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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

As aquifers run short on water, powerful players block change

John Hicks with Arthur & Orum Well Drilling operates a drilling rig for a new water well at a farm on April 29, 2014, near Mendota, Calif.  (Justin Sullivan)
By Christopher Flavelle and Mira Rojanasakul New York Times

GARDEN CITY, Kan. – From a small building in Garden City, Kansas, 13 men manage the use of groundwater across 5 million acres in the southwest corner of the state, some of the most productive farmland in America for corn, wheat and sorghum.

They serve on the board of Groundwater Management District 3, which since 1996 has overseen the pumping of 16.2 trillion gallons of groundwater – enough to fill Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir, twice over.

The board is elected, but not by everyone: The only people eligible to vote are large landowners, a group of less than 12,000 people in an area of roughly 130,000. Others have no say in the management of the aquifer on which they, too, rely.

The aquifer is running out of water, fast. But the board hasn’t slowed down the pumping.

“If we don’t make change, we’re not going to have water,” said Lindsay Vaughn, a state lawmaker in Kansas who has tried to curtail pumping in her state.

But change is being actively resisted by many of the agribusinesses, multinational companies and big landowners who depend on enormous amounts of water. They say that reducing groundwater access strikes at the heart of local and regional economies. It also strikes at their bottom lines.

“You lose land value, you lose tax base, and quite frankly you lose the way of life,” said Joe Newland, president of the Kansas Farm Bureau.

Adam Sullivan has one of the most powerful jobs in Nevada. His title is state engineer, which means he decides who gets water in a state that gets less rainfall than any other, and where groundwater levels are sinking rapidly.

But Christina Erling has a different kind of power.

Erling is vice president of North American government affairs for Barrick Gold Corp., one of the world’s largest gold mining companies. Barrick and its joint venture, Nevada Gold Mines, accounted for about three-quarters of the gold produced in Nevada last year, including at Goldstrike, the largest gold mine in North America.

Barrick, along with its joint venture, has made $1.7 million in campaign contributions since 1994, according to data from Open Secrets, a nonprofit group that tracks political donations. That makes it one of the state’s largest corporate political donors.

To keep pits and mine shafts dry, and also to process ore, Barrick pulls huge volumes of water out of the ground. The Goldstrike mine alone consumed 3.4 billion gallons of water last year, according to company documents.

In May, with Nevada facing increasingly severe water problems, a state legislative committee was considering a proposal backed by environmentalists and water managers that would have made it harder in some parts of the state to get new permits to pump water.

The committee, made up of five lawmakers who had each received campaign contributions from Barrick or its joint venture, killed the legislation. State Sen. Julie Pazina, the panel’s chair, said that “the stakeholders on both sides of the bill were simply unable to come together.” She added: “Any insinuation that a contribution impacts how I evaluate legislation before me is ludicrous.”

Barrick declined to make Erling available for an interview. Michael McCarthy, the company’s general counsel for North America, said Barrick supported the idea of protecting groundwater, but the legislation would have changed state water law too quickly and without enough consultation with his company.

“We have livelihoods really at stake,” McCarthy said, adding that he didn’t think Barrick’s political donations had played a role in the decision to kill the legislation.

Travel east from Helena, the capital of Montana, and it’s not long before you’re in Galt country.

For decades, the Galt family has been a force in Republican politics, as well as one of the state’s biggest private landowners. Three generations of Galts have served in the statehouse, including Wylie Galt, who until January was speaker of the Montana House of Representatives.

Now Wylie Galt’s father, Errol Galt, plans to construct 39 homes near a lake in Broadwater County. One thing spoils the idyll: There isn’t enough water.

Montana has declared this area a “closed basin,” meaning there isn’t enough surface water, like rivers and lakes, for new users. The proposed new homes would get water by drilling wells, potentially causing older wells to run dry, experts warn, and further depleting the dwindling creeks and springs.

Yet the state approved Galt’s proposal without requiring an analysis of the impact on the water supply. That’s because Montana exempts domestic wells from its standard permit process, a loophole, critics say, that developers are increasingly exploiting to build not just individual homes, which the provision was intended for, but subdivisions to meet a booming demand for homes.

Brad Dundas, whose ranch has been in his wife’s family for more than a century, has joined his neighbors to sue the state over the proposed Galt subdivision. The lawsuit argues that the developers should have been required to test whether new wells would hurt local water resources, and if so, find other sources of water. A trial is set for February.

Galt’s project is not a huge subdivision, but if he prevails in court, it could lead to many more homes being built in areas without enough water to support them, said John Tubbs, the former director of the state’s Department of Natural Resources Conservation, which regulates water rights.

In Kansas, the power of the men who run Groundwater Management District 3 is enormous. Even though the district is in the driest part of Kansas, with an aquifer in dramatic decline, it accounts for half of all groundwater extracted statewide.

“If we don’t do anything differently, then there won’t be enough water left for people in my generation,” said Vaughn, 29, who represents a Kansas City suburb.

Last year, Vaughn, the top Democrat on the state’s water committee, tried to open elections for groundwater management districts to all local residents.

Her proposal was blocked by Newland, a Republican lawmaker at the time, who raises crops and cattle. Soon after, Newland became president of the Kansas Farm Bureau, the lobbying powerhouse for agriculture.

Newland said that people who live in towns and cities don’t understand the value of groundwater to farming and would elect members to the district board who would cut water use. That would decrease the value of farmland, he said.

This year, Vaughn introduced legislation that requires the state to ensure that water districts better protect their aquifers. Groups like Groundwater Management District 3 have until 2026 to come up with plans to sustain groundwater. If they fail to develop those plans, or if state officials decide the plans are inadequate, the state can impose its own plan and compel farmers to cut back on pumping.

That bill became law, evidence of the growing recognition that Kansas faces a crisis, Vaughn said. But she voiced concern about whether political appointees in state government will enforce the law, given the clout of the agriculture lobby.

“We can come together and use the tools that we already have to slow depletion,” Vaughn said. “Or we can be left in the dust. The choice is ours.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.