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Federal Water Tap, February 25: U.S. Geological Survey Measures Water Loss, From Several Sources

From the Ground
The average decline in water levels across the entire Ogallala Aquifer, which spans eight plains states and is a key source of irrigation water, measured 4.3 meters (14.2 feet), from 1950 to 2011, according to new figures from the U.S. Geological Survey. Changes in the water table ranged from an increase of 26 meters (85 feet) in undeveloped parts of Nebraska to a drop of 73.8 meters (242 feet) in Texas, which, along with southwestern Kansas, showed the biggest declines.

From the Surface
Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey published the first county-level estimate of evapotranspiration for the entire Lower 48 states. Evapotranspiration (ET) – evaporation plus water-loss from plant transpiration – is how most precipitation leaves the local water-cycle, and it is an important variable for water managers and farmers. In the Southwest, for example, about 80 percent of rainfall is lost to ET, though that figure can be as high as 95 percent for the desert basins.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Water Resources Association, found that in some areas – the Great Plains and California’s Central Valley – the amount of moisture lost to ET exceeded precipitation. For these areas, this means that “the natural climate alone cannot support the current level of agriculture,” according to the authors. Groundwater makes these fruit and bread baskets possible – yet it is being pumped out faster than it is replenished (note item No. 1, above).

A Persistent Drought
The spring forecast from the Climate Prediction Center shows that the dry weather camped over much of the Lower 48 states will stick around a little longer. Drought will persist in the Great Plains and Southwest, but let up a little in the Southeast and western Great Lakes states. More than half of the Lower 48 is in some stage of drought, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor.

Meanwhile, the effects of last year’s lower-than-expected corn harvest are beginning to show up in the grocery store. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service reports that prices are rising for products that come from animals that eat corn. Milk prices were up 3 percent in the last quarter of 2012, while egg prices rose 1.7 percent.

Obama Infrastructure Plan
Last week, President Barack Obama offered a three-point plan for patching up the crumbly bits of the nation’s infrastructure. Roads, bridges and transit systems got top billing, but water infrastructure was also mentioned.

In the proposal, the president renewed his call for an independent national infrastructure bank seeded with federal money. His proposition, first made in September 2011, has not garnered enough support in Congress, nor has it been popular with major water groups, such as the American Water Works Association, who would rather see a fund dedicated to water, as is the case with federal transportation funding.

A pilot water fund was bundled with last session’s draft Water Resources Development Act, along with a separate water-fund bill from Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), but neither proposal moved out of committee. Merkley reintroduced his bill, the Water Infrastructure and Finance Innovation Act, on February 14.

Federal Water Tap is a weekly digest spotting trends in U.S. government water policy. To get more water news, follow Circle of Blue on Twitter and sign up for our newsletter.

Author: Brett Walton  is a Seattle-based reporter for Circle of Blue. He writes our Federal Water Tap, a weekly breakdown of U.S. policy. Interests: Southwest, Pacific Northwest, Pricing, Infrastructure.

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