Saturday, January 3, 2015

2015 Preview: States React to New Era of Water Scarcity

Water is priority in state Legislatures and governors’ offices.

By Brett Walton
Circle of Blue
Photo © Matt Black / Circle of Blue
John Burchard, General Manager of the Alpaugh Community Services District in California’s 
Central Valley, walks a ditch bank on the outskirts of town. A horrific drought pushed water to the forefront of state politics in 2014. 

California, its hand forced in 2014 by a nasty drought, brought its groundwater laws out of the Gold Rush era and into line with nearly every other state in the Union. New York’s Democratic governor banned fracking for natural gas, in large part because of concerns about water pollution.

Kansas debated how to cope with a shrinking Ogallala Aquifer, its main source of irrigation water. Voters in California, Florida, and Maine endorsed new state spending on water conservation, water treatment plants, pollution cleanup, and river restoration. And more than one dozen states, spooked by drought and needing guidance, discussed or submitted new water plans.

Taken together, these actions represent an awakening in the United States that water supplies are not as abundant as once thought. A series of severe droughts in recent years — from Texas in 2011 to the Midwest in 2012 to California today — is the frontline reality of a hotter, drier era that is forcing state leaders to take stock of their water assets and reevaluate laws, regulations, and investment strategies.
More is coming in 2015.

In states that voted for water spending, leaders this year will open the public purse. The Texas Water Development Board, a loan-making agency, will distribute funds from a $US 2 billion pot of money that voters approved in 2013. Applications for the first round of loans are due in February and the loans will close by December. Though much of the money will be spent on new pipes, wells, reservoirs, and treatment plants, state law requires at least 20 percent go toward water conservation and recycling.

The Florida Legislature also will spend a pile of cash, in its case from a fund seeded by real estate taxes and designated for land and water conservation. Approved at the ballot box in November, the fund could generate between $US 10 billion and $US 18 billion over 20 years for land purchases and infrastructure investments tied to improvements in water quality.

Montana lawmakers will consider a $US 336 million infrastructure package that was proposed by the Democratic governor. Thanks to an oil boom in neighboring North Dakota, border counties in the eastern third of the state are outgrowing their water and sewer grids. Roughly one-sixth of the package is dedicated to water, sewer, and irrigation projects.

In California, the nine-member California Water Commission is laying the groundwork for expending some of the $US 7.5 billion in bond money that voters approved in November. The commission, whose members are appointed by the governor, must write the rules for deciding priorities.

Groundwater on the Agenda

Debates about groundwater, as in 2014, will continue to echo in statehouses. Wisconsin, for one, will be a battleground for groundwater regulation. Lawmakers rejected a bill last session that would have forced regulators to approve new wells without considering cumulative effects of groundwater pumping on rivers and lakes. The Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters hopes to keep attention on the state’s aquifers, making groundwater legislation one of its top priorities in 2015. Their concern is well placed. An explosion of high-volume irrigation wells in central Wisconsin is causing streams to dry up.

The loudest chatter, however, may come from Texas, a state in which groundwater is essential to urban growth and agriculture. The regulatory landscape, though, has been muddled recently by court cases that suggest landowners should be compensated if their ability to pump groundwater is restricted. Texas faces shrinking water tables and high demand for groundwater, a combination of factors that is driving keen interest in the subterranean resource.

Texas lawmakers will consider two important issues, according to Mary Kelly, head of Parula, an Austin-based consultancy. First, they will look at the length of water-use permits that are handed out by groundwater management districts. Private developers that want to sell or lease groundwater to cities desire longer permits, to secure financing.

Lawmakers will also debate whether brackish groundwater, the slightly salty supplies that Texas has in abundance, should be regulated in the same way as fresh groundwater. Brackish groundwater was one of the issues that legislators in both chambers studied in depth during recess.

But changes in the state’s leadership add uncertainty to the legislative process this year, Kelly said.
“We have a lot of new faces in the Senate and the House, new committee chairs, as well as a new governor and lieutenant governor,” Kelly told Circle of Blue. “That makes it uncertain how much will move on water.”

In addition to new laws, several states — Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, and Montana among them — will be finalizing water plans that were introduced in 2014. Both Arkansas and Colorado are proposing multibillion dollar infrastructure projects. In Arkansas’s case, new canals will wean farmers from unsustainable groundwater use. In Colorado, the growing cities of the Front Range are looking to move more water across the continental divide, from the Colorado River Basin.

Other states, meanwhile, will hope that long-running legal disputes will be resolved this year in the U.S. Supreme Court. Texas has sued New Mexico over declining flows in the Rio Grande, while Florida successfully petitioned the justices to consider Georgia’s use of water from shared rivers.

Even if lawmakers avoid big actions, the water plan discussions and lawsuits ensure that water will be a top-of-the policy-heap concern in 2015.

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