Future of Groundwater Management in MD?

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Here in Maryland (and presumably in many other eastern states with water allocation laws based on the Reasonable Use Doctrine or some variant thereof), property owners possess a fundamental right to make a reasonable use of the groundwater associated with their land. Those rights end if and when their exercise causes (or is anticipated to cause) an unreasonable impact on the water resources as a whole or on other users (including aquatic biota) there of.

This system has provided an equitable basis for the allocation and management of water resources in Maryland for decades. In our humid, water-rich state, the rights of users who provide potable water or use it in food production are equal to those who use the water industrially, recreationally, consumptively (think golf courses here) or otherwise. Only during a declared drought emergency do the regulatory agencies tend to restrict discretionary and other consumptive uses official site.

These laws and regulations generally were developed decades ago when the population was less burgeoning and affluent than today. The system of water resources management has worked well and continues to do so, during non-drought periods and where water is not a regional scarcity and/or is not a local resource for which there is intense competition. While occasional local scarcities (i.e., a municipal supply well and a golf course competing for a finite groundwater resource in the same limited watershed) have proven problematic, now and then, such occurrences historically have not been pervasively problematic.

Several changes have occurred in recent years, suggesting that this long-established system of water management as a property right may be in need of revisitation or revamp First, as the downstream aquatic habitat impact of groundwater withdrawals comes to be better understood, regulatory authorities are tending to be more strict and conservative in their allocation decisions. Second, inasmuch as a water allocation supports land development in a way that its absence does not, various interests increasingly wrestle over water management policies and project-specific allocation decisions as a means to support, oppose or otherwise manage growth. Third, the present allocation system often does not adequately credit or reward environmentally beneficial endeavors such as water conservation, cluster development and wastewater reuse.

As the 21st century progresses and if groundwater stresses increase, we would expect more incidences of conflict between users. Existing policies could exacerbate such conflicts. A better water allocation and management system increasingly seems needed to manage the resource equitably, to protect it from misuse and overuse, and to promote its equitable use and stewardship in a manner that balances economic and environmental interests. As recently as the 1980s, economic considerations often were deemed more important that environmental ones. However, the present trend seems reversed and we believe that a stable middle ground best benefits Marylanders as a whole.

As mentioned above, an important tenet of a new water management strategy would be the recognition of the value of treated effluent as a resource to be shared and used, rather than disposed as a waste product of the modern, urbanized environment. In other words, one obvious partial solution could/would/should be greater reuse of treated wastewater effluent. I believe it a travesty that we do not irrigate with it more, now. A future blog will discuss beneficial resuses of this resource in greater detail and the regulations we assisted in developing.

In summary, we foresee a tweaking rather than a comprehensive revamp of present water management strategies. Such revisions should focus both on greater protection from downstream aquatic impacts as well as greater credit for innovations such as stormwater recharge and wastewater reuse. This type of system inevitably would penalize heavily consumptive uses such as irrigation and commercial bottling and would reward innovations such as conservation and sustainability measures when built into project designs. In such a manner, water management strategies would echo rather than counter societal priorities.

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