Who is willing to make the tough decisions about water?

Report on 2007 session: Both the House and Senate committees on water and natural resources passed a bill to assist rural Arizona towns plan and implement their water future, accompanied by a second bill to establish a fund to help them do so. Towns and cities can opt into a program whereby they will get low cost loans to fund water projects. The best part is they will be able to avail themselves of the services of Department of Water Resources (DWR) to make the assessments for an “assured water supply” for new developments.

Senators Robert Blendu and Chuck Gray both objected to the State lending a helping hand financially, reasoning that the local areas could have their own bonds and handle their own problems. Senator Flake carefully explained that these water projects would cost too much for small entities to handle. He reminded them that, for example, taxpayers all over the country had footed the loan for the CAP project that brings water to three Arizona counties. He felt it was only fair that the State now help the rural areas with critical water problems.

What Senator Flake failed to mention to his less-seasoned cohorts was the reason there are problems in the rural areas is that the legislators have never bit the bullet and done anything about laws preventing water depletion. The Groundwater Code in 1980 grandfathered in every agricultural and golf course user guaranteeing them the same ration of water forever. At the same time, “the award-wining Code” exempted every industry, including mining, from any regulations at all for current and any future use. That only left about 15% of the water usage in Arizona available to be regulated by the DWR. Therefore, DWR has concentrated on regulating CAP water. Actually, USGS has done most of the rural studies and water usage reports.

Even though DWR has started creating Atlases for rural areas, there’s nothing the agency can do to mitigate any of the problems they encounter. Not when there are users who are bound and determined that they will get the last drop of water that is their “right” and the laws are with them. It’s a simple matter of “the water under my property is private property, and water under your property, including public lands, is public property.”

Senator Arzberger formulated a bill to form a committee to study critical water areas. She had spoken to an environmental group in San Pedro area and they had said they just did not know what to do. I would venture that they do not have options because of current water law and it won’t take another committee to study the situation. I can tell them in a minute: Enact a law that protects surface water from being sucked dry by agricultural users, mining and other industries.

As the law stands now, assured water supply means that anyone can drawdown their neighbor’s water supply to bedrock or 1,200 feet (1,000 feet in AMA’s). Of course, industry, even heavy water users such as mining and electrical plants can drawdown the water to bedrock, so the term “100-year assured water supply” becomes meaningless.

Right now we have that situation in Pima County where a Canadian company is attempting to put in a mine and pump water, which will drawdown levels in the Coronado National Forest. Similarly, in Gila County, a British company wants to drawdown groundwater levels in Superior area. They plan to tunnel down to 7,000 feet—which means they will have to de-water down to that level. This will have serious impacts on the water tables. Remember, when they get virtually free public lands for mining, they get free water thrown in for good measure.

I should explain that I live in a critical water area in the Tucson AMA where 95% of the water use is grandfathered or exempt. No one told me that the water levels are going down 2 feet per year and DWR can only regulate 5% of it. And I am not the only one who lives in an AMA that is in this situation. Now you might ask why DWR is still doling out 100 year assured water certificates to developers when the aquifer is depleting at a rate of 31,000 acre feet deficit here. I’ve been asking that question for two years now without an answer.

And Senator Blendu wants to know why the State should help the rural areas?

What Is the Cost?

As developments, industry, agriculture deplete the water table lower and lower—with an attitude of everyone else can just dig deeper well. What will it cost to drill a well 100 feet deeper? Then another 100 feet deeper? How much electricity will it take to pump water from 1,000 feet? How much water will it take to produce the electricity for the pumping? (800 gallons = 1 megawatt-hour of electricity.) And deeper water carries more saturated salts and metals—What about the cost of filtering those out?

As we dig deeper and deeper, we will drain our rivers, streams and riparian areas. We have to protect our rivers and streams for wildlife habitat, and especially for recreation for our children and families. I live by the Santa Cruz River—it hasn’t existed as a river for years. When someone asked a Tohono-O’dham Elder what happened to the river, he replied, “ Tucson took it.” Tucson Water lined their wells along the highway—inconspicuous contraptions that they were. They weren’t pumping any water out of the river. Yet the River disappeared and the marshes that the Tohono O’dham had farmed for centuries dried up. I think it’s a high price to pay.

Realistic Considerations

Prescott wants to build a pipeline up to the Verde River to suck it dry. Several environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, are against the bill because they fear that it will go for this project. With Lucy Mason (from Prescott) the formulator of the bill, there appears to be cause for concern. In addition, the fact that a representative from Prescott Valley was at the hearing pushing the bill was another red flag.

The Groundwater Code allowed 85% of the water use to remain unregulated and 80% of that is for agriculture. Statistics show that 80% of agriculture use is for non-food crops—particularly cotton subsidies. The number of Arizona growers who receive subsidies for cotton is over 10% of top 200 growers in the nation. Arizona is second in cotton subsidies. We have to calculate how much agricultural water goes to subsidies. There are mountains of water studies—but try to find this relevant number anywhere!

The agriculture lobby says “don’t eliminate agriculture from Arizona.” But we might look at some uses in some areas. Believe it or not, there are just some Arizonans who don’t care about others. If we were all conscious and considerate of others, we wouldn’t even need any legislators at all. I remember after I read Cadillac Desert, I commented: “Read this book and you will lose all hope for humanity.”

The Private Land Argument

The big issue is the legislators can’t mess with private lands. However, the Groundwater Code clearly states: “ In answering these questions [about groundwater depletion in 1980], Arizonans realized water is not private property, but rather is a public resource that should be regulated for everyone's benefit.” What groundwater regulation? I venture to question. So the heavy users have it both ways, they can cry private property for a public commodity and pump down their neighbor’s water table.

Wording for these bills is essential—because we humans can always find loop holes. For example, now in Vail area (within the Tucson AMA) builders received a 100-year assured water certificate, but that certificate used the figures of the normal urban users (177 gal per day!) and the users are consuming 3 times that amount because they have horses, gardens, orchards, etc. There is serious drawdown in that area—and it may provide a real-life scenario for us to hammer the legislators with. Not that I am totally against loop holes—I am desperately looking for one to stop DWR from continuing to issue water certificates to builders in my area.

Planned Depletion

Any water expert, even in government agencies, will tell you: Arizona is on a course of planned depletion. First, no expert anywhere understands why Arizona law does not connect surface water and groundwater. Well, we are the “last frontier”—which I hope does not translate into the “past frontier.” So Prescott dries up the Verde River. So agricultural pumping dries up the San Pedro. So we pump water for 100 years until the water level is down to bedrock or 1,200 feet—what do we do then?

May I be so bold as to suggest that we take those measures now and not wait until we have sucked the water table down to bedrock or 1,200 feet? It’s a simple equation: you don’t pump more water in a year than is replenished in a year. There are certain restrictions on counties and cities making decisions based on water planning instead of relying on a dubious 100 year supply certificate. However, the town of Payson has taken a bold step forward and has opted for a balanced annual budget of water—including no new turf. Who is brave enough to follow? If our legislators don’t make the tough decisions now—it will come back to haunt all Arizonans outside the CAP service area. (And those folks do not have any guarantees either.)

Signed, A Grandmother
Nancy Freeman
Groundwater Awareness League, Inc.

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