Friday, May 29, 2009

More on the Prescott/Big Chino/Verde River controversy

The Prescott and Verde Valley papers are in the midst of running a series of articles on the battle over plans up in the Prescott AMA (in north-central Arizona) to pump groundwater from the Big Chino Aquifer and pipe it south to support the growing communities of Prescott and Prescott Valley. I've been posting intermittently on this controversy and some of the legal issues surrounding it in the past (i.e. here and here). I like to think of this situation as Arizona's mini version of the controversy in Nevada over pumping from aquifers in east-central Nevada to supply water for continued growth in Las Vegas. In both cases you have municipal interests seeking to take groundwater from rural areas to support continued growth where existing water supplies are already overstretched.

So far the first two articles in a four-part series have come out and can be found here and here. The first article is about the geologic history and hydrogeology of the area and the second is about the legal and political history of the controversy. As you might guess the reporter does a better job with the legal and political stuff than he does with the hydrogeology. I'll save my discussion on the articles until the series is complete - the best stuff is yet to come anyway.

Speaking of good stuff - the people who want to pump water from the Big Chino aquifer to compensate for excess pumping in their own aquifer have put up a website to present their side of the issues. It's the Big Chino Water Ranch Project (that is what Prescott and PV are calling the ranch properties they have purchased in Chino Valley, where they plan to pump the water and put it in a pipeline). It's a nice website, with lots of interesting information, although a bit one-sided. It doesn't clearly state who is responsible for the website, but presumably it's the cities, the developers, and the other money interests in the area. I don't know if the other side has a website up yet - most likely the opposition is covered on a variety of websites. If anyone knows of a site, drop me a line or leave a comment.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

update on City of Tucson/Pima County Water & Wastewater study

Tomorrow night (Thurs. 5/21) is the next meeting in Phase II of the study. This meeting will wrap up the discussion of water conservation begun last month as well as protection of riparian areas and stormwater management (collection and use of rainwater, either by landowners or collectively by the city or county).

They are running once-a-month, four hour marathon meetings in this phase, which has weeded out all but the most die-hard attendees. I went to the last meeting, but will miss this one (it's my son's 2nd birthday). Fortunately, all the discussion materials for the meetings are available on the website (here), and if you really want to hear the committee discussion it's available either on the web or on local cable Channel 12.

They are running the meetings slightly differently from Phase I. Most of the time is spent on committee discussion with the presenters - the presentations are kept brief. And they do allow plenty of time for questions and comments from the public. But the technical documents prepared and distributed for each meeting are very informative - I highly recommend reading them. Just keep in mind they are prepared by city and county staff, so don't expect anything really radical or ground-breaking.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Groundwater Management in California

The NY Times ran an article last week about groundwater use in the Central Valley of California. The article was mentioned on Inkstain, Aquafornia, and On the Public Record, but I just couldn't resist throwing my two cents in as well because this is one of my favorite issues.

California may earn the distinction of having less regulation of groundwater use than even Texas, which still follows the absolute ownership rule - the most permissive legal regime governing groundwater. Texas is at least in the process of developing regional planning documents to guide local agencies that presumably "regulate" access to groundwater in the state (there is plenty of debate about how effective those efforts are or are likely to be). California similarly has only local control of groundwater resources and those efforts range from, basically nothing, to fully adjudicated groundwater basins where rights to groundwater are quantified, prioritized, transferable and for the most part fully-regulated. But the adjudicated basins are primarily in urbanized Southern California. This report from the CA Dept. of Water Resources has a map showing what management regime is in place in different areas of the state (pdf file, about 2.6 mb; it's 10 years old, so not the most current). The areas with little or no management of groundwater are in the main farming areas of the state - the Central Valley, in particular.

The article notes that the state has been making noises recently about actually collecting some data on groundwater use throughout the state - most pumping is not metered in any way and those relying on groundwater consider metering the first step in limiting their "property rights" in groundwater (see my previous post). As the farmer quoted in the NYT story says:
“I don’t want the government to come in and dictate to us, ‘This is all the water you can use on your own land,’ ” said Mr. Watte, 57. “We would resist that to our dying day.”

Strong words there. Of course if they were to run out of groundwater they would surely be clamoring for someone (the government, perhaps?) to come to their rescue by spending tax dollars to bring in a new supply of water. We know what that is like in Arizona, where we were racing to the bottom of our aquifers in the central parts of the state back in the 60s when the feds finally came through with approval of the Central Arizona Project (CAP) to bring Colorado River water in to rescue all the farms and cities from a certain fate. But ... it turned out that the feds were carrying a stick along with the carrot of new water. They insisted that Arizona clean up its act on groundwater regulation by setting some limits on pumping, collecting data on how much pumping was occurring, and creating quantified, transferable rights in groundwater. If we didn't do that, funding for the CAP just might dry up - along with our economy. So the state enacted the Groundwater Management Act of 1980 that imposed fairly stringent regulation of groundwater pumping in the areas where overdraft was most severe.

I'd guess that the most likely reason they have been able to resist more significant regulation of groundwater in California is because they only rely on the stuff when the surface water situation is dire - like it is now. If groundwater is your primary or only source of water (as it was in much of Arizona), the pressure to take action is much stronger. But the California farmers (in the Central Valley at least) have been supplied for the most part with ample surface water from the Central Valley Project, State Water Project, and other large water delivery systems that convey surface water from where it is to where it is needed. When surface water is unavailable or limited, the farmers most affected restart their pumps, and everyone wrings their hands over depletion of groundwater. When surface water supplies return, the pumps turn off and water levels are allowed to recover. This removes the pressure to regulate groundwater use. The difference this time is that the surface water may be gone for good in some instances, so there will be more farmers relying on groundwater more of the time. This may lead to sustained pressure for action. And this being California, you can pretty much bet that action will be state action. The best those farmers can hope for is that they implement some kind of system that gives them something more closely resembling real property rights in groundwater - quantified, transferable, and sustainable. That way they will have both an incentive to manage the use of groundwater and more valuable property rights associated with their farmland, generally.

I'd suggest Mr. Watte start pricing flow meters pretty soon.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Chino Valley Town council candidates to protect well owner's property rights (what property rights?)

This little piece showed up in the Chino Valley Review last week, describing a candidate forum for the Chino Valley Town Council. Chino Valley is a very small town just north of Prescott, Arizona and happens to be in the vicinity of where Prescott is planning to pump groundwater that will be transported into the Prescott area to support current and future growth. If you're interested I have posted previously on this project and some of the interesting legal issues that have some up because of it here and here.

I really love the way local politicians pander to their constituents by talking about their property rights in groundwater - when those rights consist of nothing more than the right to pump water out of the ground faster than your neighbors, who are trying to do the same thing. The property rights claims are always made when someone mentions the possibility of metering peoples wells to determine how much water they are using - this is just the first step in regulating how much water people can pump, they say. I guess they will know if they are pumping too much when they have to deepen their wells every 5 years. In this case Prescott is asking people to meter wells in the area, presumably so they can determine the sustainable yield of the aquifer, but those intrepid town council candidates see right through that ruse:
As for metering private wells, Schmidt said, "The metering idea comes from Prescott so it can get more water. Our private wells have no impact on Prescott."
Another candidate, Linda Hatch, said, "I don't think it (metering of private wells) will happen. If the wells go dry the town will offer them an opportunity to go on the town's system."
Candidate Robert Justice said metering of private wells is not the way to go. If a person's well goes dry they will have options.

Their big concern is that pumping by Prescott will dry up individual wells and they might be right, because Prescott has the same "property right" in the groundwater that they do, but they also have the resources to put in large, deep wells with high capacity pumps - giving them a heavy-duty property right.

So these folks are basically saying: there's no need to meter your pumping, because if everyone is pumping too much their wells will go dry and we'll hook you up to the city water system. What they don't mention is that those people will then be paying a lot more for their water and ... their water use will be metered (unless they have flat-rate water service up there). In other words they're happy to talk about protecting your water rights to get your vote even though they acknowledge that those water rights really aren't worth a damn. Do people really fall for this stuff?

Friday, May 1, 2009

Some numbers to look at

I was recently involved in a discussion with John Fleck over at Inkstain about per capita water use numbers - comparing Tucson and Albuquerque data. Then I recently came across this graphic (courtesy of On the Public Record) that shows some pretty startling numbers.

It was in the Sacramento Bee so it focuses on data from that area, but also provides some numbers from elsewhere for comparison. It shouldn't be surprising from looking at these numbers that many areas in and around Sacramento have no metering for residential water service. What is surprising is that anyone from Sacramento could even raise the subject of drought or water shortages when their own consumption looks like this. Mind you, I'm not accusing anyone in particular, just pointing out that it's best to have your own house in order before pointing the finger at others. I'm sure there are other examples of water waste that could be pointed out in California that could be considered contributors to their current water crisis - efficiency is often a moving target.