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In Search of a Groundwater Policy on Behalf of Rivers

By Andrew Fahlund and Rebecca Nelson You don’t expect to see water in the highest, biggest mountain desert in North America—the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado.  But it’s there. Two major aquifers support ephemeral lakes, wetlands, springs, and a broad, dense patchwork of farms—the highest farmland in the U.S.  The Rio Grande also winds through...

By Andrew Fahlund and Rebecca Nelson

You don’t expect to see water in the highest, biggest mountain desert in North America—the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado.  But it’s there.

Two major aquifers support ephemeral lakes, wetlands, springs, and a broad, dense patchwork of farms—the highest farmland in the U.S.  The Rio Grande also winds through the valley and waters some of the oldest irrigated farmland in Colorado.  Its dwindling flow, captured by valley wells, has caused half a century of conflict between surface water and groundwater irrigators, not to mention clashes with downstream states.  Colorado’s water law allows the State Engineer to shut down wells that injure older surface water rights, but such drastic actions can cause significant economic and political turmoil absent a thoughtful policy antidote.

The San Luis Valley and Sangre de Cristo mountains in Colorado. Photo: Brent Daniel, MyShot


The first ingredient of this antidote is to treat water like a currency.  Under an annual plan approved by the state in April 2012, well owners have been allowed to keep pumping provided they “pay back” their “debt” to the river.  The owners of almost 3,400 wells will replace the water that they capture from the Rio Grande by buying and leasing water rights..

Fallowing land is the other major ingredient in the policy mix.  Some of this fallowing will take place under a September agreement that will see the federal, state, and local governments work together to pay farmers to establish native vegetation rather than irrigate crops with groundwater, restoring water to the Rio Grande, wetlands, and aquifers.

Together, these policies will help local well owners protect streamflow on more flexible terms, reducing the need for the state or federal agencies to step in. Based on the December 4 Drought Monitor, San Luis Valley counties are in severe or extreme drought.

Lessons From Australia

A hemisphere away, the Australian federal government is taking this approach even further. A management plan, which became law last week, will cap pumping volumes across the agriculturally important Murray-Darling Basin. The caps are motivated not only by the need to protect surface water rights, as in the San Luis Valley, but by the need to protect key environmental assets. The government has promised not to shut down the pumps of unwilling farmers. Rather, implementing those caps will be a multi-billion dollar exercise in buying out water rights and installing expensive on-farm infrastructure to increase water use efficiency. How much to use each of these policy ingredients is hotly debated.

For farmers in the Namoi watershed and other areas of inland New South Wales, it’s déjà vu. A decade ago, the government spent $135 million clawing back groundwater rights that had built up to more than double sustainable pumping levels. Farmers in many areas don’t want to see any more buy-outs of water from their communities. Others say the infrastructure option is far too expensive. And environmentalists argue that regardless of how you get the water, the new caps don’t go far enough in recognizing how pumping—groundwater and surface water—affects ecosystems.

The San Luis Valley and the Namoi show how excessive groundwater pumping can have significant effects on rivers and wetlands and can harm everything from businesses, to communities, to the environment.  Despite the fact that many parts of the United States and Australia rely on groundwater for 30% or more of their water supplies, few people recognize its importance or its connections to these other resources.  We like to pour water into different mental buckets: one for surface water—rivers and lakes—and one for wells and groundwater.

A USGS report released in November begins to dissolve that separation: it concludes that not only is groundwater connected to rivers and lakes, but excessive pumping of groundwater can dramatically impact people and ecosystems that depend upon them.  In June this year, Australia’s National Water Commission also published a report on the stream-depleting effects of wells.

Not surprisingly, the authors fail to delve into specific policy recommendations for dealing with these connections.  After all, many lawmakers, particularly in the western U.S., have firmly shut their eyes to the connections between groundwater and surface water.  Some states—California most prominent among them—still fail to make any effective legal connection.  Others pay lip service to the threats that wells pose for streams and ecosystems, but don’t effectively structure or enforce their laws to control these impacts.  Australian law and policy has also been slow to take up the challenge of dealing with the issue in meaningful and practical ways.

This lack of policy attention is not surprising.  Groundwater management raises enough technical, economic, legal, and political questions to give most policy-makers a headache.  How should we balance the immediate economic benefits provided by water pumped from wells with the drying of rivers in 5, 20, or 100 years?  Should we care when pumping dries up wetlands or damages ecosystems, or only when it affects rivers that are used by people with water rights?  How should we respond to the risk of stream depletion where we lack the scientific information needed to predict exactly how much  and when depletion will occur?  Should we aim merely to prevent depletion getting worse, or should we also try to reverse historical damage?

Researchers at Stanford University’s Water in the West are responding to these questions and the technical findings of the USGS with a research effort to identify, evaluate, and disseminate examples of law and policy innovations like those in San Luis and the Namoi watershed.


New tools are frequently controversial.  Farmers have set fire to heaps of glossy water policy documents; environmentalists’ online petitions and lawsuits have mushroomed.  Change is never easy.  For each example where creative law or policy has prevented or resolved groundwater conflicts, there are many more gaps. By understanding, comparing and contrasting the successes and challenges encountered throughout the U.S. and Australia, we can share lessons and develop approaches that lead to more sustainable water management.


Andrew Fahlund is the executive director of Water in the West, a joint program of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the Bill Lane Center for the American West. Rebecca Nelson is a PhD candidate at Stanford.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn