Water a Continued Priority for 2021
By Warren Tenney
To ensure we have water not only today, but for the long-term, our diligence and work never ends, and 2021 will certainly be no exception. While we know the Colorado River will receive much attention this year, other important issues must also be addressed, including our future groundwater management.
First, let’s talk about the Colorado River, which is a vital water source for Central and Southern Arizona. Already this year, we are seeing news stories about the growing strains on the Colorado River system. The River serves seven Western states but is overallocated, and its health only worsened by two decades of unprecedented, persistent drought. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s projections show that the Colorado River system will likely be in a Tier One shortage beginning in 2022.
With all the continued discussion that will take place on the Colorado River shortage impacts, it is important to remember that a Tier 1 shortage will have no immediate impact on our municipal water supplies. This is due to Arizona’s priority system for water delivered by the Central Arizona Project (CAP), which means our municipal supplies will not be reduced in the early stages of shortage. Plus, the AMWUA cities are fortunate to have diverse water portfolios that include water from the Salt River Project (SRP), reclaimed water, and groundwater in addition to the Colorado River.
The AMWUA cities have long known of and prepared for the possibility of a Colorado River shortage, and they will continue to prepare for deeper shortage impacts in the future. The cities have invested in our infrastructure, water supplies, underground water storage, and conservation programs. Most importantly, we must all understand that a shortage on the Colorado River does not mean a shortage at your tap.
Colorado River supply availability will continue to generate discussion about the need to find another water source, a new bucket of water for Arizona, such as desalination, which is often discussed as an option. While we will continue to look at ways to augment our supplies, including by exploring desalination, our planning for the future should not rely on an expectation that a new bucket of water will magically appear. We have no guarantee of developing a new supply. That is why we continue to make an extra effort to conserve and wisely manage our current water supplies.
Effectively managing our current water resources includes safeguarding the Salt and Verde watersheds, which provide an important water supply for the Valley. Recognizing the critical connection between this valuable water supply and the watershed, SRP, The Nature Conservancy, and others are working to improve and sustain healthy watershed conditions by pursuing forest restoration efforts, which the AMWUA cities support. Also, SRP and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation are exploring mitigation options to address sedimentation in the Verde River reservoir system to ensure the long-term viability of Verde River water for the Valley.
Working within the State’s current water resources includes finding opportunities to work with Tribes who have Colorado River water rights. The Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) is seeking federal legislation that would allow them to lease, exchange, and/or store a portion of their water rights off their reservation in Arizona. This potential legislation should be supported because it would provide the CRIT with the same authority to use their water rights as other water users and Tribes benefiting Arizona in the long run.
Better managing our water also means resolving once and for all the General Stream Adjudication, which has been ongoing in the courts for more than 40 years and is causing uncertainty about water rights in rural Arizona. Having certainty about water always helps our State’s overall economy.
In addition to these issues, being more self-reliant with the water we have means looking at ways to improve our groundwater management. Here in the Valley, groundwater is our cities’ ultimate backup supply to address a prolonged, deep shortage on the Colorado River, if ever needed. This is why it is a positive step forward that the Governor’s Water Augmentation Innovation & Conservation Council is working to address Arizona's groundwater issues, both in urban and rural areas of the State. For the more populated areas of Arizona, this includes evaluating if the 100-year Assured Water Supply Program could provide better consumer protection and considering how to better manage the groundwater pumping that does not require replenishment. As we begin 2021, the Governor’s Water Council must continue its work to pursue strategies to ensure that Arizona has sustainable water supplies, including being vigilant about effectively managing and protecting our groundwater. Once groundwater is used, it is gone forever.
As 2021 unfolds, we need to continue to take good care of all of our water supplies. The Long-Term Water Augmentation Committee of the Governor’s Water Council presented to the Council a report in 2019 that stated: “Our task as Arizonans is to work with the water resources that we have to provide the water needed for continued growth, prosperity, and environmental sustainability.”
To be successful in protecting what we have while striving to develop new supplies, we have to avoid focusing on short-term benefits and quick fixes. We must build on the solid foundation that the 1980 Groundwater Management Act and the 100-year Assured Water Supply Rules provided us. We need to strengthen, not weaken that foundation. Prioritizing sustainable water management has enabled us to thrive here in the desert, and we will continue that legacy through cooperation, planning, and thoughtful policy despite the challenges ahead.
For over 50 years, the 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 information, visit www.amwua.org.