U.S. Water News Online
PHOENIX -- If Arizona doesn't manage its water better, some
of the state's shiny new cities could dry up like the deserts they
Growth is pushing communities ever closer to water crises:
''We've been very careful about getting water, hoarding water,
protecting water, and fighting with other people about water. But
now, we have to face up to the reality that we're not going to get
any more,'' said Phoenix attorney Grady Gammage, a member of the CAP
''We have a lot, but it's finite. And now, we have to think about
how we're going to use it in the future.''
Toward that end, Gov. Jane Hull last week created a 20-member
water commission and charged it with studying Arizona's water
supplies, uses, and what policy changes to recommend to the
Legislature by 2002.
Commission members will find plenty to talk about:
Frank Welsh, a Phoenix activist and author of How To Create a
Water Crisis, said the commission should not only consider water
supply, but water quality.
''It's an issue that's more sophisticated than Arizona's ever
been,'' Welsh said. ''We don't worry about getting the best drinking
water for us.''
Conservation and better management of agricultural use, he said,
could improve the quality and safety of drinking water.
On paper, Arizona shouldn't have a water problem. The state gets
enough water from the Colorado River alone to serve nearly three
times the state's current 5 million population.
But moving water from the Colorado to every corner of the state is
expensive and impractical, which is why so many Arizonans get their
water from groundwater or from local rivers and streams, especially
in rural areas. Groundwater has always been the cheapest and most
readily available source; but now, it's the most threatened.
''With the population we have now, we are more than capable of
pumping out the supply faster than it can be recharged,'' said Rita
Pearson, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
Overpumping not only depletes a natural resource that will be
needed by future generations, it leaves current users without a
backup during drought, and it can lead to land subsidence and poor
Under the 1980 Groundwater Management Act, the state closely
regulates groundwater in five mostly urban areas: Phoenix, Tucson,
Prescott, and parts of Pinal and Santa Cruz counties.
Each area has its own conservation goals and restrictions. In
Phoenix, developers must prove they have an assured water supply for
100 years before they can build homes and businesses. By 2025,
Phoenix users should be recharging back into the ground as much water
as they take out.
A system of canals, pipelines, reservoirs, and underground storage
basins could allow the Valley to support twice its current 3 million
Agriculture still uses 53 percent of the Valley's water, and
industry takes an additional 7 percent.
The Valley's biggest cities rely mostly on the CAP and the Salt
River Project (SRP), which manages water from the Salt and Verde
rivers. But many smaller communities still use mostly groundwater
because it's what they can afford. Citizens Utilities will spend more
than $6 million just to bring a small amount of CAP water to the Sun
Cities. Peoria is spending $36 million to treat SRP and CAP water.
The CAP is the state's last and most expensive water frontier. The
$4.7 billion system, which carries 1.5 million acre-feet a year from
the Colorado River, was built to give Phoenix and Tucson a reliable
supply for the future.
CAP officials say the water should be fully developed by 2035,
though that depends in part on how several Indian tribes manage the
nearly 600,000 acre-feet they will control through a series of
federal agreements. The tribes are expected to lease back as much as
one-third of the water to cities, expanding the available supply, but
again, at a higher price.
An even bigger unknown is what will happen the next time drought
hits the Southwest. If the Colorado runs low, Arizona's CAP rights
fall behind California and Nevada.
The SRP is already looking at two dry years and will supplement
its regular supply this year with excess CAP water. Salt River
officials also are watching Prescott, where growth is tugging at the
''Prescott is affecting our watershed on the Verde River. And if
we lose that, we would have to use more groundwater,'' said John
Sullivan, the SRP's associate general manager for water.
Most water officials agree the big decisions should be made soon,
before the remaining water supplies are committed. Gammage believes
water is the ideal tool to help create a long-term growth blueprint,
one that envisions how Phoenix will look when it matures.
''We made the decisions about growth and then sent our emissaries
out on a jihad to get water,'' Gammage said. ''We should say we have
limits, and then use them.''
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