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Immediate action needed to avert water crisis

John Newport

John Newport

Recent newspaper articles have been replete with accounts concerning the devastating water shortage impacting Arizona and other southwestern states. Due to severe drought conditions Lake Mead, the country’s largest water reservoir, is only 38 percent full and the water level at Lake Powell has dropped to 45 percent.

A recent federal report titled “Moving Forward” drives home the seriousness of this situation. The Colorado River is the major source of water for 40 million people residing in Arizona, California, Idaho and four additional southwestern states, in addition to parts of Mexico. The river also supplies water for 4 million acres of farmland across this area.

The lower Colorado basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada face an imminent crisis – the need to eliminate a 1.2 million acre-foot shortfall between our water supply and current usage. If we fail to eliminate this shortfall we could face major water cutbacks as early as 2020.

The water shortage impacting California has been at crisis proportions for quite some time. On April 1 Gov Brown ordered a 25 percent reduction in urban use of potable water.

A close relative in Los Angeles reports that allowable lawn watering has been cut back from every other day to once a week. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) is paying homeowners to convert their lawns to water friendly landscapes, and future plans for purifying waste-water for drinking are reportedly on the drawing board.

On the bright side the federal report acknowledges that 2 million acre-feet of water have been saved throughout the 7-state region through effective water conservation, and that per capita consumption has dropped by 10 to 26 percent since 2000. Chief driving forces include citizens’ voluntarily converting to low water-use landscaping and using more water efficient appliances.

Historically agriculture has been the region’s largest consumer of water. While agricultural water use has remained relatively constant, growing efficiency of farming operations has resulted in increased productivity rather than cut-backs in water use.

Despite impressive conservation efforts, the report’s authors warn that current measures will not be sufficient to prevent serious future shortages due to the impact of projected population growth. Significantly, Central Arizona Project officials anticipate that recent sharp decreases in runoff into their section of the Colorado River could precipitate a cutback in CAP water deliveries as early as 2016.

Following passage of the Groundwater Management Act in 1980, Arizona was on the forefront concerning vigilant action in water conservation in the 1980s and 1990s. This came to a screeching halt, however, following draconian cut-backs in ADWR’s budget and staffing beginning in fiscal 2008.

Prior to the cut-backs the department employed a staff of 244 and was budgeted at $24.1 million. That level of support enabled the agency to effectively carry out its function of conserving our water supply while pursuing the goal of ensuring a sustainable supply by 2025. Following the cutbacks the department’s budget dipped to a precarious low of $5.7 million in fiscal 2012 before increasing to the $13.3 million allocated for fiscal 2015.

Before the cutbacks the department was able to maintain an office in each of the five active management areas created in 1980, develop water management plans and coordinate their implementation in each of the five regions. While updated management plans for each AMA were supposed to be been adopted before 2010 and in effect from 2014 to 2020, at present the only AMA with an updated plan is Prescott.

According to state records as of March 31, the department’s staff had been cut back to 123. While the Groundwater Management Act was designed to enable department staff to work at the local level to bring together groundwater users and other stakeholders to craft solutions, the Grand Canyon Institute reports that this is virtually impossible at present budgetary levels.

Sarah Porter, director of the Arizona State University’s Kyl Center for Water Policy, states that “We are not in the crisis that California is precisely because of what we were doing 20 and 30 years ago.” She fears, however, that these past successes have allowed many legislators to take access to a sustainable water supply for granted.

Severe depletion of the Colorado River has been a serious problem for a number of years, and our state government’s current laissez faire posture concerning water management is completely out of step with the gravity of the situation. Indeed, immediate action must be forthcoming to stave off a cataclysmic water shortage that will wreak severe damage to our state’s economy and the quality of life we currently enjoy, not to mention the future viability of our region as a livable environment for coming generations. It is imperative that the Department of Water Resources be restored to an appropriate level of funding and staffing. As concerned citizens we must act now to emphatically make our voices heard.

— John Newport has a public health background spanning over 40 years and is a writer and social commentator based in Tucson.

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