Robbing our groundwater savings accounts for today’s needs — The Mountain Town News

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

Dick Wolfe, Colorado’s state water engineer, recently defined “sustainable groundwater supply” as one that is managed so that recharge matches withdrawals in a way to avoid long-term depletion of the aquifer.

By that definition, Colorado is not, for the most part, using its aquifers sustainably. Nor, for that matter, is most of the nation or world.

That much was made clear at a conference on Dec. 4 that was conducted by the American Ground Water Trust. Andrew Stone, the organization’s executive director, said 14 percent of all water used to irrigate crops in the United States comes from mining groundwater aquifers. This started slowly, but picked up as pumps and cheap energy became available around the end of World War II. The extraction by farmers and cities of water above the rate of recharge is now close to 400 cubic kilometers.

“We are robbing our savings account,” he said.

Driven by population growth and the uncertain effects of climate change, pressures on these subterranean savings accounts will only worsen, he said. This is not inevitable. He cited Los Angeles, which after World War II turned to groundwater exploitation to satisfy growth. “In the 1960s, it was pretty clear that the LA Basin was cruising for big trouble,” he said. But unsustainable exploitation has ended.

Problems of groundwater exploitation are common in many areas of the country, but solutions must be forged locally, “aquifer by aquifer, region by region,” said Stone.

Sobering statistics

The day was littered with fascinating statistics. Jeff Lukas, of the Western Water Assessment, explained that of the 95 million acre-feet that falls on Colorado, only 14 million acre-feet end up as runoff in our streams and rivers. The remainder, 80 million acre-feet, evaporates or gets drawn back into the atmospheric through transpiration. Together, the two are called evapotranspiration, or ET.

This rate of ET will almost certainly rise as the atmosphere warms. In the last 30 years, temperatures have ratcheted up 2 degrees Fahrenheit. Climate models forecast another increase of between 2.5 to 5 degrees by mid-century in Colorado. By mid-century, the hottest summers of the last 50 to 100 years will become the norm.

Too, everything from corn to urban lawns will need 5 to 30 percent more moisture during the longer, hotter summers—assuming precipitation does not increase.

How much precipitation will change as the result of elevated greenhouse gases in the atmosphere remains a mystery. Unlike temperatures, average precipitation in Colorado has not changed appreciably in the last three decades. Climate models have been clear about increasing temperatures, but precipitation remains a flip of the coin.

However, warming alone will drive changes, “pushing both the supply and demand in the wrong direction,” said Lukas. Increased evapotranspiration will reduce runoff and the amount of moisture available to percolate into soils and down into aquifers. Spring runoff has already accelerated and will come one to three weeks earlier.

Bottom line: Hotter temperatures will drive farmers to suck up more subterranean water. If anything, aquifers will recharge more slowly.

Wolfe, in his turn at the microphone, had even more statistics: Of Colorado’s 16 million acre-feet, 10 million acre-feet flow out of state, mostly as a result of compacts governing the Colorado and other rivers.

“That leaves us about 6 million acre-feet in Colorado to use,” he said. This surface water provides about 83 percent of water used in Colorado, and the other 17 percent comes from aquifers, which are tapped by 270,000 wells.

Of this groundwater, 85 percent goes to agriculture, for more than 2 million acres, but there’s also a strong urban component. One in five Coloradans get their water from wells. Most prominent are Denver’s southern suburbs in Douglas County.

Denver’s South Metro

South Metro has been a poster child for living in the moment. It’s affluent and rapidly growing. Served almost exclusively by wells, the residents of Castle Park, Parker and adjoining areas comprise about 6 percent of Colorado’s population but command 30 percent of income. Today’s population of 300,000 residents is projected to grow to 550,000 by mid-century.

Wells have been dropping rapidly, five feet in just one year in Dawson, one of the aquifers.

Eric Hecox, executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority, explained that it was always understood that wells would not last forever. The area had hoped to benefit from Denver’s Two Forks Dam, which was to have been filled primarily by expanded diversions from the Western Slope.

Two Forks was sunk by environmental concerns in the early 1990s. Inconveniently, Douglas County surged in population, routinely landing in the top 10 of the nation’s fastest-growing counties, a distinction that only lately has abated.

Other projects have also nudged the South Metro area off its exclusive dependence on groundwater, but even collectively they do not provide the answer. Hecox called for continued efforts to pinpoint needs while creating a new generation of partnerships and infrastructure.

Can South Metro’s needs for sustainable water supplies be answered by building a giant pipeline from Flaming Gorge Reservoir, on the Utah-Wyomng border? That idea was proposed in 2006 by entrepreneur Aaron Million, and then echoed by Frank Jaeger, the now-retired director of Parker Water and Sanitation District.

Hecox said the Bureau of Reclamation study about water availability from Flaming Gorge has not been completed. That study will provide the 14 members in Hecox’s South Metro coalition “base information on which to decide whether we want to pursue it any further,” he said.

Two key agriculture areas

Two agriculture areas in Colorado that rely upon aquifers are in arguably worse shape. The San Luis Valley has an area called the Closed Basin. With the arrival of electricity to farms in the 1950s, large-scale pumping began and, for a number of years, all went well, said Steve Vandiver, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.

Despite earlier hints of problems, the magnitude of over-pumping started becoming apparent in 1998. One million acre-feet had been pumped from the aquifer above the amount of recharge. Figuring out what to do took time and negotiation. “There have been rocks thrown from every quarter,” he said.

The plan now in place has cut pumping by 30 percent during the last three years. The amount of irrigated acreage has declined from 175,00 to 150,000 acres. Water use on those remaining acres has been reduced in some cases by planting different, less water-intensive crops and also by using different irrigation methods.

Up to 300,000 cubic feet per second of water continues to be pumped on the fields in the Closed Basin on hot summer days.

And the Ogallala….

The Ogallala Aquifer is perhaps America’s best-known story of groundwater depletion. It extends over parts of eight states, from Texas to South Dakota, and the aquifer has declined at a shocking rate in several of those states, but more slowly or not at all in places, especially the Nebraska Sand Hills.

The Republican River Basin of northeastern Colorado is emblematic of many. Farmers working with local districts and the state government have been shifting the paradigm. Whether they’re shifting rapidly enough is an open question.

The river and its tributaries originate on the high plains, gaining no benefit from mountain snowpack. Yet this region had 480,000 irrigated acres in an area where annual precipitation is only 17 inches a year.

The key: mining the Ogallala. In the late 1970s, Colorado began taking action to slow the unsustainable over-pumping, but more radical measures were triggered by the need to comply with the interstate compact governing the river shared with Nebraska and Kansas. Colorado was forced to release more water downstream.

It did this partly by abandoning Bonny Reservoir, eliminating the evaporative losses. At greater expense, the district constructed an expensive pipeline and now pumps water—ironically from wells—to release into the Republican River at the state line. The total cost of the pipeline and the purchase of water rights was $48 million.

Much is being done to steer the Titanic away from the iceberg of exhausted aquifer water, but Deb Daniel, general manager of the Republican River Water Conservation District, suggested the magnitude of the challenge when she said: “Sustainable, that’s a scary word where I come from.”

(For a story I recently wrote about the Ogallala in Colorado, see the Headwaters Magazine website).

Wells along the South Platte

Unlike everything else said in the day, several speakers argued that not enough pumping has been occurring along the South Platte River. Their solution: more reservoirs and also more acreage returned to production.

Robert A. Longenbaugh, a consulting water engineer, pointed to 400,000 acre-feet average annually flowing into Nebraska above the compact requirement. “I call that a waste of water,” he said. At the same time, he and others pointed to reports of basements in Weld County getting flooded because of rising groundwater levels.

Even in the 1960s, a Colorado law was adopted that formally recognized that aquifers and surface streamflows comingled waters . In other words, if you have a well a quarter-mile from the South Platte River at Greeley and pump it, that might mean less water in the river as it flows toward Fort Morgan.

The drought of 2002 forced the issue, and in 2006 the state put well irrigators into the priority system. In 2012, a hot and dry year, many wells had to be shut down and corn and other corps left to dry up. Longenbaugh called for changes.

“Strict priority administration of ground and surface rights does not maximize the beneficial use,” he declared. Instead, he wants to se a “real-time management of the South Platte, to monitor surface and ground water and “make short-term decisions” looking out six months ahead while still maintaining the priority-appropriation doctrine that is the bedrock of Colorado water law.

A panel of state legislators later in the day acknowledged varying degrees of agreement with Longenbaugh’s statement. Sen. Mary Hodge, a Democrat from Brighton, described a pendulum that went from “too lax” to now one of being “too stringent.”

Sen. Vicki Marble, a Republican from Fort Collins, described the situation as deserving of an “emergency measure.” She later added: “We should let people self-regulate,” while suggesting that the wells should be allowed to pump. “It’s their right,” she said.

More groundwater coverage here.

NOAA: State of the Climate Global Summary Information – November 2014


Click here to go to the summary page from the National Climatic Data Center. Here’s an excerpt:

Global temperature highlights: November

  • The combined average temperature over global land and ocean surfaces during November tied with 2008 as the seventh highest for the month, at 1.17°F (0.65°C) above the 20th century average. The margin of error associated with this temperature is ±0.13°F (0.07°C). This ends a streak of three consecutive months with a record warm monthly global temperature.
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  • The global land temperature was the 13th highest on record for November, at 1.46°F (0.81°C) above the 20th century average. The margin of error is ±0.20°F (0.11°C). Warmer-than-average temperatures were evident over most of the global land surface, except for most of North America, parts of southwest Asia, and a few isolated areas of northern Russia.
  • Neither El Niño nor La Niña was present across the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean during November 2014. NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center estimates there is a 65 percent chance that El Niño will be present during the Northern Hemisphere winter and last into the Northern Hemisphere spring 2015.
  • The combined average temperature over global land and ocean surfaces for September–November was the highest on record for this period, at 1.26°F (0.70°C) above the 20th century average of 57.1°F (14.0°C), surpassing the previous record set in 2005 by 0.02°F (0.01°C). The margin of error associated with this temperature is ±0.16°F (0.09°C).
  • The global land temperature was the ninth highest for September–November on record, at 1.62°F (0.90°C) above the 20th century average of 48.3°F (9.1°C). The margin of error is ±0.31°F (0.17°C). Much of southern Australia was record warm, as was much of southern South America, the west coast of the United States, Far East Russia, and parts of southern Europe extending into northwestern Africa.
  • The average Arctic sea ice extent for November was 4.00 million square miles, 240,000 square miles (5.7 percent) below the 1981–2010 average and the ninth smallest November extent since records began in 1979, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. Sea ice extent was below average on the Pacific side of the Arctic and near-average on the Atlantic side.
  • Antarctic sea ice during November was 6.42 million square miles, 130,000 square miles (2.0 percent) above the 1981–2010 average. This was the eighth largest November Antarctic sea ice extent on record.
  • The first 11 months of 2014 was the warmest such period on record, with a combined global land and ocean average surface temperature of 1.22°F (0.68°C) above the 20th century average of 57.0°F (13.9°C), surpassing the previous record set in 2010 by 0.02°F (0.01°C). The margin of error is ±0.18°F (0.10°C). 2014 is currently on track to be the warmest year on record if the December global temperature is at least 0.76°F (0.42°C) above its 20th century average.
  • Remembering the genius who got BPA out of your water bottles, and so much more — Grist

    From Grist (Heather Smith):

    It was the late 1970s and Theo Colborn was, like pretty much everyone else in the ’70s, getting divorced. She was in her 50s and already retired from a career as a pharmacist.

    She’d moved to a hobby farm that was close to the Rocky Mountain Biological Station in Colorado and volunteered as a field researcher, sampling water and insects for signs that they were picking up toxics released by mining operations in the area. When she thought about what she should do next with her life, the answer that came to her was “become an expert in water sampling techniques.”

    So Colborn went back to school. In 1985, at 58, she graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a Ph.D. in zoology and minors in epidemiology, toxicology, and water chemistry. “I wanted to get the education,” she said, in a 1988 Frontline interview,”so that I could maybe undo some of the things that my generation basically foisted on society.”

    By the time Colborn died yesterday, at the age of 87, she had immersed herself in decades of research — and inspired even more research — that sought to do just that. The many, many proposed BPA bans? Go back to the very beginning, and you’ll find Colborn. The concern over dwindling sperm counts? Same thing…

    What Colborn was seeing was the result of a wide variety of synthetic chemicals that had come into being in the 1950s and ’60s. Even though they were present in the water at very low concentrations, they were subtly changing how the animals in that system developed — how their genes were programmed, how their cells differentiated and spread out through their bodies, and, ultimately, how they were able to survive and reproduce into the next generation. The healthy wildlife around the Great Lakes, often, were those animals that had grown up elsewhere and migrated as adults. When their offspring failed to reach adulthood, or couldn’t reproduce, they were replaced by a fresh fleet of new arrivals. The lakes looked healthy, in other words, but they were a death trap.

    Colborn credited this breakthrough, in part, to her unconventional scientific background.

    I looked at it from an entirely different perspective. I looked at endocrinology differently. I began to look at toxicology. I was not trained in toxicology. I was trained in pharmacology until I went back to college to get my Ph.D. in my old age. Only then did I begin to sit in on toxicology courses.

    There is a reductionism in scientists, in the scientific community. I have never been a reductionist. I am always thinking about the big picture. My thesis committee for my Ph.D. will tell you that. They had trouble with me.

    At the time, Colborn said, scientists working on environmental issues had primarily been looking for cancer, which she described as “the big bugaboo.” Cancer was a rare event: In order to emerge, it had to circumvent the body’s defenses, and in a polluted community, not everyone would come down with it. What Colborn found was different: To a developing organism, even an infinitesimally small exposure could alter fetal development and the possible effects — lower IQ, organ damage, trouble reproducing — could be spread out across a community like jam on toast. The concept was so new there wasn’t even a term for it. In 1991, Colborn and a team of 21 international scientists working on the issue came up with one: endocrine disruption.

    Unlike a lot of scientists, Colborn was not shy about becoming a public figure. She co-authored a popular science book with the dramatic title of Our Stolen Future. She founded a nonprofit called the Endocrine Disruption Exchange, which, among other things, helped fund and cheerlead more research into endocrine disruption and its causes.

    Colborn continued to do solid research and she also went pretty far out on quite a few limbs, blaming chemicals derived from fossil fuels for everything from Parkinsons to Alzheimers to obesity to autism spectrum disorder. “Governments must take heed immediately,” she wrote, earlier this year, “or there will be too few healthy, intelligent individuals left to preserve our humanitarian society and create some semblance of world peace.” (As if we don’t have a pretty significant historical record showing that humans were more than eager to be complete jerks to each other long before anyone started messing with the benzene ring.)

    Still, her big message was incontestable — that over 60 years ago, we began to introduce all of these chemicals into the environment, and we still have no idea what most of them do to us. In raising these questions, Colburn got us closer to looking for answers.

    From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

    A Paonia scientist who earned international recognition for bringing attention to the impacts of endocrine-disrupting chemicals to humans and wildlife has died.

    Theo Colborn, 87, founded The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, based in Paonia, and in recent years focused her attention on possible health impacts of chemicals related to oil and gas development.

    She died this week at home, surrounded by her family, according to a statement issued by TEDX’s executive director, Carol Kwiatkowski.

    “As with all great leaders, Theo’s inspiration lives on — in her published works, in the scientists she mentored and the activists she inspired, in the people she helped in so many ways, and in the love of her friends and family,” Kwiatkowski said.

    TEDX focuses on possible health and environmental harms of chemicals that interfere with hormones important in the development of people and wildlife.

    Colborn co-authored a 1996 book on the subject, “Our Stolen Future,” which drew comparisons to Rachel Carson’s landmark 1962 environmental book, “Silent Spring.”

    In 2002, Colborn began living full-time in the home she owns in Paonia. She became interested in possible impacts of hydraulic fracturing and other drilling-related fluids on groundwater after an energy company began talking about drilling on nearby Grand Mesa.

    She became involved in efforts including creating a spreadsheet of chemicals used in drilling and their potential ill effects.

    In 2008, she received the Göteborg Award for Sustainable Development, which is given by the city of Göteborg, Sweden, and several companies. She and three fellow recipients all were honored for their roles in examining negative health and environmental effects of chemicals. Past recipients had included Al Gore, and the engineers behind Toyota’s Prius hybrid vehicle.

    According to a statement on TEDX’s website, until the day she died Colborn continued to work on a statement, “The Fossil Fuel Connection,” weaving together some of her concerns. It concludes, “Governments must take heed immediately or there will be too few healthy, intelligent individuals left to preserve our humanitarian society and create some semblance of world peace.”

    Kwiatkowski said, “Theo’s immense courage was both intimidating and inspiring. Against all odds, she succeeded in getting the world to pay attention to an invisible threat. Yet there is much work still to be done.

    “As TEDX’s executive director for the past six years I can assure you that we will continue with the same fierce commitment to ensuring that the science of endocrine disruption drives better laws to protect the health of all people.”