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High Plains Aquifer Legislation (11-5-03)

Groundwater levels are a major area of concern in the High Plains Aquifer, which underlies 174,000 square miles of Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming. Large-scale pumping of the aquifer, mostly for agricultural irrigation, has lead to substantial dewatering of the aquifer by more than 100 feet in parts of Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. In order to provide accurate information to policy makers to extend the life of the aquifer, state geological surveys are working to assess and understand the current and future state of the High Plains Aquifer. To aid their efforts, Congress is working on legislation aimed at creating an aquifer-wide approach to the studies and to coordinate efforts of local water agencies with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

Most Recent Action

The House Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power held a hearing on October 30th on Senate-passed legislation (S. 212) that would improve hydrogeologic characterization of the High Plains Aquifer. Underlying all or part of eight states, the aquifer is -- according to Kansas State Geologist Lee Allison, who testified on behalf of a coalition of state geological surveys -- "the most intensely pumped aquifer in the United States." With water levels dropping rapidly in many parts of the aquifer system, Senators Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Pete Domenici (R-NM), Sam Brownback (R-KS) and a number of co-sponsors are seeking to achieve a common basis of understanding the problem so that local and state policymakers can seek an effective solution. The hearing was contentious with a number of groups, such as the National Corn Growers Association, testifying against the bill, expressing fear that it would be the "camel's nose under the tent" for federal regulation of ground water. By the end, however, it appeared that members of the subcommittee were willing to explore ways to allow the bill to move forward. (11/5/03)

Previous Actions

On January 23, 2003, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) reintroduced S. 212, which is similar to S. 2773 in the last Congress. Co-sponsored by Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Sam Brownback (R-KS), the bill would authorize the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to work with the High Plains States - Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming - to conduct hydrogeologic characterization, mapping, modeling, and monitoring for the High Plains Aquifer.

On March 6, 2003, the Senate Subcommittee on Water and Power held a hearing to receive testimony on S. 212., a bill to monitor, map, and model the High Plains Aquifer. Co-sponsored by the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Energy committee, Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), as well as Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS), the bill received unexpected opposition from the administration at the hearing. William Alley, Chief of the Office of Ground Water for the U.S. Geological Survery (USGS), testified that while agreeing with the need for groundwater monitoring, the administration was concerned about the bill's cost and believed better local and state coordination could achieve the goals of the bill without federal legislation. Sen. Craig Thomas (R-WY) voiced the concern of the American Farm Bureau that (despite previous testimony to the contrary) the bill would begin the federalization of groundwater and stated that the legislation is unnecessary because the USGS already studies the aquifer. Bingaman responded that because the aquifer covers multiple states, federal means should be provided to study its depletion and map its extent, which has not been done in 20 years. Although the original version of the bill would have provided funds to state geological surveys for studies and assistance with water depletion issues, that provision and several others were dropped from a revised bill that the committee passed by voice vote. For more on the bill, see the Geotimes Web Extra by Greg Peterson. (4/4/03)

On April 7, 2002, S. 212 passed the Senate by unanimous consent. In a press release, co-sponsor Sam Brownback (R-KS) said the bill "will lead to a better understanding of the aquifer and aid in achieving our ultimate goal of preserving the usable life of the Ogallala Aquifer." The bill will now be considered by the House Committee on Resources. (4/9/03)

Background

The High Plains Aquifer underlies 174,000 square miles of eight states - Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming. The aquifer is unconfined, principally recharged through precipitation, and occurs primarily in the Ogallala Formation, which is generally composed of an unconsolidated sequence of poorly sorted clay, silt, sand, and gravel. Groundwater from the aquifer is used chiefly for agriculture irrigation (accounting for 94% of the groundwater consumption), but other uses include drinking water (supplying 82% of the High Plains' drinking water needs), livestock, mining, and industry. In many areas, withdrawals from the aquifer are greatly exceeding recharge, resulting in large water level decreases. Due largely to advancements in irrigation technology, some parts of the central and southern aquifer have been dewatered by more than 50 percent.

In 1978, the first comprehensive quantitative study of the High Plains Aquifer was carried out by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The Regional Aquifer-System Analysis (RASA) Program succeeded in defining the regional geology, hydrology, and geochemistry of the aquifer, substantially improving understanding of the groundwater flow systems and leading to better management of groundwater resources. While the USGS and state geological surveys continue to study local areas of the aquifer, a comprehensive assessment of the High Plains Aquifer has not occurred since RASA, despite continual dewatering.

In order to understand the regional hydrogeology of the High Plains Aquifer, legislation was introduced last Congress in both the House and the Senate (H.R. 5486 and S. 2773) to authorize the USGS and High Plains Aquifer States to cooperate in creating a comprehensive assessment of the High Plains Aquifer. While the House bill did not make it out of committee, the Senate version of the bill, co-sponsored by Senators Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Pete Domenici (R-NM), and Sam Brownback (R-KS), was approved by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, but not voted on by the entire Senate.

Sources: Hearing Testimony, THOMAS, U.S. Geological Survey.

Contributed by Charna Meth, 2003 Spring Semester Intern, and David Applegate.

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Last updated on November 5, 2003