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Some experts welcome alarm bells about Arizona groundwater
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Some experts welcome alarm bells about Arizona groundwater


The goal of balancing the groundwater we pump with what we can replenish through natural and human forces is increasingly out of reach in Arizona, a new ASU study finds.

A new report warning Arizona’s urban area aquifers remain at risk from groundwater pumping is drawing praise from several water experts, including some who once worked for the state agency that enforces the law regulating pumping.

Released on May 13, the Arizona State University report said the state’s long-term goal of balancing pumping and recharge in urban areas may be out of reach. That’s true even in the Tucson area whose groundwater supplies and pumping levels are roughly in balance today, said the report from ASU’s Kyl Center for Water Policy.

Even that balance isn’t enough, because the state’s 1980 groundwater law still allows unacceptable amounts of overdrafting inside individual groundwater basins when the entire basin is in balance, the report said. This overdrafting includes pumping for new subdivisions in areas lacking access to renewable Central Arizona Project supplies from the Colorado River.

“I think it’s generally accurate. I think it’s one of many what I call clarion calls to wake up and pay attention to the current water situation here,” said Rita Maguire, former director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. “In many respects, it’s not saying anything that hasn’t been said before. But it’s coming to a head, saying what ADWR and advisory committees are all saying: We’ve reached the next level of water management in Arizona.

“Those are all very important messages, something very important to pay attention to, before we’re in a crisis situation,” said Maguire, ADWR director from 1993 to 2001. “We can’t afford to manage water in a crisis.”

But it’s very likely the report’s recommendations won’t be adopted by the Legislature until there is a water crisis, said Jim Holway, an assistant ADWR director from 1996 to 2005.

Current ADWR officials had no comment on the Kyl Center report. A spokesman, Doug MacEachern, said they hadn’t had time to review its final draft. The report’s authors said they sent ADWR an early draft a month ago that’s only minimally different from the current version.

Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers, a Mesa Republican, didn’t return an email from the Star seeking his comment on the report.

The state’s landmark 1980 Groundwater Management Act wasn’t passed until two water crises struck simultaneously. One was a threat from the federal government to cut off funding to build the $4 billion CAP until a groundwater law was passed. The other was a cascade of lawsuits pitting farmers, mining companies and the city of Tucson against one another over access to groundwater supplies in Pima County.

Now, to get the Kyl Center’s recommendations passed, “I think that a lot of political groundwork is going to have to be laid. There’s going to need to be a large scale consensus we don’t have today,” Holway said. “Without that, we’re not going to move legislation. If they bring it up today, it’s not going anywhere.”

“The question is how do we create the political will, to actually create long-term solutions for these issues?” Holway said. “I don’t see that will today.”

But in a number of respects, the crisis is already here, Maguire said..

"We are in an extended drought in the Colorado River Basin resulting in the first-ever shortage declaration in the Lower Basin, the state’s three most populated counties continue to have a heavy reliance finite groundwater supplies, and we are experiencing rapid population growth and industrial development that could exacerbate the over-dependence on groundwater with no new water supplies on the horizon," Maguire said.

The report raises many issues that should be fully discussed, said Sharon Megdal, director of the University of Arizona’s Water Resources Research Center.

“We do need to focus on the suggested ways to address the issues, including the platform for engaging in the dialogue. When it comes to solutions, let’s air the report’s suggestions, along with alternatives,” said Megdal.

The Kyl Center report hammered at the 1980 groundwater law, saying it allows too many users to pump groundwater without having to replenish aquifers with renewable supplies.

The report also criticized the law for allowing developers to earn a designated 100-year groundwater supply if the aquifer underneath their subdivisions contained sufficient water at 1,000 feet deep. Report co-author and former ADWR Director Kathleen Ferris called that provision “a joke.”

Finally, the report criticized the practice of pumping groundwater for development in one place while CAP water is recharged elsewhere to compensate for that pumping.

The broader message is that ultimately, “we live in a desert. Water supplies are finite, even the Colorado River is finite,” Maguire said. “And the drought is causing it to be much less available than what we planned for . . . with rapid population growth that hasn’t let up since the 1950s, at quicker or slower paces.

“The reality is that people want to live in Arizona, particularly in the Phoenix metro area. There’s a clash between living in a desert environment and having clear limits on the water supply, and the desire for millions of people to live here,” Maguire said.

Twenty years ago, Maguire chaired, and Megdal and Holway were involved with, a Governor’s Water Management Commission that looked at many of the same problems the Kyl Center examined. The commission produced a 97-page report, making some recommendations similar to those of the Kyl Center, but leading to no major changes in water law.

“There were tweaks in the groundwater code but nothing significant,” said Maguire, who is now in private practice. “That’s why you hear reports now for a call to action. We haven’t taken the next significant step.

“We talked about these issues in 2001 as being off in the future, that gosh, we know population is growing in Southwest, and we know there will be added pressure on Lake Mead and Lake Powell. But we had very full reservoirs. Now, we know we’re full-on in the drought in the Colorado Basin. We don’t know when it will end.”

Megdal noted that she’s long been concerned about localized drawdowns of aquifers, allowed by the ability to pump 1,000 feet deep for new subdivisions. That problem is often overlooked when talking about Arizona’s groundwater regulations, she said.

“It is localized depletion. Because of groundwater’s invisibility, many have no idea,” she said.

She agreed that the “disconnect” between pumping in one place and recharging elsewhere is a problem but a key question is, how much of a disconnect is too much? “Or how much of a drawdown is too much of a drawdown?”

Since people can/t agree on the nature of the water problems, there's likely to be significant differences on potential policy changes, Megdal added.

"Arizona should not shy away from acknowledging it has challenges. What is needs to do is demonstrate that the work is focusing on the solutions and showing that Arizona is indeed a leader in figuring out how to address the challenges. We need to get people to think about different ways of designing our communities and buildings as we grow," Megdal said. "We need to demonstrate we know in which directions policies should go."

While she'd like to believe that the state can address water issues without waiting for crisis conditions, Megdal noted that it took prodding from the federal government not only to push the state into passing the 1980 groundwater law, but to get the state to adopt a drought contingency plan for the Colorado River in 2019.

"I think we need to get busy and see if we can agree on the issues so that we can work on addressing them," she said.

While the disconnect and 1,000-foot-deep pumping are legitimate issues, others are more pressing, Holway said. One is the need for a law change to allow the three-county water district that replenishes aquifers to say “no” to a new development that wants to join the district if it lacks supplies to recharge an aquifer, he said.

Another is to create alternative methods for a new development to obtain, treat and directly deliver renewable supplies to its homebuyers instead of relying on the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District and its practice of “I pump here, you replenish there,” he said.

The district, run by CAP management, has booked up tens of thousands of acre feet of renewable supplies for the future. But critics including the Kyl Center say it hasn’t found enough to serve all the growth that’s coming here.

“It’s a niche, but we overuse it,” said Holway, who sits on the CAP governing board and works at the nonprofit Lincoln Institute for Land Policy. “It’s not sustainable.”

But in the long run, Arizona needs to to augment its existing water supply, because it can’t keep growing on the water supplies available today, Maguire said.

“Desalination is the most obvious choice. It’s going to take a lot of money and a lot of time, and have environmental impacts. But at the end of the day that’s probably the best alternative available to us.”

Contact Tony Davis at 520-349-0350 or Follow Davis on Twitter@tonydavis987.

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