Arizona faces a deadline today to sign on to an agreement that would forestall the federal government asserting control of the Colorado River water. This agreement, known as the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP), would commit Arizona, California, and Nevada to voluntary cuts in river water to keep levels in Lake Mead from dropping critically low , at which all Arizona river users would face significant cuts.
Most of the water users affected in Arizona have agreed to reduced amounts of river water and to some level of mitigation funding. Those hardest hit include farmers in Pinal County, who are among those last in line getting any water from the Colorado. They will likely receive some funding that will allow them to tap into groundwater. To help ease this transition, Tucson Water has offered to give them 35,000 acre-feet of water over two years, in exchange for equivalent rights from the state to pump groundwater locally.
In return for this offer, Tucson Water is asking for two important changes in the law affecting highly treated wastewater or reclaimed water. Tucson Water, Pima County, the town of Marana, and the Tohono O’odham Nation (through the Bureau of Reclamation) all divert reclaimed water into the Santa Cruz River from nearby wastewater treatment plants. In doing so, they provide a continuous flow of water in a 23-mile stretch of river, from northwest Tucson to Marana.
Placing reclaimed water into the Santa Cruz River provides multiple benefits. In addition to recharging our aquifer, it restores fish and wildlife habitat, leading to the return of the endangered Gila topminnow in the river. It enhances outdoor recreation and educational opportunities, which one can experience directly while walking, biking, or birding on the Loop. Lastly, it provides tangible economic benefits, as demonstrated by increasing the value of developable land near rivers and open space.
However, under current state law, reclaimed water in a river doesn’t receive the same recharge credit as reclaimed water deposited in large detention basins next to wastewater treatment plants. And this credit goes away as of 2025. We believe the “sunset” clause for reclaimed water credits should be permanently repealed, and that this credit should be increased from 50 percent to 95 percent, the same for recharging using detention basins. These changes have wide support across the state, as reflected in the Governor’s Water Augmentation Council’s unanimous vote to endorse these changes in 2018.
When our Legislature votes on a Drought Contingency Plan, it should include these two changes. Reclaimed water has become a valuable renewable resource in the portfolio of water providers throughout the state since the original credit system was established in 1994. Recharging reclaimed water in our rivers and waterways provides all of the water savings found at a detention basin but with other economic and environmental benefits.
Not only will Pinal County farmers benefit, but so will the communities along the Santa Cruz, Gila, and dozens of other waterways in Arizona that currently use reclaimed water to recharge their aquifers, revive their rivers, and enhance local quality of life.