There’s nothing like an unusually wet spring in Arizona to take some of the edge off the unfounded worries that the state is running out of water.
Nevertheless, Gov. Doug Ducey managed to turn what was billed as a “major policy address” on water into a pep rally for protecting Arizona’s Colorado River water rights against raids from California – even though none has surfaced.
The reality lies somewhere in the middle: Under a multistate agreement dating back to 1968, Arizona will be the first state to lose river water if Lake Mead falls only a few more feet – the likelihood of that occurring in the next year is pegged at 75 percent.
But the cutback will not be a crippling amount – about 23 percent of the 1.5 million acre-feet of water shipped through canals in the Central Arizona Project each year. That’s compared to the 9 million acre-feet of CAP water that Arizona has injected and stored underground in anticipation of just such a reduction.
COTTON STILL KING
Ducey told reporters Tuesday that he would not authorize cutting back water to farmers, the biggest single user of CAP water. But again according to the agreements dating back to the beginning of the CAP, of the 345,000 acre-feet in the first round of cuts, most of that will be taken from Arizona farmers, not the cities in Maricopa, Pima and Pinal counties that receive CAP water.
As it turns out, the biggest Arizona water users among farmers are those growing cotton, a non-food crop. Meanwhile, California, through the vagaries of weather and climate change, is facing a drought of historic proportions that is threatening a whole range of basic food crops. Cotton might be one of Arizona’s 5 C’s, but it looks as though the drought in the Colorado River basin is no respecter of tradition.
Ducey’s address on water ignored the other 12 counties that do not receive CAP water. And of that group, northern Arizona counties do not fall under one of five groundwater management districts that restrict aquifer pumping. That omission has meant a de facto free-for-all in drilling for water locally, and with mixed effects on both the human settlements and the flora and fauna around them.
PUMPING VS. SPRINGS
For Flagstaff, the ability as a municipality to drill wells in town relatively free of state regulation has diversified the city’s potable supplies beyond Lake Mary. But the city also drilled wells high up in the Inner Basin, and the result is that seeps and springs on the Peaks are drying up.
That could be the same fate for seeps and springs in the Grand Canyon if a mega-resort in Tusayan on the South Rim gets the green light to drill deep wells. Without a management district to protect aquifers in the region, even one of the world’s seven natural wonders appears to be at risk.
There are other impacts from the absence of a coordinated strategy on groundwater. Parks and other unincorporated communities west of Flagstaff have relied for decades on neighborhood private wells. But as the population density has increased, so has the demand and the pumping, leaving some neighbors’ wells high and dry.
And in Bellemont, a development company invested in wells for a subdivision that was only half-built before the recession hit. Now, unless it can complete the project, water rates for the existing customers reportedly must quadruple just to keep the little water company solvent. With groundwater management and more accountable state water laws, county planners might never have approved such a project without sizing the water delivery system to be more affordable, no matter how big or small the buildout.
ON THEIR OWN
So it is justified for Gov. Ducey to be concerned about the flagging supply of Colorado River water. But let’s not forget that most of Arizona is rural and on their own when it comes to meeting water needs. A ramping up of coordinated groundwater management amid the lingering drought is long overdue. That takes political leadership as well as a reinvestment in state oversight – the state Department of Water Resources was cut from 236 employees to 98 during the Great Recession.
Nobody wants regulation just for its own sake. But groundwater in Arizona is just as precious as water from the Colorado. It’s past time to get all of the state’s aquifers under some kind of coordinated management before it is too late.