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Governor’s Water Proposals Don’t Protect Arizona’s Rivers and Streams

As Arizona works toward new water laws, more should be done to bring transparency to the policy process and prioritize environmental flows, say members of the Sustainable Water Workgroup.

Written by Tricia Gerrodette, Sandy Bahr, Gary Beverly Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Pipes for a water intake pump sit on an area of Pyramid Island that used to be under the waters of Lake Mead near Boulder Beach in Nevada on May 13, 2015. Arizona is planning how to manage Colorado River water allocations if a shortage declaration at Lake Mead triggers cuts.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

At a time of prolonged drought, the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) has just released an overview of the Governor’s Water Solutions Conversation. The discussions, which came from a series of summer meetings, have the potential to transform the state’s water laws and influence negotiations about the future of the Colorado River basin for generations. But important issues are being left out of the discussion.

These discussions focus on two issues – protecting Arizona’s Colorado River allocation and changing existing groundwater laws. Protecting Arizona’s allocation involves negotiating with other lower Colorado River basin states over a Drought Contingency Plan, which would trigger cuts in water allocations if Lake Mead slips below a critical elevation level; and the Drought Contingency Plan Plus, in which interests within Arizona are working on how best to distribute the impact of those cuts.

We at the Sustainable Water Workgroup, which comprises more than two dozen community organizations, environmental groups and hundreds of individuals, recognize the immense challenge Arizona faces in managing its Colorado River entitlements. But the process by which consensus is created matters, particularly in the context of building public trust in a shared long-term vision for a sustainable water future.

With the majority of those participating in the governor’s water conversation representing traditional water users and with the recommendations coming out of these discussions emblematic of an outdated 20th-century model, it is clear whose interests are being protected. This lack of transparency, moreover, seems to be compounded in part by the concerning new role of private foundations that are influencing some of the water discussions.

In our view, the time has come for an honest assessment of whether we can continue to base our state’s economy on continuous growth and on water-intensive uses without significant reform. Growing numbers of countries embrace a holistic water management paradigm that places conservation of environmental flows (water left in rivers and aquifers to maintain ecosystem health) at the center of management practices. This is not the case in Arizona.

Other Arizona rivers have been excluded from these water conversations, too – conversations that have been held mostly during closed-door, invitation-only meetings. If the goal of the governor’s water conversation is to protect “the state as a whole,” as has been suggested, then our other rivers and streams must also be protected. They, too, are being negatively affected by surface-water diversions, groundwater pumping, drought and climate change.

We also understand that any meaningful conversation about water in Arizona must begin by recognizing the hydrological connection between groundwater and surface water. Potential positive legislation involving the metering of wells for better monitoring of groundwater pumping would be an important step toward getting a better handle on how much groundwater is being pumped statewide, but that alone will not help protect our rivers and streams or the springs that supply their flows. Management based on the science of surface and groundwater connections must be addressed in any groundwater legislation.

Recognizing and valuing the need to preserve water in this state for the sake of supporting our rivers and streams cannot be punted to another day. Today, most of Arizona’s rivers only flow during the wettest times of the year or intermittently. Of the five remaining perennial Arizona rivers, only the Verde flows continuously to its endpoint – though current diversions and upstream groundwater pumping continue to threaten its future. Yet Arizona’s $20 billion tourist economy relies on healthy rivers and riparian habitat for boating, fishing, hunting, hiking, birding and sightseeing, all of which will be negatively affected by continued diminishing flows.

Our coalition is therefore advocating for more participants and more transparency in these conversations along with the recognition that maintaining Arizona’s rivers and streams is important to the future of our state, its economy and its citizens.

As the Governor’s Office and ADWR seek feedback from legislators regarding their water solution concepts, our group will continue to advocate for:

  • Environmental water as the core element of a sustainable water policy, which must be included in any decisions for future legislation.
  • More transparency in the development of water policy and legislation, including the need to have a broader range of participants, use comparative analysis and peer review, and fully engage the public.
  • The recognition of, and a modernization of, the accounting of the connection between ground and surface water in law, in policy and in practice.

Finally, we know that the state has a public trust responsibility to the people of Arizona. That means that it is imperative to ensure that our waters are sustained for all of us and for future generations. We hope that this will be a key part of the consideration as the state moves forward.


The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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