One seldom sees the words “Arizona” and “progressive” in the same sentence. But when it comes to water, Arizona has often been at the cutting edge of legal and policy reform.
An arid climate, surging population and declining groundwater tables drove Arizona to be creative.
Innovation 1: Slow groundwater use
The 1980 Arizona Groundwater Management Act banned the drilling of new wells in areas of the state suffering the greatest water table declines and required developers and municipalities to show that they have an “assured water supply” before they receive permits to break ground for new projects.
Innovation 2: Store unused water
During years when Arizona’s cities and farmers do not use the state’s entire allotment of Central Arizona Project (CAP) water, Arizona’s Aquifer Storage and Recovery Programs and the Arizona Water Bank cleverly use aquifers to store water for future recovery. Arizona has stored more than 3 million acre-feet of its unused CAP allocation in this way. (An acre-foot is approximately 325,000 gallons.)
Innovation 3: Reuse water
Arizona has been a pioneer in the reuse of water. Before the 1972 Clean Water Act, cities routinely dumped raw sewage into the nation’s rivers. Thanks to the act, by the 1980s the quality of water from treatment plants had improved so dramatically that businesses began to appreciate the economic value of treated water.
A great example is the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Plant, west of Phoenix. The operator agreed to buy treated water from the City of Phoenix to use as cooling water in the plant, which now uses 20 billion gallons per year for this purpose. Today, Arizona reuses more water than almost any other state.
Innovation 4: Use less water
Until recently, whenever I visited Phoenix, I saw water running down the street. Phoenicians love their lawns. Yet, Phoenix has made extraordinary progress in water conservation. The city uses less water now than it did in the 1980s, even though the population has ballooned by hundreds of thousands of people. Tucson has enjoyed similar success.
The conservation toolkit includes:
- Using increasing block rates to price water as a way to reduce consumption;
- Harvesting water off rooftops and parking lots to water gardens and trees;
- Paying homeowners and businesses to rip out lawns; and
- Offering financial incentives to install water-efficient home appliances and irrigation controllers.
Innovation 5: Exchange excess water
Despite these innovative programs, in 2018 Arizona still faces serious water shortages. But recent developments offer fresh examples of the creativity of Arizona lawyers and water managers to craft workable solutions to water shortage problems.
Water exchanges – that is, the substitution of one type of water for another, such as Colorado River water delivered through the CAP for groundwater – have become a reliable tool to solve intractable engineering challenges.
A wonderful example is the Tucson/Phoenix Exchange, crafted in 2017. Tucson Water’s wellfields have twice the capacity to store recharged water as the utility needs. Phoenix, by contrast, has excess CAP water but lacks places to store it.
Phoenix could find places to build recharge basins, but that would be a costly endeavor due to the required distribution network. Tucson Water has already built a substantial distribution network.
Under the Tucson/Phoenix Exchange, some of Phoenix’s CAP allocation will be delivered to Tucson Water, which will recharge it for Phoenix. When Phoenix needs water, the city would take some of Tucson Water’s CAP water from the canal in Phoenix.
Tucson Water would subsequently pump Phoenix’s CAP water stored in Tucson Water’s recharge basins. This exchange saves Phoenix the considerable costs of building a distribution system.
Innovation 6: Settle tribal water claims
Indian Water Rights Settlements offer another example of Arizona’s water management innovation. Federal reserved water rights for Indian tribes with reservations in Arizona pose a huge challenge for the state. Twenty-two federally recognized tribes have legitimate claims to surface water from rivers running through the reservations.
But non-Indians are using most of the water under the prior appropriation doctrine of first-come, first-served, even though many reservations were created before non-Indians began to use the water. The quantification of tribal rights threatens to displace existing users and cause widespread economic dislocation.
Over the last two decades, negotiations have resulted in settlements of many Indian federal reserved rights. Many of these settlements involve water exchanges. A tribe waives its right to surface water from a particular river in exchange for getting Colorado River water delivered through the CAP.
It’s a creative solution to what appeared to be an intractable problem. Thirteen tribes now have settlements that give security to the water rights of both tribes and non-Indians.
The recent past continues Arizona’s remarkable record of innovation and creativity in addressing water shortages. But let’s not pop our suspenders. Some notable failures in water management mar our record.
View this article at: Arizona Republic