A non-partisan, neutral perspective supporting diversity in the color of water

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Exempt Wells: What Color Art Thou?

I participated in an international conference on exempt wells in Walla Walla, WA last month where about 70 participants converged on this wicked problem at the incredibly beautiful and historic Marcus Whitman Hotel. This is serious wine country.

If one is curious about exempt wells, these are the millions of wells that are used for domestic, stock  watering, and in some cases commercial uses which are *exempt* from securing a water right or permit before drilling. The only western US state that does not allow *exempt* wells is Utah. Other states, and Canadian provinces, allow these wells to be used because of the perception that the use is de minimis, hardly worth the trouble to regulate. But the wells are not limited to the US and Canada. Spain and Mexico apparently are also wrestling with the same issues, sometimes referred to as a *Silent Revolution*.

The issue now focuses on whether the millions of wells interfere with other water rights holders, including surface water rights, as groundwater that would otherwise eventually discharge to a stream, river, or lake is captured by the wells. Other issues include how many *stock* can be watered with an exempt well (we heard the story about a cattle feedlot wanting to use exempt wells for 50,000 head), the impacts to water quality (do the wells serve as conduits for contaminants from the ground surface or from septic tanks?), whether or not the drilling industry missing a large financial opportunity by promoting that the wells they build last for generations rather than needing regular maintenance and/or abandonment as land use around the well changes, and the use of exempt wells for aquifer storage and recovery. Some participants also argued there are no problems with exempt wells, and that the status quo for management works.

I can't think of many hydraulic structures that connect so many of the colors of water together!

We tried something different with this conference. Rather than just posting the presentations on the conference website, we had facilitators embedded in the audience of each presentation. They took notes and facilitated discussions at the end of each day to remind everyone what was said. It was an interesting exercise because what the speaker thought they said, and the message they hoped would be taken home, was not necessarily what was heard by the facilitators. The daily facilitation then permitted the speakers to revise the take-home message. This approach led to not only a summary presentation of the entire conference, but also a short summary *white* paper of the conference.

The presentations can be view here. The summary presentation of the entire conference can be viewed here. The summary *white* paper can be accessed here. A great show, and thanks to all that participated.
* * *
Things done well and with a care, exempt themselves from fear.
~ William Shakespeare

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