New guidelines for proposed actions on national forest lands emphasize the interconnection of groundwater and surface water.
The U.S. Forest Service recently released new draft guidelines for managing groundwater resources on National Forest Service lands. These guidelines, developed in accordance with the Department of Agriculture’s national groundwater policy, contain “directives” that require the USFS to evaluate impacts to groundwater and other resources as a result of proposed pumping. The new guidelines reflect the agency’s view that its management duties include protecting groundwater resources and developing them sustainably. There are no new regulations; instead, the focus is on groundwater protection strategies that are already in place. However, several directives are especially pertinent for projects within Arizona.
For example, the guidelines direct the USFS to “assume … a hydrological connection between groundwater and surface water” unless it can be proven otherwise, and regardless of whether state law addresses these resources separately, as is the case in Arizona. Another requirement is to ensure that groundwater “is used efficiently especially in water-scarce areas” and to “encourage the use of water sources located off NFS lands when the water use is largely or entirely off NFS lands.”
The new guidelines also require the USFS to assess the depletion of groundwater storage, along with reductions in streamflow, the potential loss of groundwater-dependent ecosystems, land subsidence, saltwater intrusion, and changes in groundwater quality. Finally, qualified “groundwater personnel” must now assess the availability and value of groundwater as part of the appraisal process for proposed land exchanges.
In Arizona, groundwater impacts already are being addressed in NEPA-related investigations. In fact, the original 2007 guidance document contains several detailed “case studies” from Arizona that illustrate the development of several policies and the rationale behind them. So, for some, the new guidelines mean business as usual. Regardless, it is more important than ever for applicants to present a solid, defensible groundwater evaluation for actions on national forest lands.