Groundwater overuse tied to fisheries

Trout Unlimited says the West has gone to the well too often to satisfy its thirst.


COLORADO SPRINGS - Most fish don’t live underground, but the water there is as important as the rivers, streams and lakes they live in.

“It turns out fish need water every day,” Melinda Kassen, Trout Unlimited Western Water Project managing director told an audience of about 100 during a panel discussion on Colorado College’s 2007 State of the Rockies Report Card.

“River advocates are thinking more about wells. A significant amount of base flows in rivers is made up of groundwater,” Kassen said. “Riparian wetlands are in danger. It’s a threat to fish and birds on the flyway.”

Trout Unlimited issued a report called “Gone to the Well Once Too Often” about the importance of groundwater in the American West. It details how well pumping, if not regulated, can create economic and ecological disasters.

Some examples from the report:

One year ago, 440 wells in the South Platte basin irrigating 30,000 acres on 200 farms were shut down. Boulder, Highlands Ranch, Sterling and some senior water rights holders said the wells were cutting into their water supply. For some farmers, it will mean bankruptcy.

The headwaters of the Verde River in Arizona could be dried up by 2100 under a plan by Prescott to pump 2.8 billion gallons a year from its aquifer. Prescott is expecting its population to double by 2020 and water needs to increase fivefold by 2050. Arizona laws do not regulate most diversions of groundwater.

In Gallatin County, Montana, just north of Yellowstone National Park, subdivisions have tripled their rate of pumping in the last 20 years, causing Trout Unlimited, ranchers and the state to protest about diminished water supplies. The Montana Supreme Court just last year ruled that groundwater is connected to surface supplies.

New Mexico exempts small domestic wells from regulation, but requires permits. As many as 6,000 to 8,000 permits are issued each year.

“An over-reliance on groundwater impairs water quality and, in some areas, has led to land subsidence,” Kassen said.

Trout Unlimited’s concern primarily lies with the impact overpumping has on wildlife, which can be seen in all Western states, Kassen said. Wetlands have disappeared, rivers periodically run dry and headwaters streams that feed rivers have become dry washes.

Complicating the picture is the fact that groundwater regulation, like surface water laws, differs in every state.

“Weak groundwater regulation makes user conflicts worse,” Kassen said. “If we put the best of every state’s program together, we’d be in a lot better shape.”

Trout Unlimited’s report offers several solutions, stressing urban conservation, sustainable management that looks at all users, aquifer recharge and underground water banks.

In Colorado, augmentation plans - which replace surface water lost to pumping - should take into account real-world conditions, she added.

“The augmentation a court allows may not always be enough,” she said. “You may be moving water on paper, but not making any gains.”