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
  • TROUT UNLIMITED NORTH IDAHO FIELD COORDINATOR
    The field coordinator will work with TU members, other fishing organizations, community leaders, businesses and elected officials to build support for actions necessary to recover...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    New Mexico Land Conservancy (Santa Fe, NM), Stewardship Coordinator - Seeking highly motivated individual with excellent interpersonal skills to coordinate stewardship activities and support conservation...
  • 40-ACRE LAMBORN MOUNTAIN RETREAT, PAONIA, CO
    One-of-a-kind gem borders public lands/West Elk Wilderness. Privacy, creek, spring, irrigation, access. $270,000. Info at https://hcne.ws/LambornMT or call 970-683-0588 or 970-261-5928.
  • RECRUITMENT & HIRING MANAGER WITH WRA
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a dynamic, organized, and creative person with great people skills to be our Recruitment & Hiring Manager to recruit...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ATTORNEY (NM) AND POLICY ASSOCIATE/ANALYST (AZ & NV)
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is looking for a variety of positions around the West with our Clean Energy Program. Currently we are hiring a Staff...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, HAWKWATCH INTERNATIONAL
    We are seeking an experienced dynamic leader for a growing conservation organization; $65,000-75,000 salary plus benefits; job description and apply at hawkwatch.org/executivedirector
  • FRIENDS OF THE INYO IS HIRING FOR THE SUMMER OF 2019
    Friends of the Inyo is excited to post our seasonal job offerings for the summer of 2019! We are hiring Trail Ambassadors, Stewardship Crew Members,...
  • DONOR RELATIONS MANAGER
    This position is responsible for the identification and qualification of major and planned gift prospects and assists in cultivating and soliciting donors through meetings, trips,...
  • STREAMFLOW RESTORATION IMPLEMENTATION LEAD (ENVIRONMENTAL PLANNER 4)
    Keeping Washington Clean and Evergreen Protecting Washington State's environment for current and future generations is what we do every day at Ecology. We are a...
  • SENIOR STORMWATER ENGINEER (ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEER 5)
    Keeping Washington Clean and Evergreen Our Water Quality Program is looking to hire a Senior Stormwater Engineer at our Headquarters building in Lacey, WA This...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have leadership abilities, experience with rural land protection,...
  • MAJOR GIFT OFFICER
    University of Wyoming Foundation Haub School of ENR, Biodiversity Institute, Environmental/Natural Resource Programs https://uwyo.taleo.net/careersection/00_ex/jobdetail.ftl?job=19001001&tz=GMT-06:00
  • MONTANA LAND STEWARD
    The Montana Land Steward develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans, and methods related to TNC's property interest portfolio in Montana. For more information and...
  • RAISER'S EDGE DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR
    POSITION DESCRIPTION: RAISER'S EDGE DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR The Raiser's Edge Database Administrator ensures the integrity and effectiveness of the member/donor database by developing systems and processes...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    We are hiring a Director of Development Full time, competitive pay and benefits. Location: Bozeman,MT Visit www.greateryellowstone.org/careers for details GYC is an equal opportunity employer
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, KANIKSU LAND TRUST
    Kaniksu Land Trust, a community-supported non-profit land trust serving north Idaho and northwest Montana, is in search of a new executive director. The ideal candidate...
  • 3 POSITIONS: ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR, DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR, AND FOREST PROGRAMS ASSOCIATE
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) in Durango and Silverton, CO is hiring 3 staff: Please visit mountainstudies.org/careers for Assoc Director, Dev and Engagement Director, and Forest...
  • CENTER FOR COLLABORATIVE CONSERVATION DIRECTOR, COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY
    The Center for Collaborative Conservation is hiring a full-time, permanent Director. Applications are due on March 31. Description can be found at http://jobs.colostate.edu/postings/65118 No phone...
  • CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER/DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Friends of Cedar Mesa seeks a skilled non-profit leader to play a crucial role in protecting the greater Bears Ears landscape. Experience working with government...
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    Clean off, cool off & drink. Multiple spray patterns. Better than you imagine. Try it.