Arizona’s Water: A Strategic Approach

Most Arizonans and Cave Creek citizens are becoming aware that we are approaching an insecure future in water availability. But too few of us understand the issues well enough to recognize how solutions need to be implemented.
Government and quasi-government state-wide agencies such as the Arizona Department of Water Resources are subject to policies established by our state legislature. The path to intelligent solutions is for the voters to understand why current policies exist, and how they can be changed.

One group likes to keep water prices low to stimulate economic growth and profits. Others stress behavior showing personal responsibility. Both approaches are useful, but they fail to address our most effective tools: education and strategic pricing of water.

I’ll consider education first. Like topics such as family planning and immigration, water policy is not a simple issue. But I think it’s one on which we can come together. You can learn the basics of historical and legal aspects of Arizona’s water policies by visiting the Desert Foothills Land Trust website: /events /desert encounters /Arizona’s Water. 
This comprehensive presentation can help both educators (schools, public media and community organizations) as well as voters understand where we are, and why. The bottom line is that without understanding the subject, we can’t make the best decisions. Information is power.

Taking shorter showers and using the dishwasher less often are good ideas. But they don’t reduce usage very much. Limiting water use outside the home, such as for pools and landscaping, saves much more water. Demanding community planning is even more important. But still, the “elephant in the room” is the pricing of water. 

70% of our water is used for agricultural irrigation. But agriculture is only 8% of Arizona’s economy. Municipal water, including water for other businesses and for residents, is only about a quarter of Arizona’s current water use. As long as growing high water use crops such as alfalfa (hay) in the desert is cheap enough to make big profits, we need to wake up. And a very large portion of those profits are going outside Arizona. Investors in other parts of the country and foreign nations are making money by effectively exporting our water as animal feed, milk and beef.

The Phoenix-Tucson corridor is an “Active Management Area” (AMA) where major water users are monitored and regulated. But our water agencies can neither monitor nor regulate water in most rural areas. Unfortunately, this is where the use of groundwater has been rapidly expanding. It’s not just the residents who will suffer when rural towns run out of available water and must come to the rest of us for help. A non-regulation protocol outside the AMSs is state law. And the law is policy.

Market pricing is a central role of the American system. When you buy a product, it usually costs you what it costs to produce it. If there isn’t enough of it to meet current and future demands, supplies can be increased. But not our water. Arizona’s Colorado River water is limited, and it’s going to be cut back even more because the river is over-allocated. 
The most effective way we can protect and extend our groundwater, surface water (Arizona rivers) and Central Arizona Project (CAP) water is to price water at what it’s worth, not just the operational costs to supply it. Like state and federal grazing land, water is a limited natural resource that needs to be protected.

Groundwater is our long term security. 40% of statewide water use is groundwater. It is often called “fossil water” because it’s being “mined” as a basically non-renewable resource. So when we understand that natural recharge will not keep up with the demand, we can regulate use by legislation increasing prices to maintain a long-term sustainable supply. This policy is called “safe yield” because it balances use with recharge.

There is a wise saying that we don’t inherit Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children. But to borrow implies pay-back. Arizona can’t pay back water while usage increases and water becomes even less available. It certainly doesn’t make sense to draw down our ground water when we know that as time goes by, our reserves will become increasingly important.

Arizona’s water must be used wisely. I’ll put it another way. As concerned citizens, we need to demand that our elected officials manage and price water strategically for our long-term needs.

Thomas McGuire
Cave Creek Town Council