Groundwater in Arizona: Past, Present, and Future - Part Three
By Warren Tenney
This year we celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Groundwater Management Act. Through this three-part series on groundwater, we will look back at the past, acknowledge how far we have come, and discuss the challenges and the groundwater pumping concerns we still collectively face.
Groundwater: The Growing Challenges
With groundwater being one of our most valuable resources, Arizona has taken efforts to better protect it for decades by utilizing strong water management to safeguard it for the future when we may need it most.
Through the Groundwater Management Act (GMA) and all the foundational achievements that have followed, Arizona is in a strong position for managing its water. Yet, we must remain vigilant to strengthen, not weaken, this foundation as we move into a drier future that will include a variety of challenges such as drought, shortages on the Colorado River system, and declining groundwater levels. Leaders across Arizona must continue to play a vital role to continue to protect our groundwater to ensure our State’s stability and longevity for the long-term.
The creation of the Governor’s Water Augmentation, Innovation & Conservation Council, which was formed in January 2019 by executive order, is a step in the right direction. The Governor’s Water Council has created four committees to focus on - how to augment new water supplies, desalination, how to address groundwater issues in rural Non-Active Management Areas (Non-AMAs), and how the State would continue to manage groundwater within the five Active Management Areas (AMAs) after 2025. Water management after 2025 is also the focus of the AMWUA cities as they look to identify strategies to continue their sound water management for future decades.
More specific areas of focus for the cities to ensure we continue to build upon the Groundwater Management Code include the following:
The Groundwater Code has significantly helped to reduce groundwater pumping from aquifers that supply water to the more highly populated centers within Central and Southern Arizona.
While our aquifers are doing well overall, we still need to look for ways to improve our water management laws and policies to ensure our aquifers are resilient to stressors like surface water shortages and population growth. This means we need to have a better understanding of the amount of groundwater pumping allowed and exempt from being replenished. Also, the physical disconnect between where water can be stored and subsequently pumped is one example of a management policy that could be improved.
Strategic Aquifer Protection
The GMA created the AMAs to oversee the groundwater within those highly populated boundaries, and since its enactment 40 years, there has been a growing recognition that we need to better protect and plan for local aquifers within the AMAs. For example, the water that is withdrawn from an aquifer within an AMA must be replaced with an equivalent amount of renewable water. The law includes a system of credit accounting whereby users can pump water in one location in exchange for other water that was recharged or stored in another location. As progressive and beneficial as the system is, its flexibility ignores the fact that water flows very slowly both horizontally and vertically between aquifers. In other words, the aquifer system is not one giant bathtub
This disconnect between storage and recovery is one example of the complex challenges to improve how we manage groundwater. AMWUA believes the aquifers serving its members are in good health but by strategically improving local aquifers it better prepares us for an increasing population, pending surface water shortages, and the long-term sustainability of groundwater resources.
Diverse and Renewable Water Supplies
The GMA, through the Assured Water Supply Program, requires that renewable supplies be used to help reduce the amount of groundwater pumping as there is only a finite supply. That is why the AMWUA cities have planned and invested in having diverse water portfolios which have reduced their reliance on groundwater and enables them to be better prepared for the long-term as well as any short-term challenges that may arise.
In Arizona, there is no silver bullet that will bring a new unlimited water supply so protecting our current supplies of water is imperative. The best option for long-term water augmentation is to focus on how we manage it through improvements to agricultural water conservation, municipal water conservation, enhancing aquifer storage, and utilizing reclaimed water. Arizona has been a leader in all four of these areas and more can be done to maximize the value of the water we already have. Enhancing, bolstering, and extending our current water sources will require substantial investment in new wells to recover stored water, treatment technology, and additional infrastructure.
Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District (CAGRD)
The CAGRD meets the Assured Water Supply requirements for developments that do not have access to a renewable water supply. The CAGRD does this by replenishing the groundwater pumped by the homes within that development. Having sufficient supplies of renewable water to meet future replenishment obligations will only be exacerbated since the CAGRD cannot turn anyone away from enrolling even though new renewable supplies are hard to find. The CAGRD must acquire the water necessary to meet the long-term growth of its obligation to replace pumped groundwater. Recent efforts to purchase water from Colorado River users have faced strong resistance. Also, access to excess Colorado River supplies will be drastically reduced as we encounter shortages.
These issues with the CAGRD highlights a broader discussion about the need to sustain and protect our water portfolios to ensure everyone has a secure water supply now and into the future.
Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR)
For 40 years, ADWR has worked to ensure that Arizona has the water it needs for the health and welfare of its citizens and economic growth. These efforts were jeopardized during the recession when budget cuts decimated the Department's staff by two-thirds. While the Governor and the State Legislature wisely restored some of the Department's funding, more is needed to make certain that this indispensable agency has and can retain the highly trained staff required to carry out its mandates including:
- Develop and implement plans to prevent the depletion of groundwater supplies.
- Determine whether new subdivisions have a 100-year assured water supply.
- Ensure that new groundwater wells do not impact existing wells.
- Issue permits for projects that help restore our groundwater supplies.
- Provide planning assistance to communities where water supplies are less reliable than in major metropolitan areas.
- Collect data about stream flows and groundwater levels, which is indispensable to understanding our current water situation and to plan for shortages.
Moving forward there are challenges, yet we have come a long way since the passage of the GMA 40 years ago. The GMA has enabled us to better protect our groundwater, by requiring the use of renewable water supplies, and most importantly it laid a solid foundation of water management on which we must continue to build upon. Collectively we need to keep groundwater as an available water source for when we may need it most. We must continue to utilize alternative and renewable water sources, like surface water supplies, and continue to explore innovative ways to ensure reclaimed water is being utilized to its full potential. We need to address the groundwater issues in all areas of the State and collaboration remains the key for us to continue to be successful.
The leaders who were instrumental in developing the 1980 GMA provided a detailed road map for a strong water future in Arizona. Now it’s time for us to be the next generation of leaders to establish a long-term plan to strengthen what has been built, not weaken it. This will ensure we achieve the sustainability we continually and collectively strive for.
This is the third blog in a three-part series on groundwater as we aim to explain its importance, celebrate the accomplishments of the 1980 Groundwater Management Act and discuss growing concerns over groundwater depletion in Arizona.
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