change our current behaviors – in this case water use – in certain areas?  Are there just places we should not develop?  Is there a limit to water withdrawals?  And how do we deal with the economic losses that will come?  All great question – but do we have the leadership in place to make the hard decisions?

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….



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