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The consequences of depleting ground water


June 12, 2012
By Stanford Woods Institute for the Environmen

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June 12, 2012, California – Hard lessons from around the American West and Australia could help
improve ground water management and protect ecosystems in California,
Stanford University researchers find.

The Water in the West program at Stanford Woods Institute for the
Environment is focusing attention on how ground water pumping can
threaten rivers and ecosystems and, conversely, how creative ground water
management can be a savior during drought. The program recently
released the report, Instituting Integration, that explores the ways
that various American and Australian states and water districts manage
and regulate connections between ground water and surface waters and
ecosystems such as rivers, streams, springs and wetlands

"In many places, over-pumping of ground water reduces surface-water
flows," said report author Rebecca Nelson. "Failing to recognize and
address these fundamental connections can place other water users like
farmers and cities at risk and can harm fisheries or wetland habitats of
migratory waterfowl."

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Many jurisdictions manage and regulate surfacewater and ground water
without any recognition of the connections. For instance, California has
no legal framework for comprehensively managing the impacts of
ground water pumping. Across most of California, well owners can pump as
much as they like with little accountability for the impacts on rivers,
other water users and ecosystems. In contrast, other states around the
West have developed laws and policies for controlling the impacts of
wells on rivers. Australia has gone even further, considering how
ecosystems of all kinds are affected by ground water pumping.

"We have only recently developed the science necessary to understand
the extent of this problem," Nelson said. "Now we need to move on to
thinking about the law and policy tools we need to deal with this issue.
On that score, California is at the rear of the pack."

Stanford researchers have been learning from states throughout the
western U.S. and Australia that are dealing with common issues of water
scarcity, increasing competition for water, greater reliance on
ground water and fragile ecosystems. Hard lessons have produced a range
of creative policy tools to ensure that wells do not inadvertently
deplete stream-flow, or damage connected ecosystems, while minimizing
economic disruption to those who often rely on ground water during
droughts.

Some western states, which face stressed basins and drying rivers,
cap ground water pumping in high-use areas. New wells are permitted when
well owners are able to offset their pumping by conserving water or
buying and retiring other water rights. Across the Pacific, a
decade-long drought ravaged many river ecosystems in Australia but until
recently, little attention was paid to the importance of ground water to
those systems. Now, Australian scientists are preparing to release the
country's first national map of ground water-dependent ecosystems. The
map will help decision makers when they consider applications for new
wells and formulate new water plans designed to protect these ecosystems
into the future.

The Stanford Woods Institute's Water in the West program is
collaborating with the University of Sydney's United States Studies
Centre to gather ground water experts from around the western United
States and Australia for a workshop later this month focused on
promising ground water policy solutions to common challenges and the
wisdom of hard groundwater management lessons.