Discussion at an annual state water conference was valuable, but it pointed out just how large is the challenge of planning for the future. The University of Arizona’s Water Resources Research Center brought together leaders involved in a diverse state’s differing situations. One thing much of Arizona has in common, however, is that a dry climate presents problems as more and more people decide to move in.
In 1980 the Legislature, under the leadership of then-Gov. Bruce Babbitt and some farsighted legislators, passed a major groundwater reform law. That has served the state well for four decades, but it mainly deals only with key growth areas in central and southern Arizona. Limits were placed on groundwater pumping as the Central Arizona Project began to import water from the Colorado River.
Agriculture historically had extracted huge amounts of water from the ground, and the CAP replaced much of that with a new source. There was an understanding that much of that agricultural water eventually would be switched to municipal use.
The biggest problem now is that overuse of water is occurring in the far reaches of the state that don’t have the same regulations. Groundwater is being mined by massive farms for crops to be exported. Some western Arizona landowners also have seen an opportunity to transfer water rights elsewhere. In southeastern Arizona, developers have sought pumping that would threaten the habitat of the San Pedro River.
Meanwhile, a chronic drought has caused reductions in CAP water allocations, with more possible. That could lead to more groundwater pumping.
Some advocates have sought to import water to the state, either from the ocean or the Mississippi River watershed, which has a problem with frequent flooding. That certainly could be a long-term solution, but massive federal projects are difficult to do now. At best, that would take years or decades to accomplish.
Meanwhile, the Arizona Department of Water Resources still is affected by budget cuts made during the Great Recession. Now COVID-19 is affecting the state budget again.
The Legislature and governor should seek some big solutions with a statesman-like approach. That will mean serious discussions, setting priorities and avoiding the pull of regional special interests. The state has plenty of experts and leaders interested in this issue, but a major focused effort is needed soon.