2015 Preview: States React to New Era of Water Scarcity — Circle of Blue

From Circle of Blue (Brett Walton):

Water is priority in state Legislatures and governors’ offices.

California, its hand forced in 2014 by a nasty drought, brought its groundwater laws out of the Gold Rush era and into line with nearly every other state in the Union. New York’s Democratic governor banned fracking for natural gas, in large part because of concerns about water pollution.

Kansas debated how to cope with a shrinking Ogallala Aquifer, its main source of irrigation water. Voters in California, Florida, and Maine endorsed new state spending on water conservation, water treatment plants, pollution cleanup, and river restoration. And more than one dozen states, spooked by drought and needing guidance, discussed or submitted new water plans.

Taken together, these actions represent an awakening in the United States that water supplies are not as abundant as once thought. A series of severe droughts in recent years — from Texas in 2011 to the Midwest in 2012 to California today — is the frontline reality of a hotter, drier era that is forcing state leaders to take stock of their water assets and reevaluate laws, regulations, and investment strategies.

More is coming in 2015.

In states that voted for water spending, leaders this year will open the public purse. The Texas Water Development Board, a loan-making agency, will distribute funds from a $US 2 billion pot of money that voters approved in 2013. Applications for the first round of loans are due in February and the loans will close by December. Though much of the money will be spent on new pipes, wells, reservoirs, and treatment plants, state law requires at least 20 percent go toward water conservation and recycling.

The Florida Legislature also will spend a pile of cash, in its case from a fund seeded by real estate taxes and designated for land and water conservation. Approved at the ballot box in November, the fund could generate between $US 10 billion and $US 18 billion over 20 years for land purchases and infrastructure investments tied to improvements in water quality.

Montana lawmakers will consider a $US 336 million infrastructure package that was proposed by the Democratic governor. Thanks to an oil boom in neighboring North Dakota, border counties in the eastern third of the state are outgrowing their water and sewer grids. Roughly one-sixth of the package is dedicated to water, sewer, and irrigation projects.

In California, the nine-member California Water Commission is laying the groundwork for expending some of the $US 7.5 billion in bond money that voters approved in November. The commission, whose members are appointed by the governor, must write the rules for deciding priorities…

Groundwater on the Agenda

Debates about groundwater, as in 2014, will continue to echo in statehouses. Wisconsin, for one, will be a battleground for groundwater regulation. Lawmakers rejected a bill last session that would have forced regulators to approve new wells without considering cumulative effects of groundwater pumping on rivers and lakes. The Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters hopes to keep attention on the state’s aquifers, making groundwater legislation one of its top priorities in 2015. Their concern is well placed. An explosion of high-volume irrigation wells in central Wisconsin is causing streams to dry up.

The loudest chatter, however, may come from Texas, a state in which groundwater is essential to urban growth and agriculture…

In addition to new laws, several states — Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, and Montana among them — will be finalizing water plans that were introduced in 2014. Both Arkansas and Colorado are proposing multibillion dollar infrastructure projects. In Arkansas’s case, new canals will wean farmers from unsustainable groundwater use. In Colorado, the growing cities of the Front Range are looking to move more water across the continental divide, from the Colorado River Basin.

Other states, meanwhile, will hope that long-running legal disputes will be resolved this year in the U.S. Supreme Court. Texas has sued New Mexico over declining flows in the Rio Grande, while Florida successfully petitioned the justices to consider Georgia’s use of water from shared rivers.

More general interest coverage here

Leave a Reply