Water is our society’s most precious resource, and our laws and policies should reflect this. Across the West, a legacy of groundwater overpumping, compounded by prolonged drought and climate change, has put our water supplies at risk. In Arizona, proactive water management is more important than ever. Planning ahead to achieve sustainable, climate-resilient communities and landscapes requires that our legal framework line up with reality and reflect the best available science.

Arizona has already been experiencing serious drought for more than a decade. Scientists predict a hotter and drier climate across the Southwest, with decreasing snowpack and increased chances of long-term drought.

If our water policies do not keep pace with these changes, many of the West’s cities will face tough choices and many of its ecosystems may fail.

The connection between surface and groundwater is not properly recognized by current laws, putting our streams and rivers at risk. Groundwater pumping often reduces river flows. This is of particular concern with small domestic wells close to rivers and streams, but dewatering of rivers also results from regional pumping.

Active Management Areas (AMAs), where most of Arizona’s population lives, have been successful in encouraging the use of renewable water supplies instead of pumped groundwater. However, rural parts of the state also need focused, proactive water management. The current system leaves many rural areas vulnerable; they also need a more sustainable future for people and wildlife.

The Arizona Department of Water Resources is responsible for water management in Arizona; it is sadly underfunded in light of the challenges. A decade ago, 60 staff ran five regional offices and coordinated water policy. Now that’s down to 10. Their capacity to do proactive planning to support Arizona’s citizens is extremely limited.

Though an “adequate” water supply” must be proven for new large subdivisions outside of AMAs, the rules allow the groundwater table to be lowered to 1,200 feet over 100 years. This could have substantial impacts on rivers and riparian vegetation, in addition to leading to damaged infrastructure (roads, buildings) due to land-surface cracking.

Water laws do not limit the effects of major new developments on surface flows and watersheds. This exposes water users and water-dependent wildlife habitats to enormous risks. In the San Simon Valley and Willcox area — where agriculture is expanding — wells have run dry. In another case in point, development of the Villages at Vigneto, a mega-development in the San Pedro River watershed, is likely to lead to long-term consequences for people as well as the globally significant San Pedro River and migratory bird corridor.

The U.S. Geological Survey has been asked to create a detailed hydrogeologic model of the complex Middle San Pedro River system. In theory, this model would enable informed land- and water-management decisions. It is crucial to fund and complete this study so that communities and decision makers can understand the consequences of Villages at Vigneto and other development in the area. We know what overpumping groundwater looks like — the Santa Cruz River used to flow through downtown Tucson. We cannot afford to lose the few remaining riparian areas in the state — they are critical to our wildlife, recreation and economy.

There is a need for long-term, strategic water policy that protects rural communities and riparian habitats, and for active support of private citizens and government agencies working to protect our water supplies.

Kathy Jacobs is a professor in the department of soil, water and environmental science at the University of Arizona, and is the director of the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions. She was the director of the Tucson Active Management Area from 1988 until 2001. Contact Jacobs at jacobsk@email.arizona.edu