Provision problems

Provision problems center on maintaining, recovering or enhancing the productive capacity of a CPR. Provision problems are the undesirable effects of intensive groundwater use (Llamas and Custido, 2003). As increasing volumes of water are pumped and water tables decline, a host of problems may emerge - pumping costs may increase, and wells may need to be replaced. Soil compaction and subsidence occur as water is withdrawn and the sand and gravel that compose the basin compact. If a groundwater basin is hydrologically connected to surface streams and rivers, surface water sources may dry up as water tables decline. As surface water sources are depleted, aquatic life, riparian vegetation and the birds and animals dependent on it die off (Blomquist, 1992).

Provision problems also include water quality. Basins may be polluted by industrial and municipal wastes, agricultural runoff and inadequate or improper disposal and treatment of human and animal waste. Declining water tables and water quality problems combine in the form of salt water intrusion. Coastal basins are highly susceptible to salt water intrusion. As water tables decline, the hydrologic pressure that the fresh water of the basin exerts against the salt water declines and salt water invades the fresh water. Although it is possible to halt the spread of salt water, it is very difficult and costly to reclaim portions of basins that have been polluted by salt water (Blomquist, 1992).

Provision problems do not only centre on undesirable effects of intensive resource use; they may also include the failure to take advantage of opportunities to enhance the productive capacities of CPRs. In the case of groundwater basins this typically takes the form of failing to use their full storage capacity. The unfilled storage space may be taken advantage of and surface water may be captured and placed underground for use at a later time. Of course, enhancement, if not carefully managed or attended to, can result in degradation of surface soils in the form of waterlogging, a common problem among some canal irrigation systems.

Provision problems are especially challenging to address, both for local communities of resource users and regional and national governments. Provision problems tend to be extensive - they are caused by, and affect, many groundwater users across an entire basin. It may take well owners years to detect longer-term declines of water tables, as water tables may vary from year to year. Even if well owners suspect long-term declines, their magnitudes and causes may be difficult to determine without considerable effort and investment in hydrogeologic studies. Such studies may take years to complete as the boundaries and structure of the basin must be determined, storage capacity identified, rates of natural recharge and pumping volumes computed, and identification of different water uses and their consumptive use of water measured (Kendy, 2003). No single well owner, or community of well owners, is likely to have the expertise or sufficient resources to invest in such studies.

Even if a community undertook such a study, and developed information about a basin, it is unlikely the community, acting alone, could resolve the problem of mining. Mining affects the multiple communities or clusters of groundwater users scattered across a basin and would require widespread participation to resolve. A similar argument may be made for the other types of provision problems. Developing reliable information about groundwater basins requires considerable time and investment in technical studies; it is not information that water users can develop by monitoring their wells and speaking with their neighbours.

Even if adequate models and data have been developed for a groundwater basin, sufficient uncertainty and a weak legal system may provide groundwater pumpers the opportunity to avoid making difficult choices. For instance, the Umatilla River basin, located in northeastern Oregon, has experienced water conflicts and controversies for several decades (Oregon Water Resources Department, 2003). The Umatilla River, a tributary of the Columbia River, is hydrologically connected to alluvial and hard-rock (basalt) aquifers. The basin also includes a number of closed, or contained, deep hard-rock aquifers. Most surface and groundwater diversions are devoted to agricultural enterprises - irrigated crops and dairies. As surface water supplies became fully appropriated and rights in surface water difficult to obtain, farmers turned to groundwater, which was not heavily regulated. By the 1960s, however, a variety of groundwater problems began to emerge in different parts of the basin such as sharp water table declines, unstable water levels and interference among water appropriators. Under Oregon law, the Oregon Water Resources Commission can impose various types of control measures to address groundwater problems. Since the mid-1970s, the Commission has created four critical groundwater areas and one classified groundwater area within portions of the basin (Oregon Water Resources Department, 2003). The primary effect of designating critical and classified areas is to stop or substantially reduce the number of new well permits issued. In other words, new water rights cannot be developed in critical groundwater areas. If an individual or business wants to obtain additional water supplies, they have to acquire existing water rights.

Currently, groundwater problems persist and in some instances are becoming more acute in the Umatilla basin. In some critical groundwater areas, water levels have stabilized; in many, the rate of water level declines has slowed; and in others, declines continue unabated (Oregon Department of Water Resources, 2003). Outside of the designated critical groundwater areas, groundwater problems are emerging. These results are not surprising. Restricting or closing areas experiencing groundwater problems to new groundwater development may work to slow the intensity of groundwater use. Adequately addressing groundwater problems will likely require careful management of existing uses as well.

The Oregon Water Resources Commission finds itself in a difficult spot. Through its ongoing groundwater monitoring program in the Umatilla basin, and through a variety of hydrogeologic studies that it has carried out, it has developed a working understanding of the basin and the location as well as likely causes of groundwater problems. However, it cannot readily act on that knowledge. Designating critical groundwater areas is very unpopular among water users and is actively resisted. For instance, it took the Commission almost 14 years to designate the Butter Creek critical groundwater area in the Umatilla basin and impose pumping controls, in part because groundwater users repeatedly challenged the Commission's actions in court (Bastasch, 1998). Administratively imposed controls are unlikely to lead to the sustainable use of the Umatilla basin. Currently, Umatilla county, which is home to the four critical groundwater areas in the Umatilla basin, is attempting to create a collaborative effort involving a wide variety of stakeholders to develop and implement alternative management actions (Umatilla County Groundwater Solutions Taskforce, 2005).

As the Umatilla River basin case illustrates, addressing provision problems requires that users limit their pumping of groundwater, forego some of the income and other valued activities that pumping made possible and switch to economic activities in which the consumptive uses of water are lower (Kendy, 2003). In addition to limiting groundwater pumping, groundwater users may also have to invest in public goods to recover or maintain the groundwater basin, such as recharge projects to increase the amount of water stored in the basin, or different sources of surface water to supplement groundwater. Given the very difficult physical, social and economic challenges surrounding provision problems and their solutions, groundwater users and governments, in general, will not be able to address such problems without assistance from each other.

Shah (1993) describes the situation of a coastal village of Mangrol taluka, Gujarat (a taluka is an administrative division in India below a district). The wells closest to the sea are saline and unfit for irrigation and the fields watered from those wells are barely productive. A middle belt of fields and wells are just beginning to experience salinity; however, it is expected that they too will succumb to the migrating sea water within a few years. A belt of fields and wells further inland have not yet experienced salinity. While the farmers know what is happening, they are reluctant to address the problem. For those whose fields have been rendered unproductive, limiting pumping is unlikely to be effective unless it is matched with active recharge programmes. They view their situation as hopeless; the resource has been so degraded that there is little that they can do that would make a difference. For those who are just beginning to experience salinity, they are unwilling to limit their pumping. They believe that limiting pumping would not protect them from salinity, unless everyone limited pumping. That would only occur if additional sources of water were developed, so that no one would have to cut back on water use. Those further inland are not experiencing problems and are not interested in developing solutions (Shah, 1993, pp. 168-169).8

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