Author warns lawmakers of threat to aquifers

The writer who helped mobilize a national groundwater protection revolt spent all day at the New Hampshire State House Tuesday urging small groups of lawmakers and environmental activists to fix a price for water that shows its true value.

Robert Glennon, author of “Water Follies: Groundwater Pumping and the Fate of America’s Fresh Waters,” said monthly water bills reflect only the cost of tapping, storing, treating and piping the resource. Few people realize the life-giving commodity itself is priceless, he said.

The law professor from the University of Arizona called the current practice a policy for irresponsible consumption. He suggested the marketplace could ration water the same way it already rations gasoline. At $3 a gallon, people get serious about ethanol and hybrid cars.

Glennon said communities might fairly charge nothing for just enough water to meet basic human needs. But use more, and it should cost progressively more. That’s to discourage swimming pools and the spraying of square miles of golf courses in deserts.

The author said New Hampshire also needs stronger rules and statutes. Too many figurative “straws” are sucking from a giant milkshake glass, he said.

“Each well is a straw,” he said. “We allow a limitless number of straws into a finite resource.”

All states have reasonable use doctrines for drawing water out, he said. In practice, they justify every use on a first-come, first-served basis. Government might one day have to make every would-be well owner buy out an existing well the same size, he warned.

“Think of it as a firing squad,” he said. “But everyone sits in a circle and shoots at each other.”

His big fear is lowering the water table so much from new subdivisions and large-scale commercial pumping that a river empties into the aquifer instead of the other way around. Water flows downhill, he explained. If the water table drops below the river, the river drains into it. Buried and surface water are part of one huge system.

People think of New Hampshire as a place with plenty of rain and lakes, Glennon said, but most of the buried water fills unseen reservoirs that are quite small, really just fissures in granite bedrock.

“The aquifers out west are big saucers filled with sand and water to the brim,” he said. “Here you have huge chunks of granite in the bathtub.”

Glennon said New Hampshire law allows too high a pumping limit, 57,000 gallons a day, before a property owner has to secure a large-volume withdrawal permit. There’s nothing to stop multiple 56,000-gallon-a-day wells from doing the same unregulated damage to the resource.

“The Ipswich River in Massachusetts has gone dry five of the last eight years,” the author said. “It’s less than an hour from here, and they get 50 inches of rain. That’s more than Seattle. Where does the water in a river come from when it hasn’t rained lately? From the water table.” – CHRIS DORNIN/GOLDEN DOME NEWS

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