Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Groundwater Crisis - Coming to a Water District Near You

I linked to this in my previous post, but thought it deserved a bit more attention given the seriousness of the issue, and the likelihood that the CA legislature will end up kicking this particular can down the road rather than address it head on. From Science Daily:
Although declining streamflows and half-full reservoirs have gotten most of the attention in water conflicts around the United States, some of the worst battles of the next century may be over groundwater, experts say — a critical resource often taken for granted until it begins to run out.

Aquifers are being depleted much faster than they are being replenished in many places, wells are drying up, massive lawsuits are already erupting and the problems have barely begun. Aquifers that took thousands of years to fill are being drained in decades, placing both agricultural and urban uses in peril. Groundwater that supplies drinking water for half the world’s population is now in jeopardy.

Lest anyone think that this is a future issue, the article provides several examples of how impacts are being felt now:

"In the northern half of Oregon from Pendleton to the Willamette Valley, an aquifer that took 20,000 years to fill is going down fast," Jarvis said. "Some places near Hermiston have seen water levels drop as much as 500 feet in the past 50-60 years, one of the largest and fastest declines in the world.

"I know of a well in Utah that lost its original capacity after a couple years," he said. "In Idaho people drawing groundwater are being ordered to work with other holders of stream water rights as the streams begin to dwindle. Mississippi has filed a $1-billion lawsuit against the City of Memphis because of declining groundwater. You're seeing land subsiding from Houston to the Imperial Valley of California. This issue is real and getting worse."

In the process, Jarvis said, underground aquifers can be irrevocably damaged (emphasis mine) -- not unlike what happened to oil reservoirs when that industry pumped them too rapidly. Tiny fractures in rock that can store water sometimes collapse when it's rapidly withdrawn, and then even if the aquifer had water to recharge it, there's no place for it to go.

So, while California's legislature dawdles, held hostage to local interests with short term views, the long term viability of the state's single largest reservoir of freshwater is being put at risk. And with it, the state's future as an agricultural powerhouse and a driver of industrial innovation and economic growth.

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