Yes, it IS a dry heat. In fact, with an average of only 8.04 inches of rainfall per year, Arizona is the fourth driest state in the nation. It stands to reason then, that water should be considered our most precious resource. Unfortunately, lax regulations, which allow unimpeded growth and out-of-state or even foreign land purchase and water pumping, are helping cause a perfect (dry) storm that we have yet to adequately deal with.
A recent New York Times Magazine article titled “The Water Wars of Arizona.” reported that few laws govern the extraction of groundwater and aquifers which are “unimaginably complex and incredibly fragile; and once tapped, can take more than 6,000 years to replenish.” In Arizona, aquifers provide about 44 percent of our water and are being “tapped” relentlessly.
The more visible evidence of our dilemma though, is the bathtub ring around Lake Mead, the storage reservoir for Colorado River water which provides 40 percent of Arizona’s water along with allocations to California, Nevada and Mexico. Problem is, we’ve all been extracting more water than the river produces. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation now has modeling that shows Lake Mead dropping below the level of 1,075 feet and driving a federally declared water shortage, as soon as 2022. Even at this “Tier 1” shortage, Pinal County agriculture would lose about half of its Colorado River allotment, causing an estimated 20 percent of agricultural acreage to be fallowed.
The weather isn’t helping either. Smithsonian.com reported in 2014, that, “Warming has already contributed to decreases in spring snowpack and Colorado River flows” and “future warming is projected to produce more severe droughts, compounded by the region’s rapid population growth, which is the highest in the nation.” 2018 brought record-low snowpack levels to parts of the Colorado River Basin, making it one of the worst drought cycles over the last 1,200 years.
You would think then, that Arizona lawmakers would be “all over” ensuring we protect this valuable resource. Instead, most groundwater rights are still based on the frontier legal doctrine of ‘reasonable use,’ allowing landowners to pump as much water as they want as long as it is put to a ‘reasonable use’ such as farming. In 1980, Arizona became the first state to pass groundwater reform, effectively deeming groundwater a public rather than a private resource. Since then, there hasn’t been much regulation outside of the five Active Management Areas (AMAs) of Prescott, Phoenix, Pinal, Tucson, and Santa Cruz. These AMAs were established by the Groundwater Management Act as geographic areas that once had the most serious decline in groundwater levels. In many rural parts of the state though, farmers need only file an Intent to Drill notice and pay a $150 permitting fee to pump as much as they want. “In 2017 alone, one farm pumped 22 billion gallons, nearly double the volume of bottled water sold in the United States annually.”
It’s not like we haven’t seen this coming. In the report for the first Arizona Town Hall on water issues in 1964 (subsequent ones were held in 1977, 1985, 1997 and 2004), the 1963 U.S. Geological Survey Water Supply Paper was quoted as saying: “Arizona’s water problem is grave. The beautiful scenery, fine climate and fertile soil, like those of other southwestern states, have combined to entice an even larger number of people to settle there, and water demands have grown accordingly.” That was 54 years ago and in that time, Arizona’s population has increased by over 720 percent.
Arizona’s 53rd Legislature in 2018 however, declared sine die with a non-binding resolution ticking off past water achievements and nothing for Lake Mead, or to crack down on CAP, or for water metering, or for desalination, or to stop out-of-state water transfers. They also failed to adopt a drought contingency plan (DCP) the federal Bureau of Reclamation wants wrapped up this year. Of the plan, Thomas Buschatzke, Director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources said, it “reduces the likelihood of Lake Mead declining to critically low levels and incentivizes the use of tools to conserve water in the lake so that reductions in delivery of Arizona’s Colorado River supplies are avoided or lessened.” The Bureau’s Commissioner, Brenda Burman “warned that if Arizona doesn’t sign on, she’ll face immense pressure to reduce deliveries to the state.”
Kathy Ferris, a former director of the AZ Department of Water Resources (ADWR), says, “The Legislative session was a complete failure where water is concerned. We should be embarrassed. We are experiencing a two-decade-old drought. Lake Mead water levels are declining and we have lost the respect of our sister Colorado River Basin states for failing to take action to protect Lake Mead. “In rural areas of the state, finite groundwater supplies are threatened by new wells and unlimited pumping. Every year that goes by without action means we are further in the hole, and failing to take action is a grave failure of leadership.”
Real problems require real leadership. We don’t need our lawmakers to “go with the flow” but rather, to make the hard decisions to “keep the flow going.” This is a complicated, looming problem that will take much time, talent, and tenacity to solve. If ever there was a time when failure was not an option, this must certainly be it.