Arizona fends off threats to water supplies

Republican Gov. Doug Ducey is sticking by regulations and negotiating deals.

 

In 1980, Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt helped a water revolution blossom amid the state’s unnaturally verdant lawns by signing the Groundwater Management Act, which mandated that communities pump no more water from aquifers than they put back in. Today, the state’s 6.8 million residents collectively consume less water than their 2.8 million predecessors did in 1980. 

Now, the tough-minded sense of shared sacrifice that helped push that law through has returned, under conservative Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, who recently vetoed legislation that would have rolled back some of the groundwater restrictions. Meanwhile, his staff has negotiated a possible three-state agreement to protect the Colorado River from a disastrous shortage.  

 “It’s a good sign that the governor decided he was going to speak on water,” says Kathleen Ferris, a longtime water-politics player who, until recently, ran the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association. “We haven’t had a governor engaged like that on water since Babbitt.”

Arizona’s recent sturm und drang over water has two immediate causes. One is the $3.5 billion Central Arizona Project, or CAP, which brings Colorado River water into the state’s parched midsection. Supplying about 40 percent of Arizona’s water supply, it’s helped the state meet the 1980 act’s requirements by reducing its dependence on groundwater. The other is the planned 7,000-home Tribute development in Sierra Vista in the state’s southeast corner. Backers see it as a boon to a lagging economy, but critics say it would strangle the already-imperiled San Pedro River.

The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, outside Sierra Vista, Arizona, the town where 7,000 new homes are planned.
Bureau of Land Management

This May, Lake Mead, where CAP water is stored, fell to its lowest level in history –– 1,074.09 feet and sinking, compared to 1,220 feet in 1999. Yet critics have said the state has dragged its feet, even as scientists’ warnings about water shortages have grown more urgent. In the past year, particularly, Arizona’s leaders were criticized for being too complacent.

That complacency is now evaporating like water from a desert pothole. In late April, Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke told reporters that state officials had negotiated a historic Colorado River agreement with California and Nevada — committing Arizona to deep cutbacks in Central Arizona Project deliveries, just to keep Mead alive.

Under the proposed agreement, which all three states must approve, farms, cities and tribes using CAP water would see small cuts possibly as soon as next year, and cuts of up to 40 percent later.

Then, in May, Gov. Ducey, the man who appointed Buschatzke, vetoed two bills that would have weakened the 1980 groundwater law, which requires urban-area developers to prove they have a 100-year water supply before building new homes. While the law has a loophole for far-flung suburban development, it encouraged cities in the Phoenix and Tucson areas to use renewable CAP supplies and treated sewage effluent rather than pumping groundwater.

The vetoed bills would have weakened a recent expansion of the 100-year rule that allows rural county governments to extend the requirement to cities within their boundaries. One bill would have allowed cities to opt out, while the other would have sunsetted the counties’ rules after five years, forcing county governments to readopt them.

The Tribute project, which triggered the two bills, lies in Cochise County, one of two counties to opt into the groundwater rules. Developers had obtained a 100-year supply certification, but a state Superior Court judge overturned it after opponents, including the Bureau of Land Management, charged that the massive project’s groundwater pumping would dry up the San Pedro, damaging federal water rights.

The bills’ backers, who said they wanted to allow Sierra Vista to control its own growth without federal “interference,” argued that the legislation’s  failure could drastically crimp future growth. David Godlewski, president of the Southern Arizona Homebuilders Association, says construction in Sierra Vista has already nearly stopped, thanks to an economic slump.

But there is no immediate concern about a statewide water crisis if the proposed Colorado River agreement goes through. The state and cities have recharged nearly three years’ worth of CAP water into the ground over the past 15 years, so officials say they’re prepared for cuts in the short term. Without those cuts, a water crisis looms, officials say: Mead could drop to 995 feet by 2023, triggering a 75 percent cut in CAP deliveries.

The willingness to make hard choices has allowed the state to manage its water without a serious crisis since Babbitt’s day, according to Buschatzke. It’s also led to a two-tier system of water management, which is strong in and around cities, but much weaker in the hinterlands. In consequence, the water table has risen or stabilized in many urban areas, while it has fallen in the countryside. The Colorado River agreement and Ducey’s vetoes will preserve this tiered system, at least until 2026, when the proposed agreement runs out and would have to be renegotiated.

“We’re not going to allow bills that get in the way of the 1980 Groundwater Management Act,” says Ducey, “or take away from the work of the people that have come before in protecting Arizona’s water.”

Tony Davis writes for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    -The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region- The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful, complex, diverse,...
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    Position will remain open until January 31, 2021 Join Our Team! The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit land trust organization dedicated to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...