Wednesday, October 4, 2017

BLOG: Groundwater in a Climate-Changed World

by Pat Mulroy, Non-resident Senior Fellow for Climate Adaptation and Environmental Policy for The Brookings Institution and Practitioner in Residence for the Saltman Center for Conflict Resolution at the UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law

When I began my career in water in the mid-1980’s, the very first issue we had to contend with was a groundwater table that had been so over-drafted in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s that subsidence was causing houses to slip off their foundation. Previous generations had fooled themselves into believing the issuance of temporary water rights to avoid connecting to the Colorado River would not have an affect, but it did. After many years and millions of dollars in recharge efforts we were able to stabilize the groundwater table.  

Yes, experience has taught us the risks of unchecked pumping. However, even today there are areas where there is still an inordinate reliance on natural groundwater and the fears of the wells running dry mount every year. There are also areas that engage in “panic pumping” when drought has ravaged surface supplies or the courts have curtailed surface water diversions (or in the case of California, both).

As the effects of a warming planet really begin to take hold we are seeing surface water supplies evaporate at elevated rates and flood events that are scouring the countryside.  “Normal” weather patterns are very much in our rear view mirror. If there has ever been a time for conjunctive management of water resources it is now. There exist already great examples of created groundwater banks that are carefully recharged and managed to buffer the inevitable shortage. Those can be jurisdictionally proprietary or they can exist across state lines.

We have always held onto the notion that once we invest in water infrastructure we have to utilize it each and every year, whether it is a surface water diversion or groundwater resources. We have built a system of water right accounting, in states that have a groundwater appropriation system, which requires us to use the supplies to which we have rights each and every year. The rationale in arid states is obvious. In Nevada all groundwater belongs to the state and a water right is merely a permit to use those supplies. Since the resource is so scarce the notion of hoarding it when you have no beneficial use for it or you no longer are putting it to beneficial use was established long ago. Today, however, in the face of increased uses and decreased water availability this type of “use it or lose it” principle can work against us. When it is in the best interest of the basin that we conserve the supply and allow basins to rest, the law precludes us from doing it. States have begun to grapple with amending these restraints, at least affording the regulators more flexibility.

In a changing protecting our groundwater resources has never been more important. This will require careful examination of not only our usage, but also of the laws that have for so long created the framework within which govern all groundwater extractions. Effectively managing these groundwater resources may one day be the only thing that will allow a community and the surrounding environment to survive.


2017 Groundwater Foundation National Conference | October 24-26, 2017 | Boise, ID
Don't miss out - hear Pat Mulroy's keynote presentation, "Groundwater in a Climate-Changed World: Risks and Opportunities" along with other expert speakers. Register today! 

Pat Mulroy serves as a Non-resident Senior Fellow for Climate Adaptation and Environmental Policy for The Brookings Institution and also as a Practitioner in Residence for the Saltman Center for Conflict Resolution at the UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law.  Mulroy also serves on the Wynn Resorts Ltd Board of Directors. Between 1989 and early 2014, Pat Mulroy served as General Manager of both the Las Vegas Valley Water District and the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA). Mulroy was a principal architect of the SNWA, helping to guide Southern Nevada through one of the worst droughts in the history of the Colorado River.  At UNLV’s Boyd School of Law and DRI, Mulroy’s focus is on helping communities in water-stressed areas throughout both the American Southwest and the world develop strategies to address increased water resource volatility and identify solutions that balance the needs of all stakeholders.

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