NACD President Michael Crowder has called for the creation of a Groundwater and Aquifer Task Force, which will help promote water conservation across the country. NACD recently sat down with Harold Crose, a retired area conservationist now with the Grant County Conservation District in Washington State. Crose, a member of the Task Force, shared with us his latest work in groundwater conservation in central Washington and why this Task Force is needed. For those interested in joining NACD’s Groundwater and Aquifer Task Force, contact us at info[at]nacdnet.org.
Can you share a bit about yourself?
I worked for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for over 40 years, primarily in irrigated agriculture and water. I retired as area conservationist in central Washington State, where I now work with the Grant County Conservation District.
What kind of work do you do with the Grant County CD?
I first approached the conservation district to see if they would be interested in working with me on water issues in the Columbia Basin primarily as a volunteer. Later, I became an associate supervisor, where I’ve continued my work in water conservation. I was primarily interested in groundwater, and I worked a lot on how groundwater was being used within the Columbia Basin irrigation project. The Columbia Basin Irrigation Project is fed by waters from the Columbia River but there are areas within the project that rely on deep well irrigation as their primary source of water. Over time, this has but a heavy burden on the Odessa Aquifer which is the primary source of drinking water for several communities and industries in the region. The Odessa is also a sole source aquifer, meaning all the drinking water, municipal water and domestic water comes out of the ground, so it’s a very important resource.
Can you describe your work in groundwater management?
I got involved with the groundwater management area almost 20 years ago, when we formed a group in central Washington to look deeper into trying to get a baseline understanding of the aquifer systems in the state and how they all work together.
Our question was how fragile the waters were and their current condition, as well as whether we were overutilizing that water, which isn’t being replenished in the aquifer. The answer to the latter question of course was yes.
Groundwater is actually a national security issue as far as I’m concerned.
The Odessa Aquifer, which we’re deeply involved with, is rapidly declining. In fact, we’re now at what we think would be maybe the last 30 feet in the system. That system services about 120,000 people, 22 communities and 100,000 acres in agriculture, and it’s all going away. My main work is trying to get agriculture off of the aquifer and onto the Columbia River Project’s water. This means transferring water rights off of the Odessa Aquifer and putting them into the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project, which is a real reclamation project. We’re currently in the infancy stages of this project right now, but we have a path forward.
Why is groundwater conservation so important?
Watershed projects typically deal with surface waters, runoff, flood control and erosion control—all of which I was involved with in my early career with NRCS. However, very little that I know of deals primarily with groundwater, and it’s kind of a strange way to look at it with groundwater, but it’s very much part of a watershed project, and just as important as the surface waters. The other thing to keep in mind that the 100,000 acres irrigated from the aquifer is at risk of losing their water which would result in a catastrophic impact economically to the region. Grant County is the number one potato producing county in the United States, and most of the water in the Odessa area is used to grow potatoes. If we lose this resource, the french fries that you enjoy, for example, will be impacted.
Groundwater is actually a national security issue as far as I’m concerned. It’s a food security issue, and it also deals with climate aspects, including climate resiliency, as we’re working toward a more stable water supply. This also impacts the jobs in this area and across the country, affecting packing plants, potato processing facilities and truck drivers who all rely on this industry for their livelihoods. And so, there’s a lot at stake by losing 100,000 acres of irrigated ground due to groundwater depletion. Finally, it’s also an energy conservation issue. It takes a huge amount of energy to bring water up from the ground, 2,000 feet deep. By putting this land on surface water from the Columbia, we can reduce pumping costs, which is a huge energy savings as well, and can be tied to global warming.
How did you get involved with the new Task Force?
I reached out to NACD President Michael Crowder, whom I have been friends with for years, and was fortunate be part of the team that helped him out on his ranch that has become a premier hunting reserve. Before becoming president, Crowder was interested in forming this kind of Task Force, and he asked if I’d be interested in being part of this effort. Of course, I said yes, especially because I recognized that central Washington is not unique in this country when it comes to ground water conservation issues. And I know there are other places around the country, whether on the Ogallala or some of the Texas aquifers or Arizona. All these different places are experiencing the same water depletion issues. However, I couldn’t find resources that I was satisfied with, and it was difficult figuring out what our watersheds and groundwater were facing similar issues on a national level. So, this Task Force is an effort to create a coordinated group of individuals working toward the same goals at a national level. We wanted to create a coordinated effort to work together on these kinds of projects, including directing more funding to programs and technical assistance, as well as additional monitoring resources that will help us reach a long-term strategy. And so again, we’re at the very beginning, and I hope this Task Force will get people involved from across the country, so we can begin putting together a program that will work.
How can conservation districts work to promote groundwater conservation?
Conservation districts are the only entity at the local level that can work as kind of a neutral party, given we’re not involved in setting policies or other regulatory aspects. As main organizers of the technical aspects, we bring a lot of energy to local areas and have the ability to bring all the right people to the table to open up the discussions, whether they’re from the cities or they’re farmers or agency people.
At this point, we’ve been successful in bringing these groups together and forming an ad hoc kind of steering committee, which enabled us to put together some grant applications through the Bureau of Reclamation. We’ve submitted our first NRCS program application through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). We’re also starting the beginning phases of a watershed planning effort on the 100,000-acres. That all came to be because of what we can do as a conservation district. There is no local entity, like the Grant County Conservation District, that can do the work necessary to bring a project of this scope and scale together. Due to the lack of officials at the local level, we’re able to represent or be part of a process that brings all these people together with a single focus in mind when it comes to putting together a watershed plan.
I hope this Task Force will get people involved from across the country, so we can begin putting together a program that will work.
Right now, the Odessa Aquifer steering committee includes agencies and organizations, universities, NRCS, Bureau of Reclamation, County Commissioners, State Fish and Wildlife, State Department of Natural Resources, Columbia Basin Irrigation grower groups and the Wheat Growers Association, to name a few. So, we’re waiting for the funding on the legislative side. Currently, we have all of our legislators, including two senators and three congressmen on board at the state level.
Right now, we have a $30 million package for the Odessa Aquifer that’s going through the state legislature, which is going to help us put together one pilot project and complete the watershed planning We’ve come quite a ways to bring the right people on board. We’re one step closer to developing a “gold standard” for developing a watershed project that deals primarily with groundwater resources.
Looking ahead, what are the biggest issues the Task Force hopes to accomplish?
I honestly believe that the number one resource problem facing the West is water. This includes clean water and abundant water. We’re going to have to make some very hard decisions on how we utilize our water, and I think we’re just beginning to realize that the water is a scarce resource and a finite resource. We’re not going to create more water. And it’s not just an issue in the West. Our nation needs to make groundwater stewardship a strategic priority. To sum it up, this Task Force hopes to elevate the conversation of maintaining clean, fresh, available groundwater for future generations.