HomeNewsDitches, ponds and pipelines: Have you seen one of these on forest land?
Ditches, ponds and pipelines: Have you seen one of these on forest land?
April 12, 2022
The U.S. Forest Service is uniquely tasked with preserving water resources across much of America’s land mass. It also permits thousands of users to divert water from forest land, sometimes in the form of wells, irrigation ditches, reservoirs or pipelines.
An investigation by the USA TODAY Network found that nearly 1,000 of these permitted water diversions are years past their expiration dates, and many more will never expire because Congress has effectively forced the Forest Service to lock them into place.
The Coloradoan and The Arizona Republic, part of the USA TODAY Network, obtained the Forest Service’s most recent database of its water permit information under the Freedom of Information Act. The data published here shows all permits from that data that the agency says are currently authorized as of July 2021.
The Forest Service’s data identified locations for each permit with a code for one of the agency’s 10 regions and the number of a specific forest within that region. In some cases, this coding corresponds to an administrative grouping of multiple forests, such as “National Forests in Mississippi,” rather than by the name of the individual forest.
In some cases, the Forest Service must approve pipelines, reservoirs or dams to exist indefinitely because of a law known as the Colorado Ditch Bill Act. That law exempts some of the oldest water structures used for agriculture or livestock from the standard special use permitting process.
More than 1,600 rows not identified as such are also missing expiration dates, potentially because the staff responsible for reporting to the database left the expiration cells blank.
In other cases, the permits are simply expired. Forest Service data managers told The Arizona Republic that they reach out to staff in the field to request they update their data when they find missing expiration dates.
It’s unclear what steps the agency takes to require the permits to be renewed.
Staff who manage the database said they issue memos to remind forest supervisors of their expired permits. But one forest with dozens of expired permits said they had no record of those when The Republic requested them. Forest Service headquarters did not respond to follow-up questions about that.
The Forest Service’s permit database does not maintain information on how much water any given structure uses, so it’s impossible to universally measure the extent to which these structures extract water — as from a well or diversion dam — or how much water they move from one place to another, as in the case of a pipeline.
It also appears impossible to determine from the database whether an individual permit is issued for a new structure or if it’s an update or renewal of a previous, long-held permit.
What is clear from the investigation is that the agency lacks a universal understanding of how much water is taken from forest land each year even as much of that land grows ever drier and water supplies dwindle in the face of a changing climate.
Name and spelling errors in the database are shown as provided by the federal agency’s data. Click on each user to see the local ranger district, issue date, expiration date and other information about the permit.
Do you see something in the database that merits further investigation? Got a tip? Do you know of a water user on forest land that doesn’t seem to have a permit? Let us know using this form.