We pump too much water out of the ground—and that’s killing our rivers

By 2050, thousands of rivers and streams worldwide could pass a critical ecological threshold, new research shows.

By Alejandra Borunda PUBLISHED October 2, 2019

“ . . . in recent decades humans have pumped trillions of gallons out of those underground reservoirs. The result, says research published Wednesday in Nature, is a “slow desiccation” of thousands of river ecosystems worldwide. Already, somewhere between 15 and 21 percent of watersheds that experience groundwater extraction have slipped past a critical ecological threshold, the authors say—and by 2050, that number could skyrocket to somewhere between 40 and 79 percent. That means hundreds of rivers and streams around the world would become so water-stressed that their flora and fauna would hit a danger point, says Inge de Graaf, the lead author of the study and a hydrologist at the University of Freiburg. “We can really consider this ecological effect like a ticking time bomb,” she says. “If we pump the groundwater now, we don’t see the impacts until like 10 years further or even longer. So what we do right now will impact our environment for many years to come.””

Groundwater Pumping in Last Century Contributed as much as 50% to Stream Flow Declines

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Groundwater pumping in the last century has contributed as much as 50% to stream flow declines in some US rivers. This is the first study to examine the impact of past groundwater pumping across the entire US. Previous research examined how groundwater pumping affected surface waters, but at smaller scales. The researchers compared what US surface waters would have been like without consumptive uses with changes since large-scale groundwater pumping began in the 1950s.

Laura E. Condon, Reed M. Maxwell. Simulating the sensitivity of evapotranspiration and streamflow to large-scale groundwater depletion. Science Advances, 2019; 5 (6): eaav4574 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aav4574

SWWG Press Release: Two Arizona water coalitions join in nominating the 2019 winner of the Stockholm Water Prize

Contact:  Kristen Wolfe, Sustainable Water Workgroup, Coordinator, kmwolfe86@gmail.com, (203) 710-6461

March 22, 2019

For Immediate Release

Arizonans Celebrate World Water Day
Two Arizona water coalitions join in nominating the 2019 winner of the Stockholm Water Prize

To celebrate World Water Day, the Sustainable Water Workgroup and the Community Water Coalition of Southern Arizona announced that they joined an international team of individuals and groups in nominating Dr. Jackie King (Cape Town, So. Africa) for the prize.

Dr. King received this prestigious international award for her work with rivers – specifically, the science of environmental flows (quantity, timing, quality of water required to sustain plants, animals, human livelihoods). Her work highlighted the importance of maintaining these river flows as part of sound water management and sustainable water policy. More countries are turning to the science of e-flows to re-write their water laws. According to Torgny Holmgren (Executive Director of the Stockholm International Water Institute), “Dr. King has helped decision-makers understand that healthy river ecosystems are not a luxury, but the basis for sustainable development.”

In 2006 Dr. King visited Arizona as part of a tour of the Americas. Several University of Arizona and Arizona State University departments supported her visit as well as the office of Congressman Raul Grijalva and multiple environmental, business and faith groups. The purpose was to promote a dialogue about best practices in water management in a warming world.

The Sustainable Water Workgroup, a state-wide coalition of 35 groups and individuals (and the winner of the 2018 Capitol Times Leader of the Year environmental award) supported Dr. King’s nomination because it shares the vision of the need to protect environmental flows as the cornerstone of water management in this era of unpredictable climate. The coalition has drafted water legislation to study the environmental (ecological) flow needs of Arizona rivers and to allow the option of leaving more water in our rivers.  The process of sharing this legislation with water experts, legislators, and the general public has in the past two years generated debate and interest.

The Stockholm Water Prize will be awarded on August 28th, 2019 in Stockholm, Sweden.  

#WorldWaterDay: SA scientist Dr Jackie King wins Stockholm Water Prize

“South Africa’s Dr Jackie King has been named as the Stockholm Water Prize Laureate for her groundbreaking contributions to global river management.

Her work has provided tools to decision makers allowing them to quantify the real costs and benefits of developing river systems as well as advancing the scientific understanding of water flows.

In response to receiving the prize, Dr King had the following to say: “I find it humbling, energising and rewarding. I have never sought high-profile jobs but was happy to be a working scientist, free to say what I felt needed to be said.

Dr King, while a researcher at the University of Cape Town, and later as an Honorary Professor at the University of the Western Cape led the development of the tools for river management.

Her work in conjunction with her colleagues created methods to show the ecological and social implications of damming and de-watering rivers.

“Dr Jacqueline King has, through scientific rigour, selfless dedication and effective advocacy, transformed the way we think, talk and work with water as a flow of and for life,” commented the nominating committee.”

Dr Jackie King. Photo: Stockholm International Water Institute.

Dr Jackie King. Photo: Stockholm International Water Institute.

Matt Clark: Drought contingency plan fails to conserve Arizona’s precious rivers

The DCP gives no love to the San Pedro, nor for that matter to any of our state’s other beleaguered rivers, like the Verde River, whose still-perennial waters support myriad wildlife and the economies of rural Arizona communities.

Do we want any of our remaining living rivers to go the way of the Santa Cruz? Most Arizonans would say “absolutely not!” And yet, here we are.

We desperately need to modernize Arizona’s water laws to be able to sustain gems like the San Pedro and Verde rivers, and to revive cultural and economic treasures such as the Santa Cruz.

One solid step in the right direction is to pass legislation to recognize “ecological water” as a beneficial use under Arizona’s existing water laws.

This addition would protect existing property rights and allow for the voluntary transfer of water rights for the benefit of our rivers, their ecosystems and the many communities and businesses that rely upon these values.

If you care about the future of our rivers, it’s urgent for you to call on your state legislators now to hold a public hearing for SB 1370 and HB 2630 this week, lest conservation of our living rivers be omitted from our leaders’ water agenda yet again.

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AZ Daily Star: Second lawsuit filed over massive Vigneto project in Benson

“The plaintiffs in the lawsuit — the Lower San Pedro Watershed Alliance, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, Tucson Audubon Society, Maricopa Audubon Society and Cascabel Conservation Association — say the development’s water use will drain surface water flows along the San Pedro River and St. David Cienega, and harm millions of migratory birds, including listed species. . . .

Bird- and wildlife-watching is a $1.4 billion industry in Arizona, said Nicole Gillett, conservation advocate for the Tucson Audubon Society, one of the plaintiffs.

“The San Pedro, being the unique habitat that it is for the whole of the Southwest of the United States, is a big draw for birders,” she said. “Any kind of water drawdown will not only damage the habitat and the species reliant on it, but we might also see fewer eco-tourists as a result of that degraded habitat.

“We all benefit from whole and healthy ecosystems,” she said. “It’s not just birds and wildlife. These are resources that, in the end, are going to be our legacy for our kids and anyone that moves to Arizona.”

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AZ Daily Star - Arizona drought plan pushes unsustainable growth, farming practices

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“But for longtime Sierra Club lobbyist Sandy Bahr, the plan, far from being groundbreaking, represents another run at “business as usual” for the state. As the Arizona version of the drought plan is now written, she says it’s propping up what she sees as unsustainable growth and unsustainable farming practices.

As the plan is now conceived, Pinal County farms and Phoenix-area cities along with the Tohono O’Odham and Gila River tribes, would give up some or a good deal of their CAP supplies.

But farms would get at least $18 million in state subsidies to build new wells and other infrastructure to pump groundwater in its place. The cities would not lose any of their highest-priority CAP water until Lake Mead drops more than 50 feet lower than it is today.

Here are some questions and answers from Bahr about the drought plan, which is being pushed to meet a Jan. 31 federal deadline to enact it.”

AZ Capitol Times - Democrats: Water plan missing conservation requirement

“House Democrats are balking at ratifying a proposed drought contingency plan over what they see as a key missing element.

Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez said Thursday many of her members question why there’s nothing in the proposal to require more water conservation.

Instead, it is more focused on finding ways to move water around, particularly to meet the needs of Pinal County farmers. But the Yuma Democrat said that does not deal with the underlying problem that Arizona is using more water than is naturally available.”