A Chance to Focus Inward

Ugly urban sprawl's the problem, not drought. Metro Phoenix has water to support 10 million souls

Development along the Salt greenbelt would also boost property values in our metropolis' inner core, generating an economic windfall for residents of older, economically depressed communities.

The elusive and cool "creative class" would find such an area attractive, especially in and around the downtown sector.

The Army Corps of Engineers, the Maricopa County Flood Control District and several Valley cities are already constructing two restoration projects in the Salt River relying on groundwater, storm water and treated wastewater to restore a low-flow stream and nurture a lush native habitat.

Phoenix is restoring five miles of the Salt River with its Rio Salado project.
City of Phoenix
Phoenix is restoring five miles of the Salt River with its Rio Salado project.

The Rio Salado Project in Phoenix runs from 24th Street to 19th Avenue and is set for public opening next April. Thousands of trees are already growing in and alongside the low-flow channel.

On a recent tour of the project, I saw thousands of "volunteer" trees emerging from the riverbed providing habitat for egrets, red tail hawks, ducks and herons.

Farther west, the Tres Rios Project will restore a section of the river between 83rd and 115th avenues. There are tentative plans to connect these two projects with Rio Salado Oeste.

Maricopa County, meanwhile, is developing a master plan for El Rio Watercourse that would extend from the confluence of the Salt and Gila rivers near 83rd Avenue, 17 miles to the west to just south of Buckeye.

These riverbed restoration efforts should be accelerated and put into place as soon as possible to re-create a sliver of the riparian paradise that once existed here. They could serve as a model for a Valleywide project.

To put into perspective how much water we have, Babbitt recalls a conversation he had a few years ago with a California water official who was amazed at Arizona's vast water resources.

"The guy said to me, 'Arizona's the Saudi Arabia of water.' And I said to him, 'The Saudis will run out of oil, but we won't run out of water.'"

There are three key factors contributing to the abundance of water that (unless there's, um, a sea change in public water policy) is destined to fuel four more decades of sprawl: huge surface-water supplies, tremendous water reserves stored beneath the ground, and nearly a million acres of irrigated farm land.

The Valley lies at the base of one of the most productive watersheds in the world. Rain and snow in the mountains north and east of Phoenix generate an average of a million acre-feet of runoff per year into the Salt and Verde rivers.

This is a stupendous amount of water -- enough to supply the yearly needs of five million people.

The Salt River Project, the state's second largest utility, collects nearly all the runoff behind six dams it operates on the Salt and Verde. When full, these reservoirs store 2.3 million acre-feet of water. Even after nine years of drought, SRP still has 991,000 acre-feet in storage.

This year, the watershed had produced only 335,000 acre-feet of water as of November 30 -- but this is still enough for 1.6 million people.

Central Arizona also benefits from another major water source: the Colorado River. The $5 billion, 336-mile-long Central Arizona Project canal annually brings another 1.5 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado to Phoenix, Pinal County and Tucson.

Using the basic formula of one acre-foot of water (325,851 gallons) meeting the needs of five people per year, that's enough water for 7.5 million folks.

And, once again, despite years of drought, Arizona is still taking its full share of water from the Colorado. In fact, it's taking so much water that four million acre-feet of "excess" water has been stored underground in the past eight years for future extraction.

Yet Arizona's surface-water supplies are nothing when compared to its groundwater reserves.

There are at least 624 million acre-feet of groundwater to a depth of 3,592 feet, according to a 2001 analysis on central Arizona water supplies by Michael R. Moore, a University of Michigan economist, and Stephen P. Holland of the Federal Trade Commission.

Central Arizona's groundwater supplies alone can meet the needs of a metropolis of 10 million people for more than 300 years!

But Arizona need not rely only on groundwater to meet its future needs. Instead, the state could retire a portion of nearly one million acres of farmland to find all the water it needs to keep the population growing at an astounding rate. Nearly 80 percent of the water used in Arizona goes to agriculture while about 10 percent goes to municipalities, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Maricopa, Arizona's largest water-using county, has had a steady decline in total water use between 1990 and 2000, despite its population increasing by 900,000 people to more than three million. How is this possible? Agricultural irrigation fell by 30 percent during this period, freeing up massive water supplies for residential development.

Cities and developers can also turn to Indian tribes for water. The leapfrog community of Anthem, 35 miles north of downtown Phoenix, relies on 10,000 acre-feet of water a year leased from the Ak-Chin Indians.

Last month, Congress put the finishing touches on a comprehensive water bill championed by Arizona Republican Senator Jon Kyl that will have a profound effect on the future of Arizona and its Indian tribes.

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