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Congressional Testimony, 2003

Statement of William M. Alley Before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power

March 6, 2003

Madam Chairman and Members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to provide the views of the Department of the Interior (DOI) on S. 212, the "High Plains Aquifer Hydrogeologic Characterization, Mapping, Modeling, and Monitoring Act." The Administration agrees with the Committee concerning the importance of ground-water monitoring and coordination of monitoring efforts among Federal, State, and local entities. We especially appreciate the bi-partisan efforts of the sponsors of the bill to address this important issue and the emphasis within the bill on the need for reliance on sound science.

However, the Administration has a few concerns with this bill. The goals of this bill can be achieved without legislation, through better coordination of existing Federal and State programs. Further, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and DOI are in the process of revising their strategic plan; while important, the proposed program would have to be taken into account among all DOI priorities as the strategic plan develops. The total costs of the proposed program are uncertain. Funding for this program is not included in the fiscal year 2004 President´s budget, and would be subject to available resources.

Irrigation water pumped from the aquifer has made the High Plains one of the Nation's most important agricultural areas. The intense use of ground water has caused major declines in ground-water levels raising concerns about the long-term sustainability of irrigated agriculture in many areas of the High Plains. The changes are particularly evident in the central and southern parts of the High Plains, where more than 50 percent of the aquifer has been dewatered in some areas.

The bill directs the Secretary of the Interior, acting through the USGS, and in cooperation with the State geological surveys and the water management agencies of the High Plains Aquifer States, to establish and carry out a program of characterization, mapping, modeling, and monitoring of the High Plains Aquifer. This would be accomplished through mapping of the configuration of the High Plains Aquifer, and analyses of the rates at which ground water is being withdrawn and recharged, changes in water storage in the aquifer, and the factors controlling the rate of flow of water within the aquifer. Effective coordination of the data collection and monitoring efforts requires that any data collected under the program be consistent with Federal Geographic Data Committee data standards and that metadata be published on the National Spatial Data Infrastructure Clearinghouse.

The role identified for DOI in this bill is consistent with USGS´s leadership role in monitoring, interpretation, research, and assessment of the earth and biological resources of the Nation. As the Nation's largest water, earth, and biological science, and civilian mapping agency, USGS conducts the most extensive geologic mapping and ground-water investigations in the Nation in conjunction with our State and local partners. Furthermore, the USGS has been active in a number of programs and investigations that involve the High Plains Aquifer, specifically.

The USGS has offices in each of the eight States underlain by the High Plains Aquifer (Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico). These offices have a long history of ground-water monitoring and assessment activities within the aquifer. Existing USGS programs that are highly relevant to High Plains Aquifer issues include the Ground-Water Resources Program, National Cooperative Geologic Mapping Program, National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program, National Streamflow Information Program, Water Resources Research Act Program, and the Cooperative Water Program.

The USGS carried out the first comprehensive quantitative study of the High Plains Aquifer in the late 1970's through the Regional Aquifer-System Analysis (RASA) Program. With our partners in the Cooperative Water Program, we continue to provide ground-water models to evaluate the present and future state of the aquifer in some parts of the High Plains, although an overall assessment of the aquifer is now over two decades old.

In response to the water-level declines, a ground-water monitoring program was begun across the High Plains in 1988 to assess annual water-level changes in the aquifer, an effort requiring collaboration among numerous Federal, State, and local water-resource agencies. Water levels continue to decrease in many areas of the aquifer, but the monitoring has indicated that the overall rate of decline of the water table has slowed during the past two decades. This change is attributed to improved irrigation and cultivation practices, decreases in irrigated acreage, and above normal precipitation during this period. More in-depth studies are required to determine the relative importance of these different factors and to improve estimates of recharge rates, which is crucial to projecting future water levels and their response to changing agricultural practices.

We recognize the need to ensure that any USGS monitoring activities should complement State monitoring activities. In order to ensure cooperation between USGS and the non-federal community, S. 212 requires that the Federal share of the costs of an activity funded under subsection (d)(2)(B) be no more than 50 percent of the total cost of that activity. This is consistent with our earlier recommendation to include language similar to that currently contained in the National Cooperative Mapping Act (43 U.S.C. Chapter 2, Section 31 c.).

In testimony on an earlier version of this bill, S. 2773 in the 107th Congress, the Department testified that we were advised by the Department of Justice that Sections 3 and 4 unconstitutionally required that States take certain actions. We recognize that the Committee has made revisions in S. 212 in an effort to address these concerns. The Department of Justice has reviewed the bill and advises that the new bill meets their concerns.

In summary, a reliable source of ground water is an essential element of the economy of the communities on the High Plains. The goals of the bill are commendable, it contains provisions that are well within the scope and expertise of the USGS, and it emphasizes a high level of coordination between the Department of Interior and the States in addressing an issue of significant economic concern to the Nation. However, the Administration has concerns with the bill and any new funding would remain subject to available resources.

Thank you, Madam Chairman, for the opportunity to present this testimony. I will be pleased to answer questions you and other members of the Committee might have.

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