Lessons from oil industry may help address groundwater crisis

Oct 30, 2009
Declining groundwater in Mississippi has prompted a $1 billion lawsuit against Memphis.

Although declining streamflows and half-full reservoirs have gotten most of the attention in water conflicts around the United States, some of the worst battles of the next century may be over groundwater, experts say - a critical resource often taken for granted until it begins to run out.

Aquifers are being depleted much faster than they are being replenished in many places, wells are drying up, massive lawsuits are already erupting and the problems have barely begun. Aquifers that took thousands of years to fill are being drained in decades, placing both agricultural and urban uses in peril. Groundwater that supplies drinking water for half the world's population is now in jeopardy.

A new analysis by researchers at Oregon State University outlines the scope of this problem, but also points out that some tools may be available to help address it, in part by borrowing heavily from lessons learned the hard way by the oil industry.

"It's been said that groundwater is the oil of this century," said Todd Jarvis, associate director of the Institute for Water and Watersheds at OSU. "Part of the issue is it's running out, meaning we're now facing 'peak water' just the way the U.S. encountered 'peak oil' production in the 1970s. But there are also some techniques developed by the oil industry to help manage this crisis, and we could learn a lot from them."

Jarvis just presented an outline of some of these concepts, called "unitization," at a professional conference in Kyoto, Japan, and will also explore them in upcoming conference in Stevenson, Wash., and Xi'an, China. Other aspects of the issue have been analyzed in a new documentary film on the special problems facing the Umatilla Basin of eastern Oregon, a classic case of declining groundwater problems.

The problems are anything but simple, Jarvis said, and are just now starting to get the attention needed.

"In the northern half of Oregon from Pendleton to the Willamette Valley, an aquifer that took 20,000 years to fill is going down fast," Jarvis said. "Some places near Hermiston have seen water levels drop as much as 500 feet in the past 50-60 years, one of the largest and fastest declines in the world.

"I know of a well in Utah that lost its original capacity after a couple years," he said. "In Idaho people drawing groundwater are being ordered to work with other holders of stream water rights as the streams begin to dwindle. Mississippi has filed a $1-billion lawsuit against the City of Memphis because of declining groundwater. You're seeing land subsiding from Houston to the Imperial Valley of California. This issue is real and getting worse."

In the process, Jarvis said, underground aquifers can be irrevocably damaged - not unlike what happened to oil reservoirs when that industry pumped them too rapidly. Tiny fractures in rock that can store water sometimes collapse when it's rapidly withdrawn, and then even if the aquifer had water to recharge it, there's no place for it to go.

"The unitization concept the oil industry developed is built around people unifying their rights and their goals, and working cooperatively to make a resource last as long as possible and not damaging it," Jarvis said. "That's similar to what we could do with groundwater, although it takes foresight and cooperation."

Water laws, Jarvis said, are often part of the problem instead of the solution. A "rule of capture" that dates to Roman times often gives people the right to pump and use anything beneath their land, whether it's oil or water. That's somewhat addressed by the "first in time, first in right" concept that forms the basis of most water law in the West, but proving that someone's well many miles away interferes with your aquifer or stream flow is often difficult or impossible. And there are 14 million wells just in the United States, tapping aquifers that routinely cross state and even national boundaries.

Regardless of what else takes place, Jarvis said, groundwater users must embrace one concept the learned years ago - the "race to the pump" serves no one's best interest, whether the concern is depleted resources, rising costs of pumping or damaged aquifers.

One possible way out of the conundrum, experts say, is maximizing the economic value of the water and using it for its highest value purpose. But even that will take new perspectives and levels of cooperation that have not often been evident in these disputes. Government mandates may be necessary if some of the "unitization" concepts are to be implemented. Existing boundaries may need to be blurred, and ways to share the value of the remaining water identified.

"Like we did with peak oil, everyone knows were running out, and yet we're just now getting more commitment to alternative energy sources," Jarvis said. "Soon we'll be facing peak , the only thing to really argue over is the date when that happens. So we will need new solutions, one way or the other."

Source: Oregon State University (news : web)

Explore further: Rising anger as Nicaragua canal to break ground

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Jordan's fossil water source has high radiation levels

Feb 24, 2009

Ancient groundwater being tapped by Jordan, one of the 10 most water-deprived nations in the world, has been found to contain twenty times the radiation considered safe for drinking water in a new study by an international ...

Satellite data explains vanishing India groundwater

Aug 12, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Using satellite data, UC Irvine and NASA hydrologists have found that groundwater beneath northern India has been receding by as much as 1 foot per year over the past decade - and they believe ...

Recommended for you

Rising anger as Nicaragua canal to break ground

6 hours ago

As a conscripted soldier during the Contra War of the 1980s, Esteban Ruiz used to flee from battles because he didn't want to have to kill anyone. But now, as the 47-year-old farmer prepares to fight for ...

Hopes, fears, doubts surround Cuba's oil future

Dec 20, 2014

One of the most prolific oil and gas basins on the planet sits just off Cuba's northwest coast, and the thaw in relations with the United States is giving rise to hopes that Cuba can now get in on the action.

New challenges for ocean acidification research

Dec 19, 2014

Over the past decade, ocean acidification has received growing recognition not only in the scientific area. Decision-makers, stakeholders, and the general public are becoming increasingly aware of "the other carbon dioxide ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.