Welcome to “What’s Up With Water,” your need-to-know news of the world’s water from Circle of Blue. I’m Eileen Wray-McCann.
In the western United States, the lasting effects of wildfires are becoming a way of life, according to Kaiser Health News. Fires cause “burn scars,” places where the soil is destabilized because there are no longer trees to hold it in place.  After heavy rains, erosion can pollute water bodies with parasites, bacteria, and other dangerous contaminants. Water utilities can usually catch the contaminants before they reach household taps, but the process is very expensive. The cost to filter dirty water can present rural towns with a tough choice: Pay millions of dollars to treat the water, or shut off water intakes, and risk shortages in areas where water may already be scarce. One example of this situation is Greeley, Colorado. This growing town north of Denver has shut off its river intake for 39 days this year because of sediment, ash and organic matter in the water. To maintain a continuous water supply, Greeley has engineered a series of swaps with a nearby farm company that owns irrigation reservoirs. The company draws from the river and Greeley gets less turbid water from the company’s reservoirs.
In other U.S. news, last week insurance premiums rose for homes at risk of flooding. The New York Times reports that changes under the National Flood Insurance Program apply nationwide, but the largest financial impact will be to those living in coastal areas. Federal officials say the program will force homeowners to pay something closer to the real cost of their flood risk, which is rising as the planet warms. Historically, those risks have been underpriced. According to data obtained by the Times, some communities on the Florida coast will eventually see their flood insurance costs increase by a factor of ten. The steepest price increases will affect about 10% of policy holders nationwide, and are causing some controversy. Both Republican and Democratic senators say they will try to block the rate hikes.
Getting an accurate sense of flood risk is a problem worldwide. Many countries have scarce or unreliable data for which properties have flooded. A new mapping tool aims to fix that. The tool was developed by U.N. researchers, Google, and other partners, and it shows the contours of floods that have occurred since 1985. It shows the flooding borders street by street, producing detailed maps that its creators say will be especially helpful for developing countries who lack this information. The maps could guide the construction of new homes so that they are placed in areas less prone to floods. They could also allow aid agencies to identify risky areas where more disaster planning is needed.
This week Circle of Blue reports on the growth of irrigated agriculture in southern Michigan as farm districts in the western states are rattled by drought.
In early July, a breeze slipped over a tree line of tall maples and stirred shoulder-high stalks of corn on Larry Walton’s 500-acre farm. It was an encouraging sight, suggesting stability, security, and profit. But in a world of climate uncertainty, is the outlook sound?
At age 60, Walton was raised on his family farm in St. Joseph County, along Michigan’s border with Indiana. He’s one of about 850 county farmers who together generate roughly $260 million each year, more than most of the state’s other big farm counties. Farming is a risky business. Like other American agriculturists, Walton depends on reasonable stability in weather, soil, labor, commodity prices…and water.
Even though Walton sowed this year’s corn and soybean during the driest spring planting conditions ever recorded in Michigan, his fall harvest looks to be strong, maybe one of the best in years. Indeed, on the Walton farm, and all across St. Joseph County, ample reserves of water assure farm prosperity. Those supplies come from high-capacity irrigation wells that pump at least 100,000 gallons a day and apply it at scheduled times in precise quantities to reduce risk.
Walton has five wells. There are at least 1,000 more spread across the county. They irrigate over a hundred thousand acres, about half of all the cropland in the county. According to the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture farm census, St. Joseph is the second-most heavily irrigated county east of the Mississippi River.
But St. Joseph is facing a question – the same question facing Michigan, a state with one of the world’s largest reserves of fresh water, and an expanding agriculture economy. Is the balance between farm prosperity and water supply secure over time? Will there be enough water for Michigan’s thriving farm sector, and for every other use of a natural resource that is growing scarcer across the nation?
It’s a question with profound implications. Every passing summer brings more urgent evidence of severe water scarcity in the West, in states that are the primary producers of crops and livestock. That region’s iconic water bodies – Lake Mead, Lake Powell, Salton Sea, Great Salt Lake, and Lake Oroville – are at their lowest water levels ever. And falling. The line marking the edge of the arid West used to lie in central Nebraska. With the region’s mega-drought, now 20 years in the making, that line has migrated east. It is now a little closer to Nebraska’s border with Iowa.
Michigan’s abundant fresh water and temperate climate have become more attractive to out-of-state farm companies, but it is also seeing confrontations over water supply and scarcity. Two years ago, Allendale Township in Ottawa County halted housing construction permits because new residential water wells were draining an aquifer and causing high-volume agricultural irrigation wells to grow steadily saltier. In Calhoun County, industrial use is draining a major aquifer. And in ten counties from Kalkaska to Monroe, Michigan hydrologists have identified large aquifers so thoroughly depleted that the state won’t let them be used for any high-volume wells.
Demand for new wells is keen. Each year, farmers are installing hundreds more high-capacity irrigation wells. Michigan now counts nearly 11,000 agricultural wells, and one-third of them were installed in the last decade. High-volume irrigation wells were once concentrated in counties close to St. Joseph in southwest Michigan. They now spread north as far as Antrim County and through central Michigan. They pump a lot of water. Last year, farmers and livestock operations used 187 billion gallons of water – that’s double the amount used in 2009. Most of that water came from high-capacity wells.
Up until the last couple of decades, Michigan regulators and lawmakers paid little attention to the supply of groundwater. For much of the 20th century, the number of irrigation wells in Michigan was negligible. The concern was the safety of groundwater, which nearly half of the state’s residents use for drinking water. Hundreds of shallow aquifers all across Michigan had become unfit for any use, contaminated by toxic chemicals leaking from old industrial sites and waste dumps.
Concerns about water now include quantity as well as quality. In 2008, Michigan responded to new threats to its water supply by requiring farmers to register any new well able to pump at least 100,000 gallons a day. The state formed a team of regulators to issue or deny new registrations. The Water Assessment Unit’s regulatory mission is to prevent high-volume wells from draining aquifers and damaging streams and fisheries.
The Water Assessment Unit uses a unique online screening tool developed by Michigan regulators, research scientists, and data visualization experts. It is designed to provide a quick measure of a proposed well’s potential to cause stream and fishery problems. If no damage is anticipated by the tool, well registrations are virtually automatic. Well operators are required to report the total volume of water that they use.
As a measure of Michigan’s determination to manage groundwater supply, the Water Assessment Unit and its online program have no equal. No other state has developed an online management approach. The tool has attracted national awards, and not just for adept use of science and technology. But the approach does have drawbacks as it seeks to efficiently merge data and modeling to reach firm conclusions about risk. Farmers complain about the cost of defending their proposals for new wells when the tool raises questions about their applications.
Everyone connected to the Water Assessment Unit – staff, advisory council, and farmers – agrees that significant strengthening is needed in the data, hydrology and science that is used to draw the conclusions. But despite the weaknesses, the state farm community, represented by the powerful Michigan Farm Bureau, has consistently supported groundwater management.
Farmers are notoriously resistant to government oversight, and getting behind the Water Assessment Unit speaks to a very practical, and vital consideration: the security of water supply. It’s clear that as the nation warms and dries, Michigan’s ample groundwater reserves are a decided competitive advantage in agriculture. The question facing farmers and the state is whether that advantage can be sustained. With agricultural migration from the arid West, the hot South, and other drying regions of the world, competition for groundwater in Michigan will almost certainly follow the rising curve.
And that’s “What’s Up With Water,” from Circle of Blue, where water speaks. More water news and analysis await you at This is Eileen Wray-McCann – thanks for being here.