Report: Ground Water Pumping Poses Serious Threat to the West's Fish and Wildlife Resources and Senior Surface Water Right Holders

Thu, 03/15/2007

Report: Ground Water Pumping Poses Serious Threat to the West's Fish and Wildlife Resources and Senior Surface Water Right Holders

EMBARGOED UNTIL: March 15, 2007 10:00 A.M. (MST)

Melinda Kassen (303) 440-2937 x100
David Stillwell (303) 440-2937 x105
CA -- Brian Johnson (510) 528-4772
ID -- Kim Goodman (208) 552-0891 x712
MT -- Laura Ziemer (406) 522-7291 x103
UT -- Tim Hawkes (801) 677-0272
WY -- Scott Yates (307) 332-7700

Report: Ground Water Pumping Poses Serious Threat to the West's Fish and Wildlife Resources and Senior Surface Water Right Holders

Policymakers must take steps to reduce impact of ground water use on rivers and streams

Boulder, Colo. – A groundbreaking analysis that examines the relationship between ground water and surface water has recommended that state and local policymakers address the unsustainable use of ground water head-on through new programs and management strategies in order to reduce a growing threat to the West’s rivers and streams.

The report, Gone to the Well Once Too Often: The Importance of Ground Water to Rivers in the West, states that ground and surface water are connected to each other and as a result, pumping ground water can and in many cases is affecting river flows.

It found that the growing reliance of ground water development for irrigation, industrial development and drinking water in the West has caused those sources to be over-appropriated in many regions, resulting in low stream flows and poor water quality.  In some states, the problem has become so critical that bans have been implemented on new ground water developments in certain regions.

“In too much of the West, new water users start using ground water because river flows are insufficient. Ground water is seen as a new source to solve their water needs, but ground and surface waters are not separate and will rise and fall together. Ultimately, rivers bear the burden,” the report noted.

Fish and wildlife resources and senior surface water right holders, many of who are third and fourth generation farmers and ranchers, are bearing the greatest brunt of the problem.

The 22-page report was prepared by the national conservation organization Trout Unlimited to provide the information necessary for citizens, legislators and others to understand the link between ground and surface water and to address challenges surrounding a growing reliance on ground water.

The report includes case studies of the Wyoming Powder River Basin, California’s North Coast, Colorado’s South Platte River Basin, Arizona’s Verde River, Montana’s Gallatin Valley, and Nevada’s Humboldt River Basin and cited several examples to emphasize the seriousness of the problem, including:

• Arizona’s San Pedro River, where ground water pumping has reduced the river’s flow by two thirds and only two of thirteen native fishes remain. The river went dry for the first time on record on July 5, 2005, and remained dry for 8 days.

• California’s failure to require state permits for ground water as for surface water presents special challenges for protecting a key spring-fed spawning tributary to the hallowed McCloud River from a proposed Nestlé water bottling plant.

• Colorado’s San Luis Valley, which supports large concentrations of resident and migratory water birds but has had many of its acres of wetlands disappear due to an increase in ground water use in the valley since the 1960s.

• Montana’s South Fork of the Smith River, which has completely dried up during the height of the irrigation season due to ground water pumping for irrigation.

• New Mexico’s eastern border playa lakes, which have dried up due to over pumping in the Ogallala Aquifer. The playas provide critical flyway habitat for north-south migratory birds.

• Idaho’s Big and Little Lost River basins – where more than half of all irrigation water is pumped from ground water wells – has seen sections of a river that provides important habitat for ESA-listed bull trout and mountain whitefish dry up.

• Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, where coal bed methane natural gas development has become prominent during the last decade, the prairie aquatic ecosystems are now at risk because of the deep-aquifer dewatering.

• Eastern Washington’s Odessa Aquifer, which has experienced declining water levels of up to ten feet per year that, in turn, is decreasing surface flows and impacting streams that support threatened fall Chinook salmon and steelhead.

Melinda Kassen, director of Trout Unlimited’s Western Water Project said that the problem of excessive ground water depletions can be addressed.

“The bad news is that ground water pumping is inflicting serious damage to surface water sources throughout the West and the problem is only going to get worse if nothing is done.  The good news is that there are common sense approaches to this problem that won’t cause further damage to the environment and will still allow local economies to flourish,” she said.

According to the report, such strategies include wise water use through efficiency, conservation, and reuse; managing ground and surface water resources together in a way that not only shares shortages, but protects river base flows; replenishing ground water supplies through aquifer recharge either by buying water from existing users or injecting water back into the ground during extremely wet years when a system has large quantities of unused and unappropriated water; the creation of water banks especially in conjunction with highly over-appropriated rivers; more effective administration of ground and surface water resources using reliable data and more accurate models; and the reconsideration of existing state regulations and loopholes that exempt thousands of small household wells.

“Everyone has a stake in creating dependable water supplies that won’t destroy the environment or the rights of senior water right holders.  To achieve that, we need to adopt common sense ground water reforms, conservation measures, and other strategies that will allow the West to grow while protecting our rivers, and the fish, wildlife, and people—all of us—that depend on them,” said Kassen.

Gone to the Well Once Too Often: The Importance of Ground Water to Rivers in the West, was reviewed by a number of noted water experts.  A full copy can be obtained online at



Date: 3/15/2007


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