The problems that many regions, like California, are having with drought and water sources are getting a lot of attention recently – especially with how, in California, there have been no regulations in place as to how much groundwater is being withdrawn. Some of the impacts of this unrestrained water use are that some areas of the land have dropped by many feet, leading bridges and other infrastructure in the area to have problems.
Another problem is that the connections between groundwater sources (aquifers) and surface water sources (streams, rivers) have been largely ignored for a long time – and these sources affect each other. Streams help feed aquifers, and many streams keep flowing because they are fed by aquifers.
Water is also being diverted from surface sources to irrigate crops, and some of that irrigation does end up either helping replenish groundwater, or ending up farther downstream in other ways. Wells drilled close to rivers, to access the groundwater there, can and will deplete the river, affecting it locally as well as decreasing the amount of water that flows downstream, which affects the water rights of people downstream.
Like pretty much everything having to do with water and water rights, it is not a simple problem to solve right. Via Grist:
California and Arizona — the two states water experts say are facing the most severe water crises — continue to count and regulate groundwater and surface water as if they were entirely separate.
“States have their own take on this. Or they choose to not address it at all,” said Stanley Leake, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and a leading expert on properly accounting for the connection between ground and surface waters in the West. “In some cases they pretend that there is no connection.”
Leaders in California and Arizona acknowledge that their states have done this, at least in part to avoid the grim reckoning that emanates from doing the math accurately. There is even less water available than residents have been led to believe.
If these states stopped effectively double-counting their resources, they would have to change laws, upend traditional water rights, and likely force farmers and cities to accept even more dramatic cuts than they already face — a political third rail.
California did finally pass some legislation about regulating groundwater, for the first time – but it only passed by including a “provision that explicitly prohibits California state regulators from addressing the interconnection between groundwater and surface water in local water plans until 2025.” Arizona has some similar problems, where the issue similarly is seen as too politically and economically dangerous to bring up and address in accordance with science. All of this likely means the water mismanagement that has been going on for decades will continue to be minimally addressed to reduce the strain of drought, and strain on ecosystems caused by development and agriculture.
In a series of articles, ProPublica has been examining the ways in which human’s mistakes in managing water in the West have exacerbated the severity of the drought and have left Colorado River basin states less able to adapt to a changing climate. There are lots of culprits: farming subsidies for water-intensive crops, arcane laws encouraging waste, leaky infrastructure, and more.
But none may be more significant than allowing a miscounting of how much water exists in the first place. Willingly overlooking the science amounts to a fundamental failure of water management, leading water experts say, one that is leading to decisions about how to use it that will deepen and prolong the drought’s painful effects.