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Two proposals for managing water sources

Posted on: May 14th, 2018
by David Ganje

The state Water Management Board (WMB) was created in 1955. The legislature gave authority to the WMB with supervision of the waters of the state, including measurement, appropriation, and distribution of waters. The WMB consists of seven members appointed by the governor.

In this column I argue that the exercise of good water management choices is absent on the two subjects I discuss. I do not challenge the professionalism or commitment of the staff of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). Nor do I criticize the good faith of the WMB whose members consist of volunteer citizens of the state appointed with the legal authority to decide who should have and who should be denied a permit to appropriate the waters of the state. I discuss two issues under which the WMB is given leadership with the assistance of the DENR.

Waters of the state are held in trust for the benefit of all the residents of the state, making members of the WMB legal trustees acting on behalf of the citizens of the state. Board members are charged with protecting and managing the state’s water supply for both surface and groundwater.

The following are the two issues reviewed in this opinion piece as well as my proposals. On the first issue the Board should require a permit applicant’s disclosure of past violations or bad acts. On the second issue the Board should require that large-quantity water use applicants provide a report showing that a permit, if granted, will not harm the recharge of the particular aquifer that is to be permitted.

The first problem: Water use permit applications do not require disclosure of past bad acts or of an applicant’s business relationship with other operations that may have had violations of the law. A properly drafted “bad actor” rule would allow the WMB to deny permits to applicants with a record of law violations or who have had poor compliance with other agency directives or rules. The state DENR enforces a law in another area of permitting (concentrated animal feedlot operations, with the acronym CAFO). Under this law an applicant must disclose material information on their permit paperwork. Bad actors cannot hide when making a CAFO permit application. However the WMB has no such rule for water permit applications. It should. The WMB has rulemaking authority to do this.

The second problem is one I have addressed before. It is not new advice. However your humble practitioner’s prior recommendation has fallen on deaf ears. A particular South Dakota statute requires the WMB to determine that the average estimated withdrawal of groundwater by an applicant does not exceed the average estimated annual recharge of water in the aquifer to be used. A circuit court a few years ago ruled that using historical data from existing state observation wells does not fulfill the requirements of the statute. In that case the court said that the statute “requires not only analyzing existing and historic drawdown and recharge to the [permitted] aquifer, but also how the applicant’s [requested] drawdowns will affect the recharge to the aquifer.” The judge ruled that the WMB’s findings which show a draw of 720,000 gallons per day failed to take into account what affect the use of 720,000 gallons per day would have on the particular aquifer. The court noted that a recharge study of the subject aquifer was not included in the permit application. The court reversed the approval of the permit given by the WMB.

And just this year the WMB approved a large-quantity groundwater permit without requiring a recharge study. Such a study should take into account what effect the applicant’s use has on the particular aquifer. The approved applicant in the recent matter would be able use up to 30,000 gallons per hour when pumping. In granting the permit the WMB relied on state observation wells and historical data without a specific report showing what the recharge would be on the identified water source. I previously recommended that a water permit applicant, who will use large quantities of water, provide an aquifer recharge study as a required part of the application process. For a sustainable system the amount of water withdrawn from a particular aquifer should be balanced with the amount of water returned (recharged) by nature to that particular aquifer. The state’s existing water use policy which forbids the “mining” of the public’s water would be better served by requiring this specific water information. The requirement for a recharge study does not exist in the state’s current water code or in WMB rules.

The WMB, as an agent of the people, has general supervision of the waters of the state which includes measurement, appropriation and distribution. The duty of an agent is to guide the events in his control to a good result. The WMB is empowered with authority to establish procedures and criteria for issuing water permits. I have tendered two proposals which should be adopted by the WMB.

David Ganje practices in the area of natural resources, environmental and commercial law.

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