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How Conservation Easements Can Protect American Groundwater

With lakes, rivers, and aquifers, the U.S. is blessed with abundant sources of freshwater. Groundwater sourced from aquifers plays a pivotal role in delivering clean water to consumers. While the U.S. is not in danger of running out of water anytime soon, several states are beginning to see the impacts of drought and dwindling supplies. Conservation easements could be a tool to help America’s aquifers recover. 

>>>READ: New PERC Research Offers Path Forward for Arizona Water Reform

Roughly 40 percent of the American population is reliant upon groundwater for drinking water and pumped groundwater is used nearly 50 percent of the time when irrigating crops. Research released in Nature early this year reveals that a few specific states are watching groundwater supply dwindle. The study, “Rapid groundwater decline and some cases of recovery in aquifers globally,” showed that 53 percent of all American aquifers are losing water. California, Texas, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and New Mexico all stand out as seeing major collapses in groundwater supplies. 

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There are a few factors contributing to our loss of groundwater availability, including the state’s climate and agriculture use. Additionally, some aquifers are also having structural integrity issues, sinking further into the earth through a process called deepening. Some experts also argue that the cost to pump groundwater is too low, allowing for an overconsumption that has led to more than 40 percent of wells hitting all-time lows in the past couple of years. 

Given groundwater’s importance, the thought of running out of this valuable resource is hard to comprehend. The Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) suggests that groundwater conservation easements may be the key to retaining sustainable aquifer levels. 

Traditional conservation easements have been around for a long time and are a popular market-based tool, currently protecting more than 37 million acres across the United States. These easements are voluntary partnerships between landowners and nonprofits or the government to restrict the use of certain pieces of land for conservation purposes. Land use conservation easements typically benefit the landowner through direct payments or tax breaks. It must be recognized that while the conservation easement system is beneficial, it is also imperfect. The financial incentives attached to easements have created an opportunity for abuse, which can lead to easements being developed on land that does not actually need such a conservation tool. For this reason, policymakers and stakeholders are considering ways to restructure easement incentives to be more effective. 

Groundwater conservation easements are a slightly different mechanism where property owners above an aquifer enter voluntary partnerships to limit groundwater pumping. Farmers are a prime candidate for this type of easement as irrigation for agriculture strains groundwater supplies. Landowners reap financial benefits and can choose where they reduce their water usage to accommodate reduced pumping. 

The idea is being put to the test in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. The valley is known for produce and irrigates half a million acres of land, frequently with groundwater drawn from the local aquifers. In 2022, a nonprofit land trust called Colorado Open Lands completed a groundwater conservation easement with Peachwood Farms, a 1,800-acre agricultural operation in the valley whose 12 center pivots (pipe structures that help pump and disperse water) are responsible for 10 percent of the area groundwater that is pumped for irrigation. Under the agreement, wells for seven of the farm’s center pivots were retired while the remaining five began pumping at half their normal rate.

By retiring these seven wells, Peachwood Farms reduced groundwater pumping by more than 1,700 acre-feet per year, enough to address the community’s overuse problem and allowed the San Luis Valley to avoid implementing costly regulations and mandated water-use restrictions. The San Luis Valley easement demonstrates that such agreements could make a real difference if implemented across the nation. 

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There were a few factors that made this project particularly successful. Colorado is one of the only states that currently allows the easement concept to be applied to groundwater, which provided the legal authority necessary to enter into such an agreement. Colorado also does not have an open-access groundwater system but instead has mechanisms in place to appropriate groundwater and protect water rights. That means that, instead of it being an open resource that no one had the right to place limits upon, Peachwood Farms had secure and well-defined rights to pump groundwater in the valley and the ability to negotiate terms about future extraction.

Those two pieces laid an early foundation that supported the easement’s success, but other factors also created solid support for the project. Because of Colorado’s system of secured water rights, Peachwood Farms was able to stop pumping certain amounts without forfeiting their allocation based on use. The project also helped mitigate local regulators’ concerns about overconsumption of groundwater, which garnered their support. Colorado Open Lands also worked with the community to solve concerns, generate support, and help everyone realize that stable groundwater levels offered a public benefit. 

“By incentivizing voluntary reductions in pumping through tailored agreements between landowners and land trusts, groundwater easements offer a market-based alternative to traditional water-saving methods or top-down regulatory approaches to address groundwater depletion,” the study’s authors write. “When applied under the appropriate legal frameworks and effective governance institutions, groundwater conservation easements show promise as an innovative tool to help recover aquifers in a flexible, community-supported manner.”

The San Luis Valley project’s success may help motivate other states to look into establishing similar easements. Alongside Colorado, Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Nevada, New Mexico, Wyoming, Montana, and Nebraska all have some sort of statutory language that could support the development of groundwater easements. For these states to be successful in developing such easements, they also must have groundwater governance that defines water rights and protects allocated water amounts even when property owners reduce the amount of their allocations that they are pumping. There also needs to be a way to effectively monitor how much groundwater is being pumped. 

You can find the full study from PERC here. 

The state of America’s aquifers may be troubling. But market-based solutions like groundwater conservation easements can help to restore them.

Kelvey Vander Hart is a native Iowan, a member of the American Conservation Coalition, and a communications specialist at Reason Foundation.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of C3.

Copyright © 2020 Conservative Coalition for Climate Solutions

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