Main Solution

Our solution has four main aspects:

  • Upgrade current public policy to reflect the scarcity of groundwater and implement a cap-and-trade system for groundwater
  • Introduce effluent water as an artificial source of aquifer recharge
  • Raise the standards of all current conservation programs and integrate these current programs with regional watershed commissions based on local projects
  • Implement a Permit System for groundwater pollutants

More details about these four points can be found below.

Public Policy Recommendations

Our public policy plan for limiting groundwater depletion centers on the following five points:

  • Establish policies that will lead to sustainable levels of groundwater production.
  • Enact laws with the aim of decreasing the rate of groundwater depletion.
  • Implement a cap-and-trade system for groundwater that will factor in the depth of the water tables at all pumping sites.
  • Increase monitoring of all aquifers tapped by major production wells at local and state levels, with monitoring and oversight by the United States Geological Survey (USGS).
  • Create aquifer-scale watershed commissions to help implement and oversee these changes and collaborate with existing water authorities.

In recommending public policies for groundwater, we will use the Ogallala Aquifer as a case study. However, all of our proposed solutions can be used as a template and applied to other aquifers as well.

Some Background

Cleaner Water for New Mexico and West Texas. (n.d.). Retrieved November 27, 2008, from :

The Ogallala Aquifer is one of the largest in the U.S. and plays a critical role in the production of food. Most of the water in the aquifer dates back to a much wetter climate, ca 10,000 years ago. In today's relatively arid climate in the western U.S., recharge rates are extremely low and with growing populations, the pressure on the Ogallala Aquifer is great. While it is impossible to not deplete or mine this fossil water, policies must be implemented that prolong the lifetime of the aquifer. In the Ogallala region, policies that seek to balance the wellbeing of farmers, residents, and the future of the aquifer as a whole system is lacking; regulations are different in each state. This lack of an overarching perspective is ineffective since the Ogallala Aquifer is on track to be completely depleted. Currently, regulations are implemented at a local or state level. While the federal government does set standards through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), USGS, and (United States Department of Agriculture) USDA, these federal regulations are often met and surpassed by state regulations (Purdue Research Foundation, 1996). While state regulation is not necessarily ineffective, the scope of regulation is limited since each state only considers the groundwater within its boundaries. The Ogallala Aquifer exists beneath many states and must be considered as an integrated system.

Each state has a rather lenient system governing how much water can be produced from the aquifer. For example, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Wyoming never set an absolute limit for the amount of water that can be withdrawn from the Ogallala Aquifer. The strictest regulations that are currently in place state that one cannot obtain a permit if pumping at that site will deplete the surrounding aquifer area by a specified amount, which varies by region. Colorado, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Texas are some such states that do set numerical limits to groundwater withdrawals; however, all of these policies accept the fact of ultimate groundwater depletion, and thus must implicitly accept the problems associated with future lack of water in an important agricultural region. For more information about current public policies regarding the Ogallala, please click here. While these policies are a good start, and are better than no regulation at all, higher standards are needed to limit and decrease groundwater depletion. Also, an overseeing organization is needed to look at the overall effects of each state's depletion and to implement our proposed cap-and-trade system. A more centralized system that examines problems at both the local level and on a broader, aquifer scale must be implemented if the Ogallala Aquifer is to be a sustainable water resource.

Raising Standards

We propose to reduce depletion rates for all states. In the past, regulations have allowed individuals to withdraw "a reasonable amount of the groundwater under their land for beneficial use on that land" (McGuire, Johnson, Schieffer, Stanton, Sebree, and Verstraeten, 2000, 40) as is the case in Nebraska. Policies that treat groundwater in the major aquifers of western North America as a non renewable resource must be implemented. Our proposed new standards for acceptable depletion will be linked with the cap-and-trade system. A decreasing cap on the amount of depletion allowed for the Ogallala Aquifer as a whole will be implemented. For more details on this cap, please read the Cap-and-Trade System for Groundwater section found below. We must treat major aquifers, like the Ogallala, as an integrated system rather than allowing each state to address their own production needs independently. While we recognize that, because of variable demand, depletion rates will vary from region to region within the aquifer, we must also realize that overall, the Ogallala Aquifer is being depleted at an unsustainable rate. Thus, stricter depletion standards must be implemented everywhere that Ogallala groundwater is used in order to make the aquifer a sustainable resource. Current well owners will be required to pump only what they purchase through the cap-and-trade system. In addition, vested rights, seniority based on age of the well, will no longer have value.

We feel that a more centralized system is necessary because a regional perspective is needed to implement our proposed cap-and-trade system for the Ogallala Aquifer, an important resource for many states. It is inefficient and dangerous for each state to set withdrawal rates because ultimately there will be consequences for all states when overproduction is allowed. All states using the aquifer must come to a general agreement with respect to annual groundwater production and acceptable levels of long-term depletion. Our system will, however, take into consideration individual regions' groundwater limitations and the unique needs of each area.

Cap-and-Trade System for Groundwater

The first major change in policy that we are proposing concerns the economics of groundwater use. The current system does not regulate the annual production of water from the Ogallala Aquifer. In most states, pumping for domestic uses is not regulated, and in some states the total amount of production is unknown. This lack of monitoring, along with over pumping and low recharge rates, results in net depletion rates much higher than net recharge rates (a depletion rate of 365.76 cm/year versus a recharge rate of 2.5 cm/year) and will eventually lead to the ultimate exhaustion of the Ogallala Aquifer (Kromm, 2007) (U.S. Geological Survey, 1966) (McGuire, 2005). We have proposed a federally regulated cap-and-trade system that limits the total yearly withdrawal from the Ogallala Aquifer. This system will be a region-specific subsystem of the broader cap-and-trade initiative delineated in the economic plan for sustainable water management. In the first year, the cap will decrease current depletion by 7.27 cm. In the second year, the cap will be set to decrease depletion rates by an additional 7.27 cm. This linear decrease in depletion rate will continue for a 50 year period, hopefully forcing the depletion rate to reach the recharge rate. The first cap will decrease current pumping rates by 2%. Every five years, the situation will be re-evaluated based on recharge rates and other relevant ecological and hydrological conditions over those past five years and the annual rate of reduction in allowances issued may be adjusted for the next five year period, keeping the fifty year goal in mind. The water that can be extracted each year will be auctioned off between parties who directly draw water. To prevent water monopolies, there will be a limit to the amount of water a person or company can withdraw, specifically, no more water than what they withdrew in the past year starting from the date of the first cap. This number will be re-adjusted each year, based on the preceding year's amount. Also, the amount of water that one can withdraw is limited by where the pumping site is located. Since the depth of water is different in different regions, the allowable withdrawal rate will be different in different regions of the aquifer. In addition, water allowances bought in one year do not carry over to the next year. This prevents overpumping in any particular year. The first cap for this plan will be set in 2012. The three year monitoring period will allow people to prepare for the new policy so it's implementation will be less of a shock. With the implementation of this plan and its qualifications, water monopolies will be prevented and The Ogallala Aquifer will hopefully become a sustainable source of water for the High Plains region in fifty years.

Groundwater Monitoring

Another aspect of our proposed plan is continued monitoring of the Ogallala Aquifer by the USGS. Also, additional, more extensive and decentralized monitoring will be done by local and state authorities. In order for the cap-and-trade system to work effectively, both local and overall recharge and depletion rates must be accurately recorded. Sufficient information is known to start the cap-and-trade system. However, more extensive monitoring must be put into place for re-evaluating the cap every five years and for monitoring the actual amount of water withdrawn from the aquifer each year. This monitoring is necessary to ensure that no more water is withdrawn than what is allowed by the cap. If the difference between recharge and depletion is not known, then setting the cap every five years in order to reach our goal of sustainability in fifty years is nearly impossible. Also, if individual areas' water depth and depletion rates are not known, setting maximum withdrawal limits on a particular area is also impossible. Therefore, monitoring of the Ogallala Aquifer is a necessary component of our plan and will fall under the jurisdiction of local and state authorities, working closely with the Watershed Commissions, in addition to current USGS monitoring.

Governance of this New System

The Ogallala Aquifer will continue to be governed by the local and state authorities currently in place in each state. The regulations that these authorities must follow, however, will be more extensive. Also, these authorities will be overseen by the Arkansas River and Missouri River watershed commissions, created for the purpose of overseeing water distribution in the Arkansas River and Missouri River watersheds. Further discussion of how these commissions are distributed throughout the US can be found in the Economics Solution Section. The Arkansas River and Missouri River watershed commissions will be working in tandem to monitor the cap-and-trade system within the Arkansas River and Missouri River watersheds. These commissions will also collaborate with local and state authorities as well as the USGS to gather the necessary data to monitor and make predictions regarding the Ogallala Aquifer and the water within their watershed region. Ultimately, these watershed commissions will report to the US federal government, but they will also work closely with local authorities to ensure the needs of each region are met.


With the implementation of this plan, water prices will rise. This unfortunate effect is necessary due to the increasing scarcity of water. Raising prices now will prevent a further increase in price when the energy cost of extraction increases due to the low water table. An increase in price now will also help prevent the aquifer from running dry. While water prices will rise, we recognize that water is necessary to survive and ensuring that all can afford water is a high priority. For more information on this topic please click here.

Another unfortunate effect of this plan is the continued depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer over the fifty years that the decreasing cap is in effect. While this depletion will have negative effects on ecosystems, the negative impact will be significantly less than the effect current depletion rates would have on ecosystems if extended indefinitely. Continuing on our current path, ecosystems will continually receive less and less water until eventually no water is left. However, with our plan in place, the Ogallala Aquifer water level will decrease more slowly and eventually stop decreasing. This will ultimately provide more water for water dependant ecosystems, and thus, our proposed plan is better for aquifer dependent ecosystems.

Artificial Recharge of Groundwater with Effluent

As aquifers and other groundwater sources are depleted at a rate greater than the recharge rate, artificial recharge is needed to maintain a lasting water supply to prevent complete withdrawal of groundwater in the near future. To combat overpumping of groundwater and achieve stability in the water table, artificial recharge is another water source that will help alleviate the stress on groundwater supply. For arid climates with little precipitation, recharging groundwater can be achieved through using treated waste water, natural runoff, and runoff from irrigation. Soil-aquifer treatment (SAT), such as the Dan Region Reclamation Project in Israel, proves to be a promising technique in more urban areas. Similarly, Israel must look to different sources of water because of their growing population and economy. Currently, the Dan Region Reclamation Project treats on average 303,000 m3 of wastewater from the Greater Tel Aviv area with 1.5 million inhabitants daily; this is between a quarter and a third of Israel's household wastewater discharge.

The SAT Program

SAT programs filter partially-treated sewage effluent by flooding and drying recharge basins above an underground zone dedicated solely to effluent treatment and storage. First, sewage water is biologically treated through an activated sludge treatment plant or circulated through oxidation ponds. The raw sewage typically stays in stage one for approximately 60 to 90 days. In the second stage, the wastewater enters an activated sludge plant in which the wastewater goes through pre-treatment with bar-screens, grit and scum removal, as well as an anaerobic selector which removes filaments and phosphorus. Third, the water goes into aeration tanks where nitrification and denitrification take place. Finally, the treated effluent enters through the soil-aquifer treatment (SAT). The wastewater percolates through the unsaturated zone of the soil before recharging groundwater, spreading through the saturated zone to recovery wells surrounding the recharge area (Peters, 1998b). The SAT Dan Region Reclamation Project treats on average 303,000 m3 of wastewater and improves the quality of the water by filtering the water through the top layer of the soil as well as by chemical precipitation, absorption, and ion exchange which happens throughout the layers of soil. The unsaturated, vadose, zone within the soil operates as a natural sieve, removing nearly all suspended solids, biodegradable sources, bacteria, viruses, and trace metals detrimental to one's health and reducing the concentrations of nitrogen, phosphorus, and heavy metals (Pescod, 1992). Such declines in the various contaminates by using the SAT can be referred to in the following table (Peters, 1998b). This is better than direct recharge through injection or natural recharge in which trace metals such as boron, chloride, phosphorus or nitrogen found in the sewage waste can contaminate the recharge water.

Comparison of using the Soil Aquifer Treatment and activated sludge plant effluents after Stage two of treated wastewater for recharge (Peters, 1998b). *Observation Well 017 shallow

*Observation Well 017 shallow
Comparison of using the Soil Aquifer Treatment and activated sludge plant effluents after Stage two of treated wastewater for recharge.
Peters, Jos H. (Ed.). (1998b). Wastewater treatment and groundwater recharge for reuse in agriculture: Dan Region reclamation project, Shafdan. Rotterdam, Netherlands: A.A. Balkema.

Artificial recharge of groundwater with effluent is most cost efficient if implemented for large scale water reclamation in urban areas far away from industrial contamination and near shallow areas ideal for injection. For rural areas, private effluent disposal treatment systems would work best.

Environmental Effects


Currently there are many federal programs that already utilize various tools to conserve and restore different habitats and wildlife. However, most them of them overlap each other and also restrict themselves to a certain aspect of ecosystem restoration or conservation. To foster greater collaboration and integrate each of these efforts into a cohesive force, we propose that all of these programs listed below shall remain autonomous. However, they must report their findings and proposed projects to the regional water commission (as mentioned in economics solution), to which the project pertains.

  • Wetlands Reserve Program
  • Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program
  • Bureau of Land Management- Resource Management
  • Bureau of Reclamation- CALFED
  • Bureau of Reclamation- Central Valley Project Improvement Act
  • Fish and Wildlife Service- Habitat Conservation
  • National Wildlife Refuge System
  • Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration
  • Forest Service: Invasive Species Program
  • Conservation Reserve Program
  • Environmental Quality Incentives Program
  • Conservation Security Program
  • This streamlining can increase the efficiency of the programs and reduce redundancy. For example, by making each program report to the same water commission in the region, it can prevent different programs from giving different economic incentives for the same conservation/restoration action. In addition, by grouping these programs under the same regional water commission, it addresses the interdependency between habitat and wildlife.

    By reporting the each regional water commission for its specific project in the region, it can work directly with the local authority and gather better information regarding the region. This can help the federal programs gain a better understanding of the social, economical and environmental situation in the region. Hence, projects are collaborations between the federal programs and the water commission. This would allow projects to be better tailored to the demographics and the environmental condition. As such, each federal program will set long-term goals for the project and report such goals and progress to the regional water commission. This allows the regional water commission to track and monitor its progress.

    It should be emphasized that each federal program will retain its autonomy, such that it still reserves its power to determine where it should pursue a certain project. For example, Wetlands Reserve Program still reserves the power to determine, which areas are eligible for wetlands restoration. In addition, federal programs also need to set long-term goals for itself, as a program. It also needs to be able to measure and quantify its progress. This can provide an accurate measure on how to further improve its performance. Federal programs should also prioritize areas of concerns. By prioritizing certain areas of concern, federal programs would be able to focus its resources on a certain region and produce more results, as compared to spreading its resources among various different areas. Thus, federal programs need to collaborate with local water commissions on projects, and increase its standards by setting long-term goals, measure its progress and prioritize.

    In addition to streamlining federal programs, there needs to be increased research in aquifer ecosystems. These ecosystems are relatively unknown, and needs to be extensively studied in the near future, so that we can better understand the implications of groundwater depletion and contaminations on such ecosystems. Also, further research will be able to enable us to better predict the consequences of degrading aquifer ecosystems on human society.

    Groundwater Contamination

    Our solution to groundwater contamination will be focused on mitigating the amount of human pollution from both point and non-point sources, including industries, septic systems, and agriculture. The USGS will compile a map of the most vulnerable recharge areas, for example, the playa basin for the Southern High Plains Aquifer, and limit further human development in those areas through economic and political measures. The Contamination Control Plan will be implemented by each local government organized by the region of the watersheds. For example, the designation of projects as "absolutely necessary" would be more selective in regions where contaminants can most easily penetrate into the groundwater. We have decided to delegate the responsibility of controlling pollution to local government departments dealing with water quality, with division of regions by watersheds.

    The USGS will be commissioned to gather and synthesize data for the 592 watersheds that still lack sufficient data. The watersheds that are identified as highly vulnerable will be given highest priority. Many municipal governments have already set up data collection for monitoring water quality and pollution sources. At the initiation of this Contamination Control Program, municipal governments can evaluate and set up an ambient water quality standard in each region to serve as the upper limit for the amount of pollutants in the water. Each region can then set up commissions to auction off permits for pollution allowances to firms with an upper limit on how much total allowance can be purchased by any individual firm, including industries and farms. This limit must take into consideration the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), which establishes the maximum amount of an impairing substance or stressor that a water body can assimilate and still meet Water Quality Standards and allocates that load among pollution contributors (Maryland Department of the Environment). Also, it must be in accordance with the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System. The permit system will be changed to an auction system in which permits are sold to the highest bidder from point and non-point source. After the distribution of the permits, firms can then proceed to trade amongst themselves strictly following the upper limit of pollution allowed. The municipal government will be responsible for checking the activities of firms to make sure that they are following the pollution restrictions. Any firm found in violation of their permits will be heavily fined and penalized. Firms will be allowed to trade amongst themselves regardless of whether they contribute to point or non-point source pollutants. USGS will be designated to collect data and analyze the watershed. Local governments in accordance with the EPA will control of the permit system.

    The primary concern of groundwater contamination comes from non-point source pollution, such as farming and irrigation. With the system of trading permits put into place, we hope to see industries pay farmers for their permits, since purchasing more permits will be less expensive than introducing new technology systems for filtration in factories. Farmers, on the other hand, can use the money they gained from selling their permits to invest in better irrigation methods and alternative fertilizers, which will lower the amount of non-point source pollutants. By implementing the permit trade system, the point sources of pollution will be encouraged to fund the non-point source producers through the purchase of permits. Non-point source producers will then have more resources to implement better technology less harmful to the environment. The municipal governments are also responsible for setting up review committees to monitor the abidance of the permit restrictions. All violators of the permit will be fined heavily and penalized more severely as determined by the court depending on the severity of breach of permit. The upper limit for pollutant allowance for individual firms will be reevaluated and decreased every three years by the committee. We can then measure the progress of the non-point source pollution level by measuring ambient water quality.