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Some science about water

The laws of nature control the movement of water. This page reviews several basic facts about the nature of water.

 

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Water is a natural resource that is directed by the laws of nature; it evaporates, it condenses, it is moved by gravity, it is moved by pressure, etc.  It is within these realities of nature that humans use water and establish laws as to its management.

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Some resources introducing the nature of water

A brief review of some fundamental facts and principles may help introduce the study of water law.

  • United States Geological Survey (USGS).  The water cycle http://ga.water.usgs.gov/edu/watercycle.html
    • "Earth's water is always in movement, and the water cycle, also known as the hydrologic cycle, describes the continuous movement of water on, above, and below the surface of the Earth. Although the balance of water on Earth remains fairly constant over time, individual water molecules can come and go in a hurry. Since the water cycle is truly a "cycle," there is no beginning or end. Water can change states among liquid, vapor, and ice at various places in the water cycle, with these processes happening in the blink of an eye and over millions of years."
  • Also Water Science Glossary of Terms
    • A glossary is always helpful when one studies new concepts and encounters new terminology.
  • This web site complements Weber et al.  casebook:  Cases and Materials on Water Law. 9th ed. West. 2014.  Consider the following sections as part of the introduction to water law.
    • Water measurement, pp. 8-9 (for example, "cubic feet per second" and "acre-foot")
    • Water: The Yearbook of Agriculture, pp. 83-84 (The Hydrologic Cycle)
      • Should we add human activities as a source of evaporation, such as evaporation from industrial cooling?
    • Physical Differences between Groundwater and Surface Water, pp. 371-372
    • A Layman's Guide to Groundwater Hydrology, pp. 355-358, 373-375 & 408-410

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Water Use in the United States

USGS:  Estimated Use of Water in the United States in 2005

Read the abstract  for an appreciation of how water is being used in the United States and the sources of those waters.

 

Water use in Western United States

Urbanization and population growth most often are cited as the major factors applying stress on available water in the West. Trends in water use for the United States, however, reveal that in recent decades, water use has declined or leveled off since the 1980s despite continued population growth ... Consumptive water use in the United States, when compared to the renewable water supply, shows that more water is being consumed in the Lower Colorado region than is available, which can occur by depleting ground water in storage ...

Irrigation is the largest consumptive use of water in the United States, especially in the West. Of the freshwater consumptively used for irrigation in the United States during 1995, 86 percent was used in Western States. Of the 134,000 million gallons of water per day withdrawn for irrigation, 19 percent was lost by conveyance, 61 percent was consumptively used, and 20 percent was returned to surface- or ground-water supplies. California accounts for the largest consumptive use because it has the largest withdrawals of water for irrigation ... When irrigated agricultural lands are retired by home construction, a net reduction in consumptive use of water can be achieved ... With the exception of evaporation losses from lawns, gardens, and swimming pools, most of the water used by a household is not consumptively used, but rather is returned to streams or aquifers, albeit possibly diminished in quality.

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Surface Water Information

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Some groundwater terminology

  • Groundwater:  water-saturated zone of the soil; zone contains more water than just the moisture needed to support plant life.
  • Aquifer:  geological formation that contains groundwater.
  • Water table:  top of an aquifer.
  • Artesian pressure: groundwater under sufficient natural pressure to rise to the surface of the earth through a well or natural opening.
  • Cone of depression:  lowering the water table in the area immediately surrounding a well; the area is not immediately refilled (recharged) because the flow of groundwater is inhibited by the geologic formation (soils, rocks, etc).
  • See USGS Ground Water Glossary

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Why groundwater poses unique legal issues (relative to surface water):

  • Hidden from sight; difficult to measure quantity and location, or to observe and understand impact of withdraws.
  • Groundwater consists of both annual recharge and long-term accumulations; thus use of water draws from both sources.  To the extent that withdraws exceed recharge, the long-term accumulations are being "mined" or depleted.  Depleting groundwater cannot go on without change either caused by policy or law, or by the natural consequence of water no longer being available.
  • Cost of pumping water to the surface -- the lower the water table, the more it costs to capture (pump) the water.  As withdraws lower a water table, wells must be extended -- increasing both capital and operating costs.
  • Groundwater flows slowly compared to surface water; adjacent water will not immediately replenish an area of an aquifer that has been drawn down as a resulting of withdraws.
  • Also, groundwater and surface water are interconnected; e.g., surface water will percolate into the soils and recharge an aquifer, and groundwater rises to the surface through natural opens and seepage (e.g., springs).

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Information about Groundwater Resources

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Next Topic

The next topic is a brief introduction to several legal doctrines used in the United States to allocate or appropriate water among users; see http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/ndwaterlaw/acquiringwater/legaldoctrines.

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Disclaimer

Email:  david.saxowsky@ndsu.edu

This material is intended for educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for competent legal counsel. Seek appropriate professional advice for answers to your specific questions.

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