Tuesday Weather

Rain water from the Pantano Wash flows into the Rillito River as a light rain falls in the Tucson area on July 11, 2017. A.E. Araiza / Arizona Daily Star

Water is essential to our lives and here in Southern Arizona we have a heightened sense when it comes to our most precious natural resource. We rush to see the Rillito River flow and the river be reborn. World Water Day is recognized globally as the one day a year when we celebrate our relationship with water. Water is so essential to our lives that it should be central to our nation’s strategic approach to develop sustainable water resources.

This year we have seen our Arizona water supply begin to rebound after sixteen years of drought gripped the region. The large snowpack in the Colorado Rockies promises a good runoff into Lake Powell and a small bump in the releases from Glen Canyon Dam to augment the steadily diminishing levels of Lake Mead. This week the seven Colorado River basin states and the federal government signed the agreement to address the immediate shortages in the Colorado River while longer-term approaches are negotiated. As we celebrate this agreement, scientists report that the future hydrology of the Colorado River basin and across the Southwest will continue to decline. National leadership in water is critical to ensure we make the right decisions on our future water decisions.

Current patterns of precipitation, surface runoff, groundwater supply and the hydrologic cycle have departed significantly from historical norms. Scientific studies and predictions show that temperatures will warm, with rain and snowfall levels continuing to decline. Hydrologic extremes are becoming the norm – drought, floods, rain and increased extreme weather events – all are the result of a changing weather and hydrologic cycle driven by larger impacts associated with climate change.

As we celebrate World Water Day and face a future of diminished water supplies we need to embrace and practice ethical approaches to the distribution and use of water. Over the course of the last several World Water Days the economic and non-economic value and the ethics of water have been embraced internationally, first in 2017 through the UN’s support of the Bellagio Principles and in 2018 with the Vatican’s conference on water. These global efforts encourage the inclusion of ethics as part of the water decision-support process. Our national water strategy should include recognition that a sustainable approach should ensure that all people have access to clean and adequate water supplies. This takes leadership.

We have serious water management challenges locally, regionally, nationally and globally. Managing a diminishing water supply and equitably distributing that water between the cities, farms, ecosystem and our transboundary neighbors is going to get harder, especially if we do not implement sustainable water policies.

Water management in the United States has from the first days of the Nation been a shared exercise between the states and the federal government. This has resulted in a complex web of laws and regulations, local ordinances, tribal treaties, tribal water settlements, contractual obligations, and economies based on existing water use patterns and infrastructure. The federal government’s first role with water was to facilitate navigation, and later to reduce flood damages and expand irrigation in the West. Beginning in the 1960’s Congress directed that the federal government should assist in funding water projects and to regulate water quality, fish and wildlife, water supply augmentation and to support federal hydropower production. Water development in a Federalist system has its constraints as the Constitution gives primacy to the states for water allocation.

We did have a national perspective on water development in the 1960’s. The National Water Commission was a Congressionally directed effort to guide a collaborative approach to water. The resulting Water Resources Council was effective in coordination until its funding demise during the Reagan Administration. Protecting local and regional water supplies requires innovative thinking, planning, coordination and development.

The future sustainability of water locally, regionally, nationally and globally is increasingly dependent on expanding our water portfolio. This expansion will include improved ground and surface water management, protection of our water supplies and sources, improved efficiency, charging appropriate costs for water use, expanded reuse and recycling, and conservation. As technology improves desalination and the effective treatment of brine and produced water will become feasible.

As a society we are blessed with having access to most basic of our human needs – water. On this occasion of World Water Day, we should recognize and embrace our water resources and ask each other and those who govern to embrace an ethic of planning and leading to a sustainable water future for us and the generations to come.

David L. Wegner is a retired senior staff member from the U.S. House of Representatives; a member of the National Academy of Sciences, Water Science and Technology Board; and on the Sonoran Institute’s board of directors.