The Importance of Ground Water to Rivers in the West
A Report by Trout Unlimited’s Western Water Project
Many ask, “Why should people who care about healthy rivers also care about ground water management?” Our answer: ground and surface water are connected to each other and as a result, pumping ground water can adversely affect river flows. 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.
This report provides basic information necessary for citizens, legislators and others to understand and address these challenges. It explains the relationship between ground and surface water and the adverse effects that ground water pumping can have on surface ecology. It describes the current regulatory management of ground water in a dozen western states. Finally, it makes a set of recommendations for wise ground water management. Interspersed throughout, there are stories of rivers in the region that have been adversely affected as a result of ground water pumping.
As more and more people populate the western states, more and more water providers consider tapping ground water to supply new cities and developments. The same urban water conservation measures that Trout Unlimited and others have advocated for more than a decade offer important ways to help address increasing municipal demand. Unfortunately, the systems of ground water management in many western states suggest that using ground water to supply these demands offers a no-lose proposition. However, states must go further and address the unsustainable use of ground water head-on, with new regulatory programs and management strategies, such as those listed in the Recommendations described above. While many of the stories in this report suggest that the situation is dire, as Wallace Stegner wrote, “The west is the native land of hope.” Conservationists, communities, local governments, and traditional water users all have a vital stake in finding sustainable water supplies. Now, more than ever, 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, our springs, and the fish, wildlife, and people-all of us-that depend on them.
Brian J. Johnson
Staff Attorney and Director, California Water Project
Trout Unlimited / 1808B 5th Street / Berkeley, CA 94710