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Stresses on Water Supplies and Threats of Shortages Lead to Calls for More Aggressive Water Management and Public Awareness in Arizona

Prominent voices in Arizona water have taken different slices at addressing water management needs in the Grand Canyon State.

In “What You Should Know about Arizona’s Water Future,” (Arizona Republic, January 2, 2015), Sharon Medgal, Director of the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center and Pima County representative on the Central Arizona Project (“CAP”) Board of Directors, argues that critical investment decisions are going to be needed in the near future and argues for the public to become more informed on water issues.

She takes pains to avoid public panic by citing some of the actions water managers and decision-makers have taken to try to hedge against water crises, but builds her argument by highlighting the level of stress that Arizona’s water sources face.

Surface water sources, like the CAP, which supplies water from the Colorado River, and the Salt River Project, which provides water from the Salt-Verde Watershed, are prone to drought.  In addition, there is a structural deficit in the Lower Colorado River Basin—meaning the Lower Basin States use a larger amount of water than flows to them each year.  Lake Mead has fallen to a historic low and is approaching the level that triggers a shortage declaration—and, under an agreement among the seven Basin States, Arizona would be the first impacted.

Groundwater is also stressed.  It makes up 40% of the statewide water use, with some communities dependent solely upon groundwater.  Groundwater is regulated only in the five Active Management Areas, and meaningful enforcement of the state’s groundwater regulations is dependent on the Arizona Department of Water Resources having sufficient funding to meet its regulatory duties.

Groundwater management needs are addressed in greater depth by Kathleen Ferris of the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association in “New Plan Doesn’t Fix Groundwater Loophole” (Arizona Republic, December 4, 2014) and Karen Smith of the Grand Canyon Institute in “35 Years Later, Arizona Still Pumps Too Much Water” (Arizona Republic, March 5, 2015).  Ferris was the AMWUA Executive Director at the time that she penned the article, but has since stepped out of that position and is now the organization’s Legal Counsel and Policy Consultant.  Smith formerly held positions as a Deputy Director at the Arizona Department of Water Resources and Water Quality Division Director at Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

Ferris focuses on the insufficiency of Central Arizona Groundwater Replenish District’s (“CAGRD”) 2015 Plan of Operation, which guides the agency’s operations and activities for the next 10 years, to successfully mitigate risks that continued growth poses to groundwater supplies. She argues for the need to return to a more sustainable groundwater management system, like the one envisioned in the 1980 Groundwater Management Act.

The 1980 Groundwater Management Act addressed the overuse of groundwater in the state and required a renewable water supply to be secured before a subdivision could be approved.  The act spawned a period of innovation and infrastructure investment, but a 1993 amendment provided a loophole: houses built on raw desert can use groundwater, and the CAGRD will replenish the water that is pumped.

Continued growth resulting from exploitation of the loophole, along with a mismatch of allowances and obligations (CAGRD does not have to replenish in the same area that water is pumped), as well as increasing competition for the supplies used to replenish the groundwater, has led to an unsustainable system that overburdens the homeowners by essentially making them pay for water twice.

Ferris concludes by acknowledging that in order to fix the problem, state law would have to change.

Smith also hearkens back to the 1980 Groundwater Management Act, focusing on its goal to achieve “safe yield” by 2025, and bemoans recent setbacks to meeting that goal.  She cites negotiated concessions and failure to change behavior as the primary impediments to achieving the safe-yield goal.

Smith suggests revisiting the recommendations for achieving safe yield that were made by a water commission 15 years ago, but never implemented.  She also presents a three-pronged solution:

  1. Pass legislation that would require industrial users who pump groundwater to shift to a renewable supply source
  2. Steer development to lands with existing rights, like agricultural lands, rather than raw desert, which can use solely groundwater. Also provide the CAGRD with the flexibility to impose a moratorium on adding new lands to its service area until it can meet its existing replenishment obligation
  3. Gather data to determine the number of exempt wells, how many people are served by them and how much water is pumped.

Ultimately, Smith lays out an argument that would put the commitment to safe yield as a bedrock in the state’s water management system.

Stresses on water supply sources and threats of shortages are leading to calls for more aggressive water management and innovation across the southwest.  Changes in state law, public education campaigns and targeted investments are most likely just the “tip of the iceberg.”

Written by Marta L. Weismann