James Butler: Access to safe drinking water should be considered as a basic human right
The temporal coincidence at the Stanford School of Applied Earth Sciences with UPV Hydraulic Engineering professor Jaime Gómez, who also became a Stanford PhD graduate in Geostatistics, is at the origin of James Butler four-month stay in Spain in the Hydrogeology Group of the UPV, where he will impart several conferences and seminars on hydrogeology and the importance of aquifers for today’s society. For this reason, he talked to him about the importance of hydrogeology and water resources to meet the needs of citizens and also essential for companies, especially for those who are being able to avoid the crisis. This is our dialogue:
Adolfo Plasencia: I start by asking professor Butler his personal opinion on whether the resounding phrase by Ismael Serageldin, World Bank Vice President, said that “if the wars of the twentieth century were about oil, the XXI century will be about water” Do you think Mr. Serageldin exaggerates?
James Butler: Yes, I think he exaggerates but he may have purposefully done so to emphasize the critical importance of water in the 21st century. That importance will be accentuated by the collision between global expectations for a higher standard of living and the realities produced by a burgeoning population and a changing climate.
James Butler in the Hidrogeology Group office. CPI UPV. Photo: Adolfo Plasencia
A.P.: Why do you think there is such little societal awareness about the precipitous decline in our fresh groundwater resources, when almost 29% of the water we use is from this source?
J. B. : Increasing societal awareness of the condition of our groundwater resources can be difficult because groundwater is largely out of sight. Unless, for example, a nearby spring has dried up or flow in a groundwater-fed river has greatly diminished, most people would not realize that the groundwater resources in their area are under great stress. The scientific community must do a better job of educating the public about such critical issues. I work for the Kansas Geological Survey, a research and service division of the University of Kansas. Our primary task is to provide the sound scientific foundation for decision making at all levels of government within our state (Kansas). An informed citizenry is a critical component of this process, so my colleagues and I give numerous presentations on our groundwater resources to groups across the state. We also make extensive use of the Internet. Immediately before I came to Valencia to work with Professor Gómez, my colleagues and I released a digital atlas for the High Plains aquifer, our state’s most important aquifer. The interactive portion of this atlas is a powerful tool that gives people information on current aquifer conditions, and changes over time, in any portion of the High Plains aquifer. With just a few clicks, they can acquire a good understanding of conditions in their area. We think this atlas will greatly increase public awareness of conditions in our most important aquifer.
A. P. : In your field, do you face the same situation as in other applied sciences where funding does not appear on the radar of governmental priorities? Do you think you can increase awareness of the critical importance of your work or is this an impossible goal?
J. B. : In these times of severe fiscal constraints, the scientific community cannot depend on others to recognize the critical importance of our work; we must be prepared to make a compelling case of its importance directly to the decision makers – we must show them that what we do really matters. The Kansas Geological Survey has an annual legislative field conference (2.5 days in duration) in which we take a busload of legislators and regulatory agency leaders around the state to visit sites where we give presentations and hold discussions about important natural resources issues. For example, in June of this year, I gave two presentations to this group about the declining groundwater resources of the High Plains aquifer. Participants in this conference come away with a much deeper understanding of natural resources issues and the role of the Kansas Geological Survey in providing a sound scientific foundation for policy decisions.
A. P. : For a thousand years, Valencia, in Spain, has had a traditional irrigation system with a tribunal (El Tribunal de las Aguas), which is unique in the world, where surface water conflicts are settled. However, the increasing overexploitation of our groundwater resources due to illegal or irrational activities has caused the increasing salinization of some areas and the disappearance of many sources that have existed for centuries. Should the remedy to stop these attacks on our groundwater resources be driven by science or more by laws?
J. B. : If we are to diminish the overexploitation of groundwater resources, we need to combine three elements: 1. Science – decisions must be based on the scientific reality that we face and not wishful thinking or antiquated theories; 2. Laws – we must have a regulatory framework in place that can control groundwater extraction and we must be prepared to implement it when necessary; and 3. User Commitment – a significant portion of those using groundwater must be committed to more rational and efficient use of these resources – in a sense, the groundwater equivalent of Valencia’s well-known water tribunal. In Kansas, we have just established a new approach for reducing groundwater extraction that combines these three elements. This new approach allows groups of irrigators to establish areas (known as Locally Enhanced Management Areas (LEMAs)) in which groundwater extraction will be reduced. If the majority of irrigators in an area agree to a certain percentage reduction in groundwater use, all of the irrigators in that area are legally required to follow the agreement. A state regulatory agency monitors groundwater usage to ensure that everyone is abiding by the agreement. A group of irrigators in an area in northwest Kansas, who recognize that their groundwater resources will be exhausted at current depletion rates within a few decades (if not sooner), are in the process of establishing the first LEMA; my colleagues and I will play a role in the interpretation of the water-level data from that area to assess the impact of the reductions on the rate of water-level declines. Although I am not familiar with all the details of the Valencia water tribunal, from what I have learned from Professor Gomez, it appears that the irrigators have a strong commitment to the system. In the case of Kansas, those establishing the first LEMA also have a strong commitment to preserving the area’s groundwater resources for their children and grandchildren.
Jaime Gómez and James Butler. Innovation Scientific Park. UPV. Valencia (Spain). Photo: Adolfo Plasencia
A. P. : In a memorable article published in 1986 in the journal Science, the ecologist Garrett Hardin described the “tragedy of the commons“; the dilemma that arises with a shared resource where individuals acting solely on the basis of their personal interest overexploit the resources to such a degree that everyone suffers. Could it be that this is occurring with our groundwater resources?
J. B. : Yes, this situation can, and all-too-often does, occur in overexploited aquifers. One of the major responsibilities of governmental entities charged with managing (regulating) groundwater use is to try to prevent or mitigate such situations. In Kansas, we have a water-rights system; an individual with a water right can pump a certain amount of groundwater each year (all large wells are metered to ensure that use does not exceed the allotted amount). The water rights have a priority that is based on the year that they were assigned. If an individual with an old water right feels his use is being impacted by the pumping of those with later water rights, he can request that they reduce or even totally stop their pumping. Although the situation in Kansas is better than in some of our neighboring states where there is no regulation of groundwater extraction, more water rights were assigned than the aquifer could bear so the tragedy of the commons is still occurring, just over a longer time scale than it would have otherwise. Individuals tend not to complain about their use being impacted as long as they can continue to pump what they need; water level declines, the diagnostic indicator of such impacts, are thus largely ignored. Typically, it is only when actual use is impaired that complaints arise, which is often when the aquifer is near depleted.
A. P. : Some here say that fresh water is too cheap and therefore people are very wasteful in their usage and that only a much higher price would force people to use water more efficiently. Do you agree?
J. B. : Yes, but… I agree that a higher price would force users to make more rational use of limited fresh water resources but we have to tread carefully here because access to clean fresh water should be considered a basic human right. We can get fair and more efficient use of water through a tiered pricing system. We can calculate the amount of water that is considered enough to amply meet daily needs and have that amount be priced very cheaply. However, above that, we should have a tiered (stepped) pricing system with significant increases between steps, so those who want to use more have to pay a price that reflects its true value for society.
A. P. : A few weeks ago, a study published in the journal Nature Geoscience by a group of Spanish scientists concluded that the recent earthquake in the Spanish city of Lorca, which killed nine people and destroyed entire neighborhoods, was influenced by excessive pumping of groundwater for irrigation from the aquifer in that area. Many media outlets worldwide, including the U.S., have raised the question of a possible link between the earthquake and the excessive pumping of groundwater over the past 50 years, which has produced water level drops of 250 meters. Do you think there might be a connection or do you think that media claims of such a link are overly speculative? Can excessive pumping of groundwater trigger an earthquake?
J. B. : Yes, I have seen the article and I found it intriguing. Although it is surprising to me that groundwater pumping would produce a sufficient weight reduction to trigger an earthquake, I am not familiar enough with the details of the work or that area to say more. I recommend that you talk with Professor Gomez for a more informed response, as he is much more familiar with the situation in the Lorca area.
A. P. : Considering the massive impact of human activity on our groundwater resources, can you still be optimistic about these resources, or is that impact no longer reversible so there is little to be done beyond trying to limit the damage?
J. B. : I am still optimistic about the future but I am also realistic. For the most part, we are not going to reverse the declines that have occurred over the last 50-100 years of large-scale groundwater extraction. However, we can do much to limit further declines. For this, we need water-use regulations that are based on sound science, strong legal grounds, and the commitment by the user community to utilize the resource as efficiently as possible. We need a tiered pricing structure for water that ensures all have access to enough clean water to meet the needs of daily life but then prices use beyond that at its true cost. We need continued funding of research in all areas of water science from more efficient means for desalinization to more accurate methods of characterizing our aquifers and assessing what the future holds for them. Above all, however, we need an educated citizenry who understand the importance of access to a reliable source of clean water and push their governments to ensure that that access is not compromised.