What color is your water?

colorofwaterIf anyone reading this remembers the seminal career book “What Color is Your Parachute”, you aren’t going to find that kind of advice here. But OSU colleague Todd Jarvis has certainly made an entertaining splash in the water-centric blogosphere with his new offering: Rainbow Water Coalition. It’s got lots of nifty information about gray water (that water which is used in the kitchen or bathroom and then reused in your landscape), along with posts on water harvesting, biosolids and a few other topics that he explores with lots of good humor. Check it out: rainbowwatercoalition.blogspot.com. I highly recommend reading his explanation for the different water colors on the left panel of the blog homepage! Congrats on an excellent color-coded contribution, Todd!

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Water and Oil DO mix! "Unitization" anyone?

Oil rig. Photo courtesy of Billy Hawthorn, Creative Commons Licensing, 2008.

Oil rig. Photo courtesy of Billy Hawthorn, Creative Commons Licensing, 2008.

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the 2009 PNW Water Conference organized and sponsored by a variety of state agencies, research institutes, the Environmental Protection Agency, US Department of Agriculture, and the three land-grant universities in the Pacific Northwest (WSU, OSU and Idaho).  It was a marvelous conference–full of good ideas and a nice linkage between land use and water, something that is often neglected by people working in both camps.

At the conference, OSU colleague Todd Jarvis gave a compelling final talk to an almost packed house on “Peak Water Meets Peak Oil: Moving Towards Unitization of Shared Groundwater.”  You can view it here:

The talk brought up a gnarly, uncomfortable truth about groundwater. Namely, ground water managers could learn a lot from how oil companies manage the world’s oil fields.

“Say what!?” you may exclaim. The crowd of generally sympathetic water wonks was also pretty uncomfortable with the comparison. Global oil is purportedly running out, and water is renewed each day by a familiar-to-every-grade-school-kid water cycle. Not so says Jarvis, associate director of the Institute for Water and Watersheds.  While we may very well see a day soon when oil is no longer used as extensively as we do today, since the 1970s, oil extraction has been carefully planned and managed so that wells don’t interfer with each other, and so that oil fields are sustained for the future instead of collapsing when the oil is drained. Furthermore, well fields are managed as market-controlled common-pool resources–where petroleum companies buy into them the same way that shareholders would any type of publicly-traded company (e.g. Microsoft, Ford Motor Company, or Proctor and Gamble). To extract, a company simply buys a right to the field, then has responsibilities for maintaining it in the long run. This is called “unitization” and could quite possibly be the next big thing with managing groundwater.

At present, however, the world’s groundwater is far from unitized.  In the Western United States, for example, our approach is generally to extract it without considering what happens when wells are too closely spaced (they interfere with each other), or if the over-extraction leads to damage (such as collapse of the rock and soil layers when the water is removed from between them). And with few exceptions, U.S. water law engages well owners in a race to the bottom of the proverbial bucket with each other. The bigger pump and the bigger user often wins, while at the same time the millions of exempt (unregulated) wells owned by individual property owners leads to a “death by a thousand cuts” for a whole aquifer and the collective group’s ability to extract more water in the future (see my recent post on that subject). Lastly,  wells have frequently been abandoned and left as open pathways for pollution into the community aquifer, not to mention the myriad other ways for groundwater to be polluted by storage tanks, septic systems or leaching from above.

Abandoned wells are pathways to groundwater pollution. Photo courtesy of Gail Glick-Andrews, OSU.

Abandoned wells are pathways to groundwater contamination. Perhaps making them an aquifer shareholder problem would help? Photo courtesy of Gail Glick-Andrews, OSU.

In fact, in most aquifers worldwide, extraction of water is quite similar to nonrenewable oil in that it is extracted much faster than it can be replenished by natural recharge. Pumping of groundwater from aquifers in my native desert Southwest exceeds natural recharge by millions of years since the “fossil” water deposited into some of Arizona’s alluvial basins arrived with the last few ice ages and could not be replaced by the 7-17″ of annual rainfall without a few more million years (of no extraction and normal rainfall patterns)! Even aquifers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and the groundwater of the  Coast Range valleys may not be replenished at the same rate as the extraction takes place. Wet climates are not at all immune from over-extraction. Professor Robert Glennon from the University of Arizona has written about this phenomenon in his excellent book Water Follies.

In fact, say Jarvis, there are already several cases local and global where groundwater management looks a lot like oil field management. Time will tell, but it just might work to help slow the race to the pump that is vexing groundwater-dependent regions of the world.

So if you’re a groundwater watcher, look for more mention of unitization. Todd has certainly made a splash with his presentation and a short accompanying piece in the “Green Inc.” blog hosted by the New York Times. Perhaps the hard lessons of petroleum geologists and the boom bust cycles of the oil industry will work as well for groundwater managers, large and small.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” –George Santayana

PNW Exempt Wells and Common Pool Resources

West of the Cascades, we Pacific Northwesterners are accustomed to thinking we have abundant water resources. We deal with floods with a frequency that makes them seem almost passe.  But reality is that it is only in our collective perception that water resources are abundant.  Rivers run low in the spring, summer and fall.   Much of our water is delivered at the whim of the atmosphere, not just the tap, headgate, or treatment plant.  Even this year, our moderate El Niño conditions mean a potentially drier than normal winter rain and snowfall.

And underneath it all–literally–lies groundwater that is sometimes of dubious quality and quantity.  More importantly, some relatively archaic laws govern groundwater to an extent that draw down of aquifers is a real danger in many places.  For an excellent summary of a PNW case-in-point, check out the most recent High Country News article on “Death by a Thousand Wells” in Kittitias and Kittsap counties, WA.

A wellhead exposed. What institutions govern it and its neighbors? Photo: R. Emanuel.

A wellhead exposed. What institutions govern it and its neighbors? Photo: R. Emanuel.

It’s good to remind ourselves that Elinor Ostrom’s prodigious research-fueled rise to earn a Nobel Prize in Economics began with a study of groundwater extraction in the Los Angeles Basin many years ago as the population of that region skyrocketed along with the fortunes of Walt Disney, Ray Kroc, and a few thousand real estate developers.  Groundwater is one of those very common pool resources that Lin Ostrom and many other who followed her demonstrated need robust institutions to govern them.

So warning–you think Washington has it bad–look at the case of exempt wells in Oregon.  Virtually the same rules apply to 230,000+ wells in this state. According to the Oregon Water Resources Department, an estimated 3,800 new wells are drilled in the state every year!  At the very least, OWRD has begun to map the extent of the wells in the state, though funds have been cut in the budgetary crisis since.

But I must ask, do we have the kind of institutions that will govern the groundwater commons to the extent that it we won’t follow the Kittitias County example somewhere in Oregon?  According to Ostrom (1990), the conditions for a stable common-pool resource (CPR) arrangement are:

  1. Clearly defined boundaries
  2. Congruence between appropriation and provision rules and local conditions
  3. Collective-choice arrangements allowing for the participation of most of the appropriators in the decision making process
  4. Effective monitoring by monitors who are part of or accountable to the appropriators
  5. Graduated sanctions for appropriators who do not respect community rules
  6. Conflict-resolution mechanisms which are cheap and easy of access
  7. Minimal recognition of rights to organize (e.g., by the government)
  8. In case of larger CPRs: organization in the form of multiple layers of nested enterprises, with small, local CPRs at their bases.

Unfortunately, Western and Oregon water law as well as societal norms don’t meet even a significant fraction of these eight conditions.  The answer then to my question about avoiding the “tragedy” of  the groundwater commons draw down is “probably not!

Well, well, well: Coastal Oregon needs help with its wells too.

Despite our appearance as a wet and ever-watery place, wells are a BIG deal for Oregonians on the coast. Our hydrology is a mix of good, bad and downright ugly from the perspective of well owners.  Coastal Oregon well-owners typically can expect to have problems with impurities, output and a sense of neglect when compared with the weight of water users to the east of the Coast Range.  Here’s a chance to learn more about wells across the state.  More importantly, I would like to especially encourage folks from the coast to attend and to speak up for our unique situation (as opposed to those in the Willamette Valley). While we’re all in the water cycle together, well owners in different parts of the state need to learn more and compare notes when they can.

Oregon Sea Grant Extension, the OSU Institute for Water and Watersheds, and the Oregon Water Resources Department are convening a one-day symposium designed to provide information on wells with a focus on domestic wells and ground water challenged areas. For more information (agenda, speaker bios, venue location, etc.) and to register visit http://oregonstate.edu/conferences/wells2008/

Location: Northwest Viticulture Center, outside of Salem, OR

When: December 11, 8:00 AM – 5:00 PM

Registration: $40 until Dec. 5, $50 after Dec. 5 (Includes refreshments, lunch, etc.)

Keynoting the conference will be Kevin McCray, Executive Director of the National Ground Water Association. Melinda Kassen, Trout Unlimited, will discuss ground water use in western states. Karl Wozniak, OWRD ground water Hydrologist, and Jerry Schmidt of the Oregon Ground Water Association will speak more specifically about ground water in Oregon. Other speakers include Mike Gamroth (OSU Extension); Audrey Eldridge (Department of Environmental Quality); Adam Stebbins (Benton County) and Dave Livesay (GSI Water Solutions, Inc.); Turner Odell (Oregon Consensus Program at PSU); Barbara Rich (Deschutes County Environmental Health). Water Resources Graduate Program student Abby Brown (Oregon Sea Grant-Oregon Water Resources Department Fellow) will present on the Neighborhood Ground Water Network she is coordinating in the Eola Hills. The symposium will conclude with a facilitation to determine needs.

Groundwater: the neglected resource

I just returned from the Universities Council on Water Resources (UCOWR) conference in Durham, NC. For water wonks like me, it was a fascinating confluence of people and ideas. One topic that consistently appeared on the agenda was ground water and its neglect by state, federal and local agencies.

Ground water is a neglected resource from both a quality and quantity perspective. Often, we don’t worry excessively about how much of it we can extract before the loss becomes apparent.  Collectively, we worry less about how usable the water is until something untoward happens (as in the case of groundwater contamination in Love Canal, NY, now 30 years ago and Hinkley, CA, the setting for Erin Brockovich’s famous tale of chromium contamination).  Worse yet, while municipalities that depend upon it map and measure both quantity and quality, well owners are generally left in the dark between establishing a well and selling their land.  And that’s just the case in only slightly more regulated environment of Oregon.

At the same time, the US Geological Survey has just published a report that maps the ground water of the United States.  Below is the abstract. You can access the full report by visiting this link.  In Oregon, some interesting events will come up this fall/winter regarding ground water and wells. Stay tuned to H2ONC for more information.

Ground water is among the Nation’s most important natural resources. It provides half our drinking water and is essential to the vitality of agriculture and industry, as well as to the health of rivers, wetlands, and estuaries throughout the country. Large-scale development of ground-water resources with accompanying declines in ground-water levels and other effects of pumping has led to concerns about the future availability of ground water to meet domestic, agricultural, industrial, and environmental needs. The challenges in determining ground-water availability are many. This report examines what is known about the Nation’s ground-water availability and outlines a program of study by the U.S. Geological Survey Ground-Water Resources Program to improve our understanding of ground-water availability in major aquifers across the Nation. The approach is designed to provide useful regional information for State and local agencies who manage ground-water resources, while providing the building blocks for a national assessment. The report is written for a wide audience interested or involved in the management, protection, and sustainable use of the Nation’s water resources. http://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/1323/

Nat. Geo. on Western Water, Climate

The good folks at National Geographic have put out a well done piece synthesizing a smattering of the latest science, economics and politics that wrap around the issue of a drying western United States. This is serious stuff and worth a read even for water logged North Coasters’. The article’s main premise: water management won the west; what happens when there is not enough water to manage? Remember, we may get abundance but we are extremely interdependent upon our other western neighbors. Drought that burns the Sunbelt will affect all things Pacific Northwestern very quickly. It’s a good FYI read and plus, the photos are pretty spectacular!

The on-line version of this article is available here.

Water Conservation for the North Coast??

The answer to that semi-rhetorical question is: YES! While much of the nation is in severe water crisis at this point (USA Today June 7, 2007), much of the coastal Pacific Northwest seems immune to the vagaries of drought. We should not let our good hydrologic fortune lull us into a sense of complacency, however. Drought is an important topic for the North Coast. Let’s take a quick tour of our local hydrologic situation. Continue reading