After Colorado River Drought Plan, What's Next for Water in Arizona?

The Salt River, in Arizona.
The Salt River, in Arizona. Alan Stark via Flickr
Even though the roller-coaster negotiations over the Drought Contingency Plan have finally come to an end, Arizona's water problems, which are far more complex than just a Colorado River shortage, are not over.

To Cynthia Campbell, they never will be, because managing water in a desert is a never-ending, ever-evolving task, both in cities and throughout the state.

"We're sitting in the middle of the desert, trying to grow a city. Which defies logic, for many people," said Campbell, the water resource management adviser for the city of Phoenix. But whatever people think about the sensibility of cities in deserts, she said, the city is responsible for securing diverse supplies of water and ensuring it can move that water wherever it needs to go.

Congress passed an historic Colorado River drought deal on Monday, which is now on its way to President Trump’s desk for his signature. That leaves Arizona back to wrestling with water issues that it mostly set aside during the two years it fixated on the negotiations for the Colorado River deal.

Even in actively managed regions of the state, water is pumped from aquifers at a rate faster than it seeps back underground, experts say. Conserving water remains a touchy topic, and one that people are reluctant to discuss, much less implement. Cities are trying to build infrastructure that can quickly adapt to fluctuations in water supply in an unpredictable, changing climate. Environmentalists fear that the state isn't managing its water holistically or sustainably, with a long-term perspective.

With the pending shortages on the Colorado River, the state’s largest city needs to build more infrastructure, like water mains and pumps to ensure that north Phoenix, the area most dependent on the Colorado River, will have enough water when cuts to Arizona's supply of that water kick in, most likely no sooner than 2021. In January, the city secured a 12 percent water rate increase to fund $1.5 billion of that infrastructure.

The city also needs to prepare for "significant fluctuations of available Colorado River water within the state," Campbell said. Projections of the amount of water Arizona can take from the river could change constantly in the future, by as much as half a million acre-feet (an acre-foot is about half an Olympic swimming pool's worth of water) from year to year, she said, and infrastructure has to be able to accommodate a wide range of supply scenarios.

If Arizona loses all of its Colorado River water, from which Phoenix gets about 40 percent of its water, the city will have to turn to other sources: the Salt and Verde Rivers, water previously stored underground for times of shortage, and, someday, recycled water. The groundwater it pumps could be contaminated with nitrate and arsenic, which are naturally occurring, or with other chemicals from Phoenix's several toxic plumes.

Those contaminants can be removed from the water through treatment, but it's expensive. "It just pushes the cost of water up," Campbell said.

Overall, cities have to build systems that are nimble, a word she used repeatedly.

"The name of the game with climate change is not so much focusing on one result, but focusing in on the difficulty in anticipating the result," said Campbell. "It's all just a constant adaptation to be able to be ready for the next kind of curveball that Mother Nature's going to throw at us."

To Kathy Ferris, a former director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources and an architect of the state's 1980 Groundwater Management Act, Arizona needs to get back to taking care of its groundwater, whose management she said was "sidelined" during Drought Contingency Plan negotiations.

"It's always about bringing in water from someplace else." - Sandy Bahr, the Sierra Club

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Arizona has three Active Management Areas where the goal is for people to pump only as much groundwater as flows back underground, a balance known as safe yield, by 2025. Nearly 40 years after the Groundwater Management Act passed, not one of those areas has reached that equilibrium, and Ferris feared that the current Arizona Department of Water Resources is too understaffed and underfunded to achieve that goal.

In January, a report by the Arizona auditor general's office found that the Department of Water Resources, which was gutted by the 2008 recession, lagged by a decade in key aspects of groundwater management. In an interview in February, Director Tom Buschatzke blamed drought planning, at least in part, for the delay.

"The focus on the Drought Contingency Plan process definitely took up bandwidth within the department," he said.

Now that the process is over, Ferris would like to see the state devote fresh attention to how groundwater is used — and for the department to get up to date on who is using the groundwater each area actually has. The 1980 law grandfathered in the rights to pump groundwater for some people, who are still drawing on that supply, because "there's no way to force them not to pump," she said.

Instead, water managers are focused on finding new supplies of water, not rethinking where water currently goes. Now, about 70 percent goes to farmers, who are heavy users.

”That seems to them to be easier than dealing with existing uses of water," Ferris said.

Overpumping Arizona's groundwater, and the state's lack of attention to how water is used, also looks like a problem to Sandy Bahr, the director of the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club. She faulted the Drought Contingency Plan for its blinkered focus on the Colorado River and for taking Arizona down the path of increased groundwater pumping in order to compensate for the loss of Colorado River water.

Absent from the Drought Contingency Plan negotiations, she added, was a broader, more inclusive discussion about all of Arizona's water supplies — all of its rivers and groundwater, and the connection between the two — and what they're used for. 

The 2019 Arizona legislative session, she pointed out, saw numerous bills that sought to loosen restrictions on groundwater pumping. Although those bills have died, they could come back during next year's session, and they indicated more broadly the state's preference for augmenting water supplies, even if that meant drawing on a finite supply like groundwater, rather than amending current uses to be more sustainable.

"That means looking at what's going on with our other rivers, looking at what's happening relative to climate change and what's projected to occur, and acknowledging it and making that part of our plans," Bahr said. The state needed to evaluate measures that would require farmers and developers to conserve water, she added, before jumping to finding new sources of water through extreme measures like desalination.

"It's always about bringing in water from someplace else," Bahr said of Arizona's water management policies. "It's a way not to live within your means."
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Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.