Arizona isn’t preparing adequately for future climate risks even as it deals well with current problems stemming from climate change, a new report says.
The state got a C- overall grade in the national report done by Climate Central, a nonprofit science and journalism organization based in Princeton, New Jersey. Arizona drew a C+ in preparing for future extreme-heat risks, and a D+ and D-, respectively, in preparing for future drought and wildfire risks.
The report compared all 50 states’ climate-preparedness efforts. Some Arizona officials said it didn’t give Arizona enough credit for some of its current, climate-related planning efforts. Climate Central said it was the lack of long-term planning that concerned it, and that Arizona “has a long way to go.”
All three of these future risks are considered significant, and in some cases, among the worst in the country or well above the national average, the report’s Arizona section said. If the state isn’t prepared enough, “It will cost more to deal with these threats when they happen down the road,” said Richard Wiles, a senior vice president for the group.
“If you prepare now, you can save money or lives,” Wiles said.
“The threats we are looking at are about things that are pretty evident today,” Wiles added. “Look at the extreme heat in the Southwest. Arizona is one of the most-quickly warming states in the lower 48. You’ve seen how that plays out with snowpack melting earlier and a longer wildfire season.”
But officials of the Arizona Department of Water Resources and state forester Jeff Whitney said their agencies have done far more to prepare for drought and wildfire risks than the report gives them credit for. The Arizona Department of Health Services, which deals with health impacts related to extreme heat, didn’t respond to requests from the Star to comment on the report.
In particular, Arizona is believed to be far ahead of the country in its water management. That’s due to its 1980 Groundwater Management Act and to its use of artificial recharge to store 9 million acre-feet of Central Arizona Project water for future shortages.
Part of the disagreement stems from Climate Central’s standards for grading states. The group looked at whether state officials have plans assessing future vulnerability to heat, drought and wildfire, and whether they have published specific plans for adapting to them. In many cases, the answer was no, the group said.
State officials said the group’s criteria didn’t account for their actions.
“In my years at ADWR and in my prior job at the city of Phoenix, I’ve seen groups like this, who, when you don’t have a specific plan labeled ‘climate-change adaptation,’ they sometimes tend to discount the elements you have in place that essentially would be adaptation actions for climate-change impacts,” said Tom Buschatzke, the state water agency’s director.
“No, we don’t have a report that’s titled ‘Climate-Change Risks’ or ‘Climate-Change Adaption Report,’ but we do factor in climate variability as we’re planning for drought,” added Michelle Moreno, a water department spokeswoman.
Kathy Jacobs, a former top state water official who runs a University of Arizona climate research center, agreed the state has a “very advanced” water-management system governing five active management areas in populated areas of Central and Southern Arizona. Arizona is better-prepared than most states to deal with short- and medium-term droughts, said Jacobs, director of UA’s Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions.
But she also took the state to task on several other points, including its lack of programs and regulations governing water use in the rest of the state, “all of which will be affected by these droughts.”
She also noted major budget cuts the Legislature imposed in recent years on the water department. The department’s budget and staff are down from $22.8 million and 236 employees in fiscal year 2007-08 to $15.2 million and 111 employees for fiscal 2015-16.
“You can’t do resilience planning for climate change in the context of no water- management staff,” said Jacobs, former director of the department’s since-shuttered Tucson Active Management Area office. “The entire water-management division was essentially eliminated. There are four people left out of what was 60.”
Spokeswoman Moreno said a recent water initiative launched by Gov. Doug Ducey is adding five staffers to the department.
“While it is true that ADWR’s budget and staffing have been significantly reduced over the years, we have survived and have adopted the lean mindset of maximizing efficiencies,” Moreno said.
Also because of that water initiative, ADWR will initially focus efforts on rural areas, work with those communities to define their water-resource issues and identify strategies to help them meet demand, Moreno said.
Today, Arizona’s drought threat is below-average among 36 states the Climate Central report assessed for drought. But by 2050, Arizona is predicted to experience one of the biggest increases nationally in summer drought, raising its overall threat to above-average, the report said. Arizona’s 2014 drought-
preparedness plan includes a 10-year action plan to safeguard water supplies, in part by settling issues of allocation among neighboring states, the report said.
“But this plan does not account for the effects of climate change, nor is there evidence of dedicated funding, policies or guidelines for addressing future drought resiliency challenges,” the report said.
But Arizona’s requirement for all public water systems serving at least 15 connections or 25 year-round residents to have a drought-management plan is just as valuable for dealing with climate impacts as an adaptation plan, the department’s Buschatzke said. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s 2012 Colorado River Basin study and a separate study that the water department and Arizona State University did for Phoenix’s Salt River Project both looked at potential climate change impacts on water supplies, he said.
As for wildfires, Climate Central noted that Arizona already ranks second nationally in the number of days each year with high wildfire potential, but that the state has taken strong action to prepare for that risk. But by 2050, the number of such days each year is expected to rise from 80 to 115, second only to California, and 2.9 million people will be at risk of being impacted by such fires, the report said.
“Arizona has taken limited action to understand its future wildfire risks, but like most states, it has taken almost no action to plan for or adopt wildfire-related adaptation measures,” the report said.
But in a news release, Whitney said the state is making great strides toward reducing wildfires.
“Unfortunately, the national forests within Arizona’s borders have suffered decades of mismanagement by the federal government,” Whitney said. “Flawed forestry practices and a lack of a timber industry in our state have resulted in forests that are densely overgrown and prone to disease, insect infestation and catastrophic wildfire.”
He pointed to two steps taken by the federal governments to cut wildfire risks: the White Mountain Stewardship program that has thinned smaller trees from more than 49,000 acres in East-Central Arizona’s Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest and the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, which seeks to thin 50,000 acres a year over 20 years in four Northern and Central Arizona national forests.
In a state program known as Firewise, officials work with about 67 communities to make them aware of wildfire threats on 13 million acres of piñon-juniper woodland, among other places, he said. His office is also starting a website AZWRAP, designed to provide an opportunity to assess wildfire risks to communities statewide.