Monday, June 22, 2009

The Really Big News from the Prescott/Big Chino water hearing

This was another article that came out last week, discussing the conclusion of the hearings discussed below - this time from the Verde Valley paper. Sandy Fabritz-Whitney is the assistant director of ADWR, who testified at the hearing about the agency's role in the process and admitted that the state has been looking into the possibility of creating an Active Management Area (AMA) that would include the Big Chino area. This would be the first AMA created by the State since the Santa Cruz AMA was authorized to form by splitting from the Tucson AMA in 1994. All original AMAs were created by the Groundwater Management Act in 1980.

This might just be a way for the state to encourage local stakeholders to get their act together in this area or there may be genuine local interest in having the state manage the aquifer. Either way I suspect the announcement sent some shockwaves through that part of the state if they were as unaware of this development as I was. I can't wait to hear more on this.

Prescott/Chino Valley water hearing wraps up (with some testimony that really bothers me)

The administrative hearing on Prescott's application to pump nearly 9,000 ac-ft of water from the Big Chino aquifer wrapped up last week, according to the local paper. If you're hearing about this issue for the first time check out my previous posts: here, here, and here.

Now it's a matter of waiting for the administrative law judge to review the testimony and filings of the parties before issuing his opinion, which the article indicates may come in the fall. That opinion then goes to the head of the Department of Water Resources (ADWR) who can then affirm or change his initial ruling. Then one of the parties can move the case into the regular court system by filing an appeal in Superior Court. In other words, this won't be resolved this year.

The day prior to that article, there was another article in the Prescott paper talking about the final day of testimony in the case that I would like to comment on because it really raised my hackles. This was a discussion of testimony by two experts on the validity of the studies conducted to estimate the effect of pumping from the Big Chino aquifer on flows in the upper Verde River. (Everyone acknowledges that the springs that are the source of the Upper Verde are outlets from the Big Chino aquifer, but there is dispute over the contribution of that aquifer to the flow from those springs and hence the degree of impact the pumping will have on those springs.) A USGS scientist, Laurie Wirt, published studies on her work looking at the geochemistry of the aquifer, the springs, and the upper river, where she concluded that the aquifer provided 80% of the flow in the springs. Unfortunately, Ms. Wirt died recently in a kayaking accident so she wasn't available to defend her work in the hearing. But two former USGS employees presented differing views on the robustness of her results. Ed McGavock, currently with the consulting firm E.L. Montgomery & Assoc., argued that Ms. Wirt was biased because of her personal beliefs in support of the river, leading to unreliable results. Hjalmar "Win" Hjalmarson, a retired USGS engineer, who assisted Ms. Wirt on her studies defended her results and her integrity.

Here's what the article says about McGavock's testimony:
McGavock kicked off the debate Monday by testifying that he believed Wirt, who died in a kayaking accident in 2006, rigged her studies to come up with results consistent with her passionate views about protecting the environment.
"Laurie had a different mindset than most of us in the USGS," McGavock said. "We had a long tradition of objectivity."
In contrast, "Laurie cared deeply about what was going on in the environment," McGavock said, adding that Wirt "became very impatient with Survey procedures. No one in the USGS ever accused Laurie of being objective."

Now I have no problem with another scientist getting up to challenge the results of someone else's studies, but to do so by attacking the integrity of another scientist who cannot defend herself because of her untimely demise really bothers me. I hope McGavock also discussed what was wrong with Ms. Wirt's methodology and the reporter just didn't discuss that part. Because to challenge someone's results by attacking them personally goes against most everything that I believe science should stand for.

Then if you go to the bottom of the story the reporter includes this:
Even so, McGavock allowed that he and most hydrologists agree that the Big Chino is the "primary source" of water for the Upper Verde. After the hearing, he estimated the Big Chino contribution at "somewhere between 60 (percent) and 80 percent."

So her results were biased, but not that far off from your own estimates and possibly irrelevant to the real point of the case? Must have been a pretty good cross-examination. This is the kind of work that consultants covet because they charge their highest rates for expert testimony. But at what cost? This sort of behavior can be incredibly damaging to the credibility of the profession. It's an unfortunate trade-off we have to make.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Article touting the growing popularity of rain barrels

I came across this on Aquafornia yesterday. The article discusses use of rain barrels for rainwater harvesting in places like Illinois and Minnesota, but what about in California, Arizona, and New Mexico where they should be standard equipment on all homes? I'm a big fan of making better use of free resources whenever possible and collection of rainwater provides so many benefits in places where lots of potable-quality water is typically used for outdoor irrigation. Installing water storage can be costly, but if water were priced to discourage its use outdoors, it would become very economical to capture rainwater. And there are a lot of benefits to be derived from just doing some landscape modification to slow runoff from your property and direct it to trees and shrubs, which doesn't cost very much at all.

If you have an interest in learning more about rainwater harvesting there are some great resources on the web, here are a few:

And a local non-profit in Tucson that works with neighborhoods and other organizations on rainwater harvesting projects is Watershed Management Group, found here.

More poorly managed groundwater resources

John Fleck posted this link about a week ago. It's got all the familiar themes for us in the West: drying rivers, dropping water tables, unregulated groundwater pumping, and large irrigated lawns. But it's not in the West, it's in Massachusetts!

Pretty amazing to think of people in Mass., where it rains 48 inches a year, watering their lawns. Do they just really enjoy cutting the grass? The article cites some per capita water use numbers showing that some communities use more water than people do in Tucson - where it rains 12 inches in a good year. The state is stepping in to mandate that average water use for residential customers get down to 65 gallons/capita/day - easily enough water for average indoor needs. Which should deal with the people who don't have the ability to sink a well on their property. But unless they also intend to regulate well drilling on residential lots that might not solve the problem entirely. At the very least they should get people to meter their private wells and pay an extraction fee for pumpage above some limit.

Monday, June 8, 2009

A couple of recent articles discussing improvements in irrigation efficiencies by farmers in Ariz. and Cal.

I thought these two articles were very encouraging in showing that farmers in the West (even the ones growing alfalfa) can invest in improved irrigation efficiency and have a positive impact on their bottom line. With all the recent bad news about climate change and diminishing water supplies it's going to be necessary for farmers to adapt and alter their operations if they want to survive as farmers and if we want to continue to grow crops locally, here in the West.

The first of these articles appeared in the Western Farm Press last month and describes a farming family in Central Arizona that started growing alfalfa in fields where they had already installed drip tape and found their yields were enough higher than their neighbors that they claim a system like it can pay for itself in 3 to 5 years.

I confess, I don't personally know enough about irrigated farming or growing alfalfa to properly evaluate these claims, but what I have always heard is that it just isn't economical to install high-efficiency irrigation systems in alfalfa fields because it's considered such a low value crop. Maybe higher prices for alfalfa in recent years have altered the equations sufficiently to make things like drip tape a good investment. But I think the key in this story is that the drip system was already installed in the field for growing things like cotton and wheat (not really high value crops themselves in most years, but probably better than alfalfa). The other thing the story doesn't discuss is the overall effect on consumptive use of water with the drip vs. flood irrigation. Some investigations have indicated higher consumptive use with drip, meaning that any savings in overall water use are illusory because the return flow component of flood irrigation is lost. But this clearly is the most efficient way to irrigate crops.

The second article appeared this week in the Fresno Bee (and I lifted it from Aquafornia - thanks Aqua Blog maven!). The article discusses farmers in the Central Valley of California switching to center pivot irrigation systems to get more crop per slowly shrinking drop of water available. Most farmers growing row crops in that area have always used flood irrigation, probably because there has historically been a reliable supply of cheap water available so there was zero incentive to switch to higher efficiency systems. Some farmers are now finding it worth their while to make investments (and apparently finding sympathetic bankers in the area willing to finance those investments - a very important and often overlooked point) in higher efficiency irrigation systems.

These articles show the ability of farmers to adapt to changing conditions and remain profitable in their farming operations. It would be very interesting to look at how many farmers are actually making changes in these difficult times because all you seem to hear about are how farmers are being forced out of business because the water isn't there and they just can't cut it without intervention to supersede environmental laws and more taxpayer funded water storage projects. The Pacific Institute released a report last year outlining steps that could be taken by farmers to implement water conservation measures potentially freeing up more than 3 million acre-feet of water in Central California. I saw a fair amount of criticism of that report as being unreasonable in its assumptions. Obviously there are efficiency gains to be made out there because these articles show that it is happening. But I don't think anybody really knows the extent to which it could occur, or how much it might cost. These would be good things to know.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Follow-up on previous post, parts 3 and 4 from the Verde News on Prescott/Big Chino/Verde River controversy

The final two parts of this series came out during the past week - find them here and here. Actually, on that last one I'm guessing it's the fourth part - it's not exactly clear from reading the lead-in, but it came out just after part 3, by the same author, and has the same subject, so I'll call it part 4.

Part 3 talks about the history of the area some more, but the real focus is on what is occurring in the Big Chino watershed apart from the Big Chino Water Ranch project.
According to the State Land Department, there are approximately 318,000 acres of privately owned land in the Big Chino basin.
That number will grow when the Yavapai Ranch Land Exchange is completed.
In addition to private land, the State Land Department holds 233,000 acres in trust, which, by state statute, could be auctioned off and become private land in the future.
Virtually the entire basin, since it is rural Yavapai County, is zoned for one residence on every two acres. That, too, is subject to change as developers trade infrastructure, open space and other amenities for higher zoning densities.
And since the Yavapai County Board of Supervisors has yet to endorse a new state law that would allow them to deny a subdivision based on the lack of an adequate water supply, any and all developers have the right to sink a well, even if it eventually dries up.

What they are saying is that in addition to Prescott and Prescott Valley's plans to pump about 12,000 acre-feet of water from the basin, there could be thousands of small ranchettes out there with their own wells, pumping who-knows-how-much water from the aquifer. My guess is that will have some kind of impact on the Verde River eventually and because it will be the result of the actions of thousands of individual landowners, pinning the blame on the Water Ranch, while logistically tempting, will be difficult to do. Oh sure, they will be the only one's pumping from the aquifer and piping the water far away - their use will be essentially 100% consumptive - while the individual landowners will be pumping from their wells, using some of the water in their homes and yards, but eventually returning most of it to the watershed either through septic leachfields or sewer plant discharge. But if the private land in the valley were fully developed at some point in the future, the springs feeding the Upper Verde would dry up at some point.

So will all that land be developed? Pretty unlikely. Hopefully the majority of it will be taken off the market for development by purchase of development rights, conservation easements, or outright purchase of the land. The state land makes for a challenging issue because of the statutory requirement that the state obtain maximum value for that land (typically by selling it to a developer, who can then put the land to its "highest value" use by building homes, highest value strictly in terms of cold, hard cash). But there has been a strong push in the state in recent years to relax that requirement and hopefully the law will be changed by the time that land is considered ripe for development. But some of what you hear from the area is not real encouraging:
The new owners of the CV/CF Ranch, Chino Grande Ltd., have applied to the Arizona Department of Water Resources to pump 20,776 acre feet of groundwater from the aquifer -- twice Prescott's allotment.
They have also proposed selling 3,000 acre-feet a year of water rights from historically irrigated acres on the ranch, to the Town of Chino Valley. And they intend to build 25,000 homes on the land above.

The final article is a profile on two of the political players in this drama. John Munderloh is the water resource manager for the Town of Prescott Valley (one of the parties to the Water Ranch project) and Doug Von Gausig is the mayor of Clarkdale, a small community in the Verde Valley, downstream from Chino Valley. They both talk about sustainability in the article - Munderloh from the perspective of sustaining both water supplies and growth in the Prescott area and Von Gausig mostly from the perspective of sustaining the river.

Munderloh believes that all that is required to protect the river and permit his community to continue to grow is better management. Of course he still believes they need more water to support that growth. He takes the position that the estimates of natural recharge to the aquifer in Chino Valley are grossly understated because anytime water is flowing in the creek above the Verde headwaters, that means the aquifer is full and unable to take more recharge - a condition he claims is fairly common. It's a pretty simplistic view of hydrogeology that the proponents of pumping seem pretty fond of up there. They like to point to the fact that there has been pumping occurring in the valley for years to support irrigated farming and the river hasn't dried up yet. But they only have estimates of how much pumping has occurred (because no one measures those things in rural parts of Arizona) and the timing of that pumping may be quite different than the timing of pumping from the proposed supply wells. There really is very little known about what the long-term effects will be.

Von Gausig just knows that a healthy river is essential to his town because it supports existing water rights in the area (which would not be protected from upstream groundwater diversions under Arizona law) and most importantly is probably a significant source of tourism dollars for the area. That's why he supports a regional governing body that manages the river and the aquifers, plans for future water supplies, and generally ensures that everyone is on the same page. I wonder if the Salt River Project will be represented on that regional body?