Arizona Continues its Legacy of Confronting Water Challenges Head-on
By Warren Tenney
Arizona's water management successes over the last 40 years are due to the willingness of its stakeholders to face challenges, make difficult discussions, and develop strategies and policies to ensure its water future.
Arizona is continuing that legacy through the Governor's Water Augmentation, Innovation & Conservation Council (Governor's Water Council), formed in January 2019 by executive order. Last week, the Governor's Water Council received a comprehensive update from its committee that has been tasked with identifying challenges to water management within the five Active Management Areas (AMAs) beyond 2025 and then generating strategies and solutions to address those challenges.
Created under the 1980 Groundwater Management Act, the Phoenix, Tucson, Pinal, Prescott, and Santa Cruz Active Management Areas are specific regions where the overwhelming majority of Arizonans live and where water-users are subject to a more stringent set of rules and regulations than the rest of the State for conserving, protecting and allocating the use of groundwater.
Since 1980, we have made progress in reducing groundwater reliance while still having a thriving economy. Yet, challenges remain and are expected to grow in the future. In many areas, the imbalance between available water supplies and demand will inevitably drive additional groundwater declines, particularly with increasing pressure on the State's other renewable water supplies due to shortages, drought, and growing demand.
The Post-2025 AMAs Committee of the Water Council worked for a year and a half to identify and document the challenges we should address within the AMAs as 2025 approaches. With an initial timeframe spanning 1980 to 2025, the Groundwater Management Act and its provisions remain in place after 2025. Still, the statutes do not specify how to improve water management in the AMAs after that year. The framers of the 1980 Groundwater Management Act set the milestone of 2025 because they knew that managing our water resources is never done. So rather than rest on our laurels or assume the status quo is sufficient for the future, the Committee has been working on setting an equally successful trajectory for the future as that milestone approaches.
This past year, the Post-2025 AMAs Committee continued to work virtually. Committee meetings had over 100 attendees representing a wide spectrum of water stakeholders. Through virtual discussions and written comments, stakeholder engagement brought an increased understanding of each other's perspectives and provided an overall understanding of the six issues identified and documented by the Committee.
The identified issues are not necessarily new, as some have been discussed for decades. With 40 years of experience since the Groundwater Management Act was adopted, we are well equipped to further discuss these water management issues beyond 2025. Identifying these six issues shows that Arizona is willing to grapple with and not ignore these difficult, complex subjects to improve overall water management in the AMAs.
The Committee has provided a foundational understanding of water management in the AMAs as 2025 approaches by documenting these issues. This has been a foundation from which the Committee will begin to develop potential solutions or strategies to address these interrelated challenges. While identifying and documenting six issues, the Post-2025 AMAs Committee recognizes these challenges are highly interconnected and will need to be considered together when looking at potential strategies and solutions, which could very well cover several of the topics.
The Post-2025 Committee's full report describing the identified issues in the AMAs can be found HERE. The six issues identified by the Committee and summarized for the GWAICC are as follows:
1. Hydrologic Disconnect: This issue describes when recharge or groundwater pumping occurs in one part of an AMA and recovery or replenishment takes place in another part of the AMA. While legally permitted under State law, these practices create a hydrologic disconnect that has long been recognized as having the potential to create or worsen localized groundwater depletion in the long term.
2. Exempt Wells: The proliferation of exempt wells (those wells that withdraw less than 35 gallons per minute), particularly in the Prescott AMA, lead to long-term concerns as to the groundwater impacts, the overall water management approach in the Prescott AMA, and the AMA's ability to meet its management goal of safe-yield.
3. Unreplenished Groundwater Withdrawals: This issue refers to groundwater that is legally withdrawn without the requirement or obligation to artificially replenish or replace the volume of water pumped. As unreplenished withdrawals continue within each water-using sector, strategies may be required to mitigate the impacts of unreplenished pumping that become more critical with each passing year.
4. Groundwater in the Assured Water Supply Program: This issue notes that large parts of the AMAs remain groundwater-dependent due to a lack of renewable water supplies and infrastructure. In addition, entities that must comply with the Assured Water Supply Program may also continue to utilize groundwater, with some limitations and requirements. Groundwater withdrawals by all sectors impact the ability of new Assured Water Supply applicants to demonstrate physical availability of groundwater and also create uncertainties for groundwater-dependent water providers as those supplies become more limited.
5. CAGRD Replenishment and Water Supplies: The Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District (CAGRD), which is a responsibility of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD), provides a mechanism to demonstrate consistency with AMA management goals by acquiring and replenishing the groundwater used by its members. The CAGRD and its members face long-term uncertainties related to the availability and costs of renewable supplies for replenishment. By understanding its unique circumstances, this issue seeks to encourage the development of strategies to mitigate those uncertainties to improve the CAGRD's long-term viability and maintain its role in groundwater management in the AMAs.
6. AMA Management Structure: While the Groundwater Management Act, its requirements, and the conservation requirements adopted in the Fifth Management Plans will remain in place beyond 2025, this issue describes that there are no statutory provisions for defined management periods beyond 2025 nor for ADWR to produce additional AMA management plans. It will be critical to clarify whether the AMA management goals, the 10-year management period cycle, and the management plans are appropriate and should be carried forward after 2025.
Overall, the Committee's initial stage to identify and document these issues has increased our collective understanding and provides an opportunity to better grapple with improving water management in the AMAs. Efforts like these are a positive step for Arizona as we continue to look ahead, address our challenges, and continue our legacy of water stewardship.
For over 50 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities' ability to provide assured, safe, and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information, visit www.amwua.org.
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