You may be reading this newspaper outside on a pleasant patio or porch after sleeping under a light blanket or two.
Today is forecast to be our 14th consecutive day with a high temperature above 80 degrees. Meteorologists say the unprecedented February warmth should continue all week.
It’s hard not to enjoy this beautiful weather, but the balmy days also should serve as a reminder that the climate is warming and drying. As a result we have to change our way of dealing with water.
We do need the reminder. Arizona, you see, is in a bit of a self-satisfied mood when it comes to discussing water management.
“It’s often misreported that there is a ‘Western Water Crisis,’ but the facts show, we’d be more accurate to call it a ‘California Water Crisis,’” Gov. Doug Ducey said in his state of the state speech last month. “If there’s one thing Arizona is best in the nation at, it’s water.”
On Friday morning in Phoenix, members of his new Governor’s Water Augmentation Council met for the first time. Their opening remarks reflected some self-satisfaction over how well each industry and water utility is doing at conservation.
“You can only conserve so much,” member Mark Smith, president of the Yuma Irrigation District, told the council.
Indeed, farmers in that county have adopted numerous technologies to make the most efficient and productive use of water, Smith explained to me later. They have lasers to level their fields, packed furrows, sprinklers for germinating crops and gated pipes for irrigating them.
Yet it’s also clear that, as the climate warms, existing conservation measures are not going to be enough. Not only do we have to improve on what we’ve already done, but we have to avoid the persistent temptation — present in the Legislature right now — to backslide on the measures we’ve already taken.
A study came out last week, co-authored by UA hydrologist Thomas Meixner, analyzing the effects of the warming climate on aquifers in the western U.S., as my colleague Tony Davis reported Saturday. It’s complicated science, but as Meixner explained, a key lesson of the study is simple: “The wet get wetter and the dry get drier.”
North of a line from about Denver to San Francisco, the warming climate is likely to be wetter and is unlikely to lower groundwater levels, Meixner said. South of that line, though, we’re in trouble. The warmer, drier climate will mean less water flowing back into the aquifers.
The aquifers in the southern half of the West covered by the study — the vulnerable ones — were Death Valley, California’s Central Valley, the Southern High Plains and Southern Arizona’s San Pedro.
“These are all areas where there’s significantly more groundwater pumping than recharge,” Meixner said. “Climate change is likely to exacerbate the problems associated with increased groundwater pumping.”
Yet there is no broad effort to reduce groundwater pumping outside of the state’s five “active management areas” — Prescott, Phoenix, Pinal, Tucson and Santa Cruz. In four of those five — all but Pinal — the goal is to reach or maintain a “safe yield” condition, in which no more water is being pumped out than is also pumped in.
Outside of those management areas, generally speaking, landowners can pump groundwater to their hearts’ content. They are limited mainly by the cost of digging wells deep enough to reach the water as it sinks.
“Even though we think we don’t have much water, compared to California and other parts of the world, Arizona has water that’s there for the asking,” said Robert Glennon, a UA law school professor and expert on water law. “There’s virtually no regulation of water in rural Arizona.”
That’s drawn many out-of-state investors into Cochise County, as Arizona Public Media showed in a four-part series last month about the county’s “land rush.” They’re rushing in to grow crops and plant orchards of pecans and pistachios, or just to buy up water rights as an investment or hedge. The tree crops do suggest a long-term commitment, but of course the investors can bail out as soon as the water level retreats too deep into the earth.
Residents of Bowie, in northern Cochise County, got a taste of that scary future last summer when the local water wells ran dry. Overpumping of groundwater had driven it too deep. Now the small water service is faced with making huge investments in order to drill deep enough to have dependable service again.
As these experiences spread in rural Arizona, minds seem to be changing about the need for more controls of groundwater pumping, said Grady Gammage Jr., an expert in water law who has worked in development and also is a member of the governor’s new council.
“They see declines in their own well levels, and say maybe there is a need for more regulation,” Gammage told me Friday.
Despite that increasingly evident need, a big push for relaxing Arizona water regulations is coming — from Cochise County, ironically. Sen. Gail Griffin, a Sierra Vista-area Republican, has introduced two bills, SB 1268 and SB 1400, that would weaken the ability of counties outside the state’s Active Management Areas to require that new subdivisions show proof of adequate water supplies.
Two counties, Cochise and Yuma, have passed requirements that new developments prove they have a 100-year supply, similar to the requirements in Arizona’s urban areas. But Griffin’s proposals would allow cities in those counties to opt out of the requirement. The bills would also require counties to vote again on these requirements every five years — and pass them unanimously, likely an insurmountable threshold in most counties.
Griffin did not return my call or email seeking an explanation, but everyone with knowledge of the situation says Griffin’s main aim is to help a huge proposed development called Tribute in Sierra Vista. It would have almost 7,000 homes at full build-out but has been held up by a lawsuit over its water supply.
The Arizona Department of Water Resources certified that the developers had proved they have an adequate supply, but the federal government, which owns surface water rights in the San Pedro, and environmental groups sued. A court overturned the certification.
Griffin’s bills would void the requirement that is stopping the development and undermine the lawsuit. They could also help Villages at Vigneto, a gigantic planned development in Benson — also in Cochise County — that could have up to 28,000 homes.
Of course, while easing the progress of these specific developments, Griffin’s bills would remove increasingly necessary protections for farmers, homeowners and homebuyers in Cochise County and around rural Arizona, who need real assurances of future water supplies.
This is the exact opposite direction that Arizona needs to go.
The dropping groundwater levels, the land-and-water rushes, and the warming climate show we need to move toward stronger conservation measures and greater protections of groundwater. These beautiful, warm February days are no time for self-satisfaction.