USGS Ground Water Study Reinforces Call for Water Policy Changes

22 September 2011   Karen Smith, Ph.D.
Arizona has lost three times volume of Lake Powell

waterdripPHOENIX — On Wednesday, September 21, the United States Geological Survey released a ground water report (see “New USGS Science for Managing Arizona’s Groundwater.” It notes that Arizona has depleted its ground water storage over the last 70 years by an amount equivalent to three times the maximum storage capacity of Lake Powell. As groundwater provides 43 percent of the state’s water supply, unless Arizona changes course, nonsustainable use of water resources threatens the state’s future economic growth. Growing populations, over use of existing water supplies and expectations of a drier future, cannot be sustained with current practices and developing new water supplies will be very expensive.

Last week the newly formed centrist think tank, The Grand Canyon Institute, issued a water policy report, Arizona at the Crossroads: Water Scarcity or Water Sustainability?, that brought a renewed focus on statewide water supply challenges, and provides five specific recommendations for legislative action to firmly place Arizona on the path of more sustainable water use.

“There are credible scenarios for a very dry Arizona over the next 100 years that would have a dramatic effect on our economy,” said Karen Smith, Ph.D., former deputy director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, now a fellow of the Grand Canyon Institute and author of the background report. “We want to continue the fine tradition within Arizona of working together to solve these water challenges we face, and that means starting now to adapt to a changing future.”

There are clear signs that water resources are under immense stress in the United States and the Southwest. In Arizona, groundwater is pumped faster than it can be replenished, creating a disproportional allocation of water to this generation from the next. On the Colorado River, more than 10 years of drought conditions have reduced reservoir levels at Lake Mead by more than 120 feet, leaving it half-full. And, in our state’s remaining running rivers, drought conditions have made waters supplies uneven, threatening fish, wildlife and riparian areas.

“We have grappled with, talked about, studied and measured our state’s water supply challenges for too long; we must take action now,” said Carolyn Allen, a former state Senator and chair of the House Environment Committee, and current Vice Chair of the Grand Canyon Institute. “We must aggressively take the appropriate steps today to protect the future for our children; the alternative, given the consequences, is not acceptable.”

The report’s five recommendations are:

1. Arizona needs to maximize its sustainable water resources, especially reclaimed water. The Legislature should direct Arizona’s water agencies that reclaimed water be used for all purposes for which ADEQ believes it safe and where it is physically possible to do so.

2. Arizona’s water customers need better information on water use and pricing of wasteful water consumption. The Legislature should require Arizona water providers to issue detailed information to customers on water use, and clear pricing for each block of water used. Those water providers within Active Management Areas (AMAs) should be required to implement tiered rate pricing including a category of water use that is excessive or wasteful, with appropriate rates to discourage excessive use.

3. Arizona needs to simplify its surface water laws for environmental purposes. The legislature should create a commission to investigate Arizona’s surface water legal framework and provide recommendations for any changes that will provide greater flexibility in securing in-stream flow and riparian water rights. Such a commission would be well-served chaired by the Salt River Project and the Nature Conservancy.

4. Arizona needs innovative, market-based approaches to water management. The Legislature should create a commission to investigate market-based approaches to water allocation within the state and make recommendations concerning any needed changes in Arizona law.

5. Arizona needs a statewide financing mechanism for water acquisition and infrastructure. The Legislature should consider expanding the authorities of the Water Infrastructure Finance Authority to allow for enhanced water acquisition and augmentation or create a new Authority that would have the ability to service all parties, including private parties, in water supply acquisition. The Legislature should consider authorizing a new and sufficient revenue stream to fund water resources infrastructure, including acquisition costs.

“This report not only outlines our risk with water scarcity, but also the critical need to secure our state’s water security, which ensures our population has access to potable water for human consumption,” said George Cunningham, former state legislator, deputy chief of staff for finance and budget for Gov. Janet Napolitano, and chairman of the Grand Canyon Institute. “Water is something we all take for granted; it’s as easy now as turning on the tap. Our report reveals that such a routine reality could become a limited luxury sooner than we might think. Significantly less water will change the very face and function of Arizona.”

For a copy of the background report, go to www.grandcanyoninstitute.org