Arizona Needs a Strong, Well-Funded Water Department
By Kathleen Ferris
"In the depths of the Great Recession, the hardest hit state agency was the Department of Water Resources. A wealth of institutional knowledge, vital to maintaining Arizona's relative position with other states in competition for precious water supplies, was lost. . . . Lawmakers need to take this critical agency more seriously. And that means with a wider-open pocketbook."
- Arizona Republic, January 3, 2015
By Kathleen Ferris
It is time for the business community, all water interests and anyone who cares about Arizona to add their voices to the chorus calling for increased state funding for the Department of Water Resources. The reason is simple. The economy.
Water is essential for every aspect of our economy—agricultural production, copper mining, power generation, attracting industries with high paying jobs, and meeting the needs of homes, schools, hotels and hospitals. Without sustainable water supplies, our economic growth will come to a screeching halt. The Department of Water Resources is the state agency charged with helping to ensure that catastrophe does not happen.
The Arizona legislature has given the Department the mandate to prosecute and defend Arizona’s rights to Colorado River water, develop and implement plans to prevent depletion of critical groundwater supplies, determine whether new subdivisions have a 100-year assured water supply, ensure that new groundwater wells do not impact other pumpers, and permit projects to recharge our groundwater supplies. The Department is also supposed to provide planning assistance, especially to rural areas, whose water supplies are far less reliable than the major metropolitan areas. On top of all this, the Department is the major gatherer of data on stream flows and groundwater levels, so critical to understanding our current water situation and to plan for shortages.
In 2008, the Department received over $22 million from the state’s coffers. By 2014, that funding had dropped to about $12 million, and the Department's staff had been slashed by 40 percent. Lack of funding is seriously hampering the Department’s ability to do its job. And ultimately that will affect all of us. Consider the following:
- The Department is responsible for critical negotiations with the other Colorado River Basin states, and for working on important international water issues with Mexico. To be effective on our behalf, it needs adequate staffing for research, along with the manpower necessary when important deliberations are occurring simultaneously on these and other top-level issues. If we shortchange the Department, we shortchange ourselves.
- The 1980 Groundwater Management Act requires the Department to develop a series of management plans to reduce the major metropolitan areas’ reliance on groundwater, thereby protecting our groundwater resources for emergencies. The fourth management plans—for the period 2010 to 2020—were supposed to be proposed by January 1, 2008. But the Department has yet to propose management plans for the Phoenix, Pinal and Tucson areas because 3 people are trying to do the work that used to be done by 40.
- Water managers report that approval times for permits for new wells and underground storage projects are nearly twice what they once were.
- Many rural areas of the state are seeing the alarming depletion of the their groundwater supplies, but the Department has limited ability to help local leaders find solutions to their water supply problems.
- The Department is unable to compete in the salary market, restricting its ability to fill key positions and retain talent. Dedicated employees shoulder too great a burden.
Arizona’s daily paper of record is not alone in calling for more funding for the Department of Water Resources. Working with a broad range of water experts, the Kyl Center for Water Policy at ASU’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy has prioritized increased funding for the Department as an action item to be tackled in 2015. Former Senator Jon Kyl, a long-time expert on water matters, understands the critical need for an adequately funded Department.
Last December, the AMWUA Board of Directors sent a letter to Governor Ducey requesting his support for increased general fund appropriations for the Department.
The Department does a remarkable job with inadequate resources, but it is stretched to the breaking point. It is time for the state to re-invest in this crucially important agency, which is tasked with defending and managing our most precious resource. This is a small price to pay for our continued economic prosperity, and is even more essential in this time of drought. When it comes to water, Arizona cannot afford to gamble with its future.
For 45 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.