@ColoradoStateU: Groundwater pumping drying up Great Plains streams, driving fish extinctions

A Google Earth image of the crop circles in the lower Arikaree River watershed, highlighting the river reaches that were dry (red), disconnected pools (yellow), and flowing (blue) at the lowest water in late summer 2007. Only one segment of 9 miles of flowing river remained as habitat for fish. The river flows from left to right. Image created by Jeff Falke, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Here’s the release from Colorado State University:

Farmers in the Great Plains of Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas and the panhandle of Texas produce about one-sixth of the world’s grain, and water for these crops comes from the High Plains Aquifer — often known as the Ogallala Aquifer — the single greatest source of groundwater in North America. A team of researchers, including Colorado State University Professor Kurt Fausch and Jeff Falke, a CSU alumnus and an assistant professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, have discovered that more than half a century of groundwater pumping from the aquifer has led to long segments of rivers drying up and the collapse of large-stream fishes.

If pumping practices are not modified, scientists warn that these habitats will continue to shrink, and the fish populations along with them.

The research team combined modeling from the past and future to assess changes in Great Plains streams and their fish populations associated with groundwater pumping from the High Plains Aquifer. The findings have implications for watersheds around the world, because irrigation accounts for 90 percent of human water use globally, and local and regional aquifers are drying up.

A ‘train wreck’

The Arikaree River in 2000 in early summer, when water is near its maximum extent. Photo: Kurt Fausch

Fausch said the study results are sobering. Based on earlier observations and modeling by Falke and a team of graduate students and faculty at CSU, the Arikaree River in eastern Colorado, which is fed by the aquifer and used to flow about 70 miles, will dry up to about one-half mile by 2045.

“You have this train wreck where we’re drying up streams to feed a growing human population of more than 7 billion people,” Fausch said.

Fausch described the situation as a “wicked problem,” one with no good solution. “More water is pumped out every year than trickles back down into the aquifer from rain and snow,” he said. “We are basically drying out the Great Plains.”

Pumping has dried up streams, small rivers

Since the 1950s, pumping has extracted nearly as much water as what exists in Lake Erie — about 100 trillion gallons — and almost none of it trickles back into the aquifer.

“This pumping has dried up long segments of many streams and small rivers in the region,” Fausch said. From 1950 to 2010, a total of 350 miles of stream dried up in the large area the team studied in eastern Colorado, southwestern Nebraska and northwestern Kansas. “Our models project that another 180 miles of stream will dry up by 2060,” Fausch said.

An orangethroat darter, one of the nine remaining native fish species in the Arikaree River. Photo: Jeremy Monroe, Freshwaters Illustrated.

The loss of fish in the area is also a concern. “What we’re losing are the fishes that require habitat found only in the rivers and large streams of the region, and replacing them with those that can survive in the small streams that are left,” Fausch said. “We are losing whole populations of species from rivers in that region because there’s no habitat for them.”

As an example, seven of the 16 native fish species that were once found in the Arikaree River have disappeared since the first surveys were done in the 1940s. These fish include small minnows, suckers and catfish, species that the CSU scientist said are not among those that are currently federally endangered or threatened, so there’s little regulatory authority to preserve the habitats.

“We’re losing fish that people really don’t know about,” said Fausch. “They are cool and very beautiful, but not charismatic.”

Losing a river means losing more than fishes

Effects from the groundwater pumping will extend beyond the fishes and streams, too. Farmers in that area hope to conserve enough water so that future generations can continue to work on the land. And the everyday places that benefit from water could also disappear.

“If they lose the river, they’ll not only lose fishes, but they’ll also lose water for their cattle, and cottonwoods that provide shade,” Fausch explained. “They also lose the grass that grows in the riparian zone, which is critical forage for cattle in summer. Some of that’s your livelihood, but it’s also the place you go for picnics, and to hunt deer and turkeys. If you lose the river, you lose a major feature of what that landscape is.”

Center pivot sprinklers in the Arikaree River basin to irrigate corn. Each sprinkler is supplied by deep wells drilled into the High Plains aquifer.

Fausch said that there are some signs of progress, despite the grim findings. Local officials have put meters on wells to ensure that farmers pump only the amount of water allowed under their permits. And farmers are always experimenting with new technology that will allow them to optimize the amount of water they use to achieve the highest crop yields, since it takes electricity to pump the water from deep underground and this is an important cost to them. This doesn’t mean that the groundwater levels that feed streams are not declining, but instead are declining at a slower rate than in the past, he said.

Growing dryland crops an option

One additional option, though it might be a hard sell, is for farmers to grow dryland crops, meaning that they rely only on rainfall each year, instead of pumping water. The problem is the crop yields then vary widely from year to year, depending on the rain.

“Every farmer understands that eventually they will no longer be able to afford to pump as much water,” said Fausch. “Farmers are amazing economists. New options such as economical drip irrigation are being discussed, and farmers will likely switch to these options when they become available.”

Fausch, who has studied rivers throughout his entire career, grows wistful when talking about the research. “When we lose these rivers, we will lose them for our lifetime, our children’s lifetime, and our grandchildren’s lifetime,” he said.

Even if all pumping were stopped tomorrow, the aquifer would refill very slowly, over the next 100 years or more, said Fausch. As the groundwater table rose, rivers would start to flow again.

“Groundwater declines are linked to changes in Great Plains stream fish assemblages” was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Falke received his doctorate in fisheries biology from CSU in 2009. The research team includes scientists from Kansas State University, Tennessee Technological University, U.S. Geological Survey, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Westar Energy and The Nature Conservancy.

@USGS: High Plains Aquifer Groundwater Levels Continue to Decline

High Plains aquifer water-level changes, predevelopment (about 1950) to 2015. Figure 1 from USGS SIR 2017-5040.(Public domain.)

Here’s the release from the USGS:

The U.S. Geological Survey has released a new report detailing changes of groundwater levels in the High Plains aquifer. The report presents water-level change data in the aquifer for two separate periods: from 1950 – the time prior to significant groundwater irrigation development – to 2015, and from 2013 to 2015.

“Change in storage for the 2013 to 2015 comparison period was a decline of 10.7 million acre-feet, which is about 30 percent of the change in recoverable water in storage calculated for the 2011 to 2013 comparison period,” said Virginia McGuire, USGS scientist and lead author of the study. “The smaller decline for the 2013 to 2015 comparison period is likely related to reduced groundwater pumping.”

In 2015, total recoverable water in storage in the aquifer was about 2.91 billion acre-feet, which is an overall decline of about 273.2 million acre-feet, or 9 percent, since predevelopment. Average area-weighted water-level change in the aquifer was a decline of 15.8 feet from predevelopment to 2015 and a decline of 0.6 feet from 2013 to 2015.

The USGS study used water-level measurements from 3,164 wells for predevelopment to 2015 and 7,524 wells for the 2013 to 2015 study period.

The High Plains aquifer, also known as the Ogallala aquifer, underlies about 112 million acres, or 175,000 square miles, in parts of eight states, including: Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming. The USGS, at the request of the U.S. Congress and in cooperation with numerous state, local, and federal entities, has published reports on water-level changes in the High Plains aquifer since 1988 in response to substantial water-level declines in large areas of the aquifer.

“This multi-state, groundwater-level monitoring study tracks water-level changes in wells screened in the High Plains aquifer and located in all eight states that overlie the aquifer. The study has provided data critical to evaluating different options for groundwater management,” said McGuire. “This level of coordinated groundwater-level monitoring is unique among major, multi-state regional aquifers in the country.”

High Plains aquifer water-level changes, predevelopment (about 1950) to 2015. Figure 1 from USGS SIR 2017-5040.(Public domain.)
Bar graph showing change in water-in-storage, predevelopment to 2015, by state and in total for the High Plains aquifer. States in region include Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming. (Public domain.)
Bar graph showing change in recoverable water in storage, 2011 to 2013 (orange) and 2013 to 2015 (green), in million acre-feet by state and in total for the High Plains aquifer. Recoverable water in storage from 2013 to 2015 for the aquifer declined 10.7 million acre-feet, which is about 30 percent of the recoverable water in storage change from 2011 to 2013. This difference is likely related to reduced groundwater pumpage during the 2013 and 2014 irrigation seasons as compared to the 2011 and 2012 irrigation seasons. (Public domain.)

RRWCD meeting in holyoke Thurs., july 13

Holyoke photo credit dankalal.net.

From the Holyoke Enterprise:

The Board of Directors of the Republican River Water Conservation District will be holding its regular quarterly meeting in Holyoke Thursday, July 13, from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. at the Phillips County Event Center Biesemeier Room.

The agenda includes board president’s report; general manager’s report; quarterly financial report and expenditures; report regarding the Compact Compliance Pipeline; program updates and reports, including reports from the RRWCD’s engineer and legal counsel; RRWCD committee reports; Associated Organization Reports, including Colorado Water Congress, South Platte Roundtable, Water Preservation Partnership, Yuma County Water Authority and Yuma County Weed Control; report on South Fork Project by Nancy Smith, The Nature’s Conservancy; report by Yuma County Pest District; report by Mike Sullivan, assistant state engineer, and Scott Steinbrecher, Colorado attorney general assistant on negotiations with Kansas regarding Bonny; donation to Yuma County Pest District, WPP Resolution 17-01; and engagement letter for 2017 audit with Winfrey, County and Hays.

@USGS: Water-level and recoverable water in storage changes, High Plains aquifer, predevelopment to 2015 and 2013–15

Click here to read the report. Here’s the release from the US Geological Survey:

The U.S. Geological Survey has released a new report detailing changes of groundwater levels in the High Plains aquifer. The report presents water-level change data in the aquifer for two separate periods: from 1950 – the time prior to significant groundwater irrigation development – to 2015, and from 2013 to 2015.

“Change in storage for the 2013 to 2015 comparison period was a decline of 10.7 million acre-feet, which is about 30 percent of the change in recoverable water in storage calculated for the 2011 to 2013 comparison period,” said Virginia McGuire, USGS scientist and lead author of the study. “The smaller decline for the 2013 to 2015 comparison period is likely related to reduced groundwater pumping.”

In 2015, total recoverable water in storage in the aquifer was about 2.91 billion acre-feet, which is an overall decline of about 273.2 million acre-feet, or 9 percent, since predevelopment. Average area-weighted water-level change in the aquifer was a decline of 15.8 feet from predevelopment to 2015 and a decline of 0.6 feet from 2013 to 2015.

The USGS study used water-level measurements from 3,164 wells for predevelopment to 2015 and 7,524 wells for the 2013 to 2015 study period.

The High Plains aquifer, also known as the Ogallala aquifer, underlies about 112 million acres, or 175,000 square miles, in parts of eight states, including: Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming. The USGS, at the request of the U.S. Congress and in cooperation with numerous state, local, and federal entities, has published reports on water-level changes in the High Plains aquifer since 1988 in response to substantial water-level declines in large areas of the aquifer.

“This multi-state, groundwater-level monitoring study tracks water-level changes in wells screened in the High Plains aquifer and located in all eight states that overlie the aquifer. The study has provided data critical to evaluating different options for groundwater management,” said McGuire. “This level of coordinated groundwater-level monitoring is unique among major, multi-state regional aquifers in the country.”

Upper Republican Natural Resources District’s second annual water conference recap

Republican River Basin by District

From The Grant Tribune (Russ Pankonin):

Officials from Nebraska and Kansas outlined some of the key details of the agreement during the Upper Republican Natural Resources District’s second annual water conference March 27 in Imperial.

Nebraska requirements

One of Kansas’ goals in the the new agreement was to provide irrigators in the Kansas Bostwick Irrigation District (KBID) and other water users water when they needed it.

Nebraska agreed not to release water from Harlan County Lake (HCL) just to meet compact compliance.

Instead, they will work with Kansas to achieve the most efficiency from the water released.

Compliance calculations for the three Republican Basin NRDs (Upper, Middle and Lower) showed they would need to offset about 37,000 acre feet of overpumping in 2016.

Because the compliance calculations are made after the pumping season, Jesse Bradley, assistant director of Nebraska’s Department of Natural Resources, said the state needed some latitude in making up any differences.

That allows Nebraska to use augmentation and streamflow to ensure there is sufficient water in HCL by June 1.

Kansas estimated it would only need about 20,000 AF from HCL in 2017. So rather than pump the other 17,000 AF, the balance will be stored underground. This reduces water loss due to evaporation from the HCL, improving efficiency of the water.

Kansas retains the right to that 17,000 AF.

Bradley said this gives Nebraska more flexibility to meet compliance with Kansas set forth by the 1943 water compact between the three states.
Kansas agreed to give Nebraska 100 percent credit towards compliance for any augmentation water released in the basin.

Bradley said the agreement provides for preserving water supplies for the future by not pumping augmentation or poorly-timed releases from HCL.
On Oct.1, the two states decide whether or not to pump the water stored underground to meet compliance.

Kansas water management

As part of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2015, Nebraska was ordered to pay Kansas $5.5 million in damages for over-pumping in 2012-13.
Earl Lewis, director of the Kansas Water Office, said they happily accepted the money. Since KBID suffered the most from Nebraska’s non-compliance, Kansas allocated $3.5 million back to that area.

Lewis said they are using $2.5 million to convert KBID canals to underground pipelines. He said this will save the district between 8-10,000 AF of water on an annual basis.

Susan Metzger, Kansas’ assistant ag secretary, said technology will play a key role in the conservation of water going forward.

She said Kansas has created three water technology farms where they put into practice a variety of technological advances and conservation measures.

She said they held a field day at one of the farms and drew nearly 300 people, showing the great interest of farmers in this research.

She added they want to expand to another four farms this year.

Kansas has also created local enhanced management areas, which resemble Nebraska’s NRD system, and provide for local control in water management and conservation.

The program is starting to build momentum across the state and six management areas have been approved.
Bradley said the integrated management plans (IMP) in the Republican Basin will evolve as Kansas and Nebraska continue to work together.

The basin is already on its third generation of IMPs and predicts the fourth generation won’t be far behind. That means things are working, he added.

He noted that 2013 wasn’t a shining year for compact compliance due to drought conditions.

He said prospects for the basin, water-wise, look good going forward.

The system as a whole looks better with more water in reservoirs. In addition, the department hasn’t had to issue any closing notices on surface water for the past three years.

He added that groundwater declines in some areas are starting to stabilize.

As part of the three-state agreement, Kansas and Colorado also crafted resolutions to deal with Colorado’s compact compliance efforts.

Ogallala Aquifer — different water law by state

Map sources:
Houston, Natalie. 2011. Hydrogeologist, Texas Water Science Center, U.S. Geological Survey. Personal communication, October 2011.
Houston, Natalie, Amanda Garcia, and Eric Strom. 2003. Selected Hydrogeologic Datasets for the Ogallala Aquifer, Texas. Open File Report 2003-296. August 2003.

From High Plains Public Radio (Susan Stover):

Texas manages groundwater with the Rule of Capture. The groundwater belongs to the landowner without a defined limit. It’s sometimes known as the Law of the Biggest Pump.

Colorado and Kansas water law is based on prior appropriation, known as First in Time, First in Right. A water right owner can pump their permitted amount if it doesn’t impair a more senior right – a water right that was established earlier in time. When there isn’t enough water to meet all needs, the owners of senior water rights have priority. The priority system works well for streams. When stream flow is low, it is generally clear which upstream, junior users must be cut off to protect the more senior water rights.

For groundwater, it is more complex to identify which water wells are impairing a more senior water well. Groundwater often provides a baseflow to streams; when heavy groundwater pumping lowers the water table so there is no longer a connection to the stream and stream flow declines, is that impairment?

Colorado state law dealt with such concerns by defining “designated groundwater basins,” those in which groundwater contributes little to stream flow. The Ogallala aquifer lies in designated groundwater basins. This allows more groundwater to be pumped, which lowers the water table, but with less risk of impairing surface water rights.

In Kansas, action is taken when a junior water right well’s pumping directly impairs a senior water right well, whether it uses groundwater or surface water. However, no action is taken if problems are due to regional groundwater declines. Like Colorado, Kansas allows the decline of the Ogallala aquifer to get the economic benefit from the water.

Management of the Ogallala aquifer is a balance between protecting existing water right holders and conserving water for the future. Attitudes change over time on what is a proper balance. Much water law encouraged development of the aquifer and protects current users. Is that balance shifting more toward conserving and extending this resource further into the future?

Ogallala Aquifer: “We’re burning up our savings account” — Jay Garetson

Map sources: Houston, Natalie. 2011. Hydrogeologist, Texas Water Science Center, U.S. Geological Survey. Personal communication, October 2011. Houston, Natalie, Amanda Garcia, and Eric Strom. 2003. Selected Hydrogeologic Datasets for the Ogallala Aquifer, Texas. Open File Report 2003-296. August 2003.
Map sources:
Houston, Natalie. 2011. Hydrogeologist, Texas Water Science Center, U.S. Geological Survey. Personal communication, October 2011.
Houston, Natalie, Amanda Garcia, and Eric Strom. 2003. Selected Hydrogeologic Datasets for the Ogallala Aquifer, Texas. Open File Report 2003-296. August 2003.

From the Las Vegas Daily Sun (Ian James):

By permanently barring the use of two wells in an area where farmers rely on the Ogallala Aquifer to grow corn, the judge concluded the Garetson family’s senior water right had been “impaired” by their neighbor – a company that holds a junior water right.

“What made this case so important is the precedent that is now set,” said Jay Garetson, who filed the lawsuit in 2012 together with his brother Jarvis. The Garetsons have said they sued not only to defend their livelihood but also to press the state to enforce its water laws, and to call attention to the urgent need for action to preserve the aquifer.

“Our goal was to force this to the forefront,” Garetson said in an interview on Wednesday. “The best-case scenario would be it forces people to recognize that the status quo is no longer an option.”

Kansas’ “first-in-time, first-in-right” water rights system gives priority to those who have been using their wells the longest. And farmers are actually using much less water than they would be permitted under the system of appropriated groundwater rights established decades ago.

But with aquifers levels dropping and a limited supply left that can be economically extracted for farming, the Garetsons and others argue that the state and water districts should step in to establish limits on pumping…

Garetson said the decision should help bring order to a chaotic situation, and he hopes the case will be a catalyst for management of groundwater. He said he thinks the local groundwater district should establish a water budget and institute a sort of “cap-and-trade” system, in which water use would be scaled back based on established rights and could be sold between farmers, thereby allowing the market to sort out the scarcity problem.

He thinks such a system could serve as a model across the Ogallala Aquifer and in other areas of the country where aquifers are declining due to excessive pumping.

Garetson has seen some wells go dry on his farm, where he and his brother grow corn and sorghum. And he acknowledges his own pumping contributes to what is effectively the “mining” of groundwater.

He wants state officials and the region’s water managers to establish limits to move “in the direction of sustainability” – even though that’s a high bar to reach given the area’s limited water supplies and slow rate of aquifer recharge.

Garetson said he hopes the court decision will help Kansas farmers move away from the pattern of unchecked pumping that is draining the aquifer. Under the status quo, he said, “we’re actually just borrowing from the future. We’re burning up our savings account.”