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Arizona challenge: Which drought is it?

Bas Aja

Bas Aja

Recently we were asked to address the national gathering of agricultural media/journalists to answer the question: How is drought impacting Arizona’s cattle production? This group of journalists had been reading about California, the Colorado River, all of the recent articles about Arizona in the New York Times and they were generally accustomed to the representation – Arizona didn’t have enough water. Even though these misperceptions tilted them towards the normal conclusions – we gave them something to think about…Which drought is it?

We outlined that there are four types of drought:

• Weather Related Drought – This one is pretty self-explanatory. During long periods of no precipitation or drastically reduced precipitation; long periods of hot and dry weather; and shortages of water in reservoirs, streams and wells begin to occur. Bad climate luck triggers these droughts.

• Manmade Drought – This is created when regulatory actions begin to limit and reduce the amount of water utilized for production. The “super-zoning” nature of the Endangered Species Act; environmental litigation; or executive actions; very often are a triggering event for this type of drought.

• Infrastructure Drought – This is created when long periods of insufficient investment in water development or delivery systems are allowed to occur. Anti-growth, not-in-my-backyard and Malthusian responses usually provide for this type of drought.

• Planning Drought – This is created when elected officials or community leaders fail to prepare for redundancy or scarcity. While they have plenty of examples to follow (just attend some irrigation district board meetings or go visit a water system at a large feed yard) it seems they are more interested in sexy issues with more instant gratification.

The presentation started by reminding these journalists that there never would ever be more or less water on earth – it is a closed system. Water cannot escape – it can only move around. Sometimes there will be more in the ground; sometimes more in the atmosphere; sometimes more in the ocean; sometimes more in the rivers; and sometimes more in our stock ponds – or sometimes less. We explained that this was the history of water in Arizona – too much; too little; and never in the right place!

Moving to highlight how the current dire situation in California was a perfect place to begin in answering their question. It is an example of nearly catastrophic failure from the concurrently occurring four levels of drought in the state. But to begin we outlined a “catastrophic failure process” – as this type of failure rarely comes from one single mistake or mishap…it is usually precipitated by multiple failures or mistakes that create a cascade effect into catastrophe. The current drought in California is the perfect example.

California is suffering from the four types of drought: 1) Weather related drought; 2) Man made drought; 3) Infrastructure drought; and 4) Planning drought. California is suffering from a weather drought after several years of a severe lack of precipitation; it is suffering from a manmade drought created when they refuse to build more containment facilities and agreed/allowed several million acre feet of fresh water a year to flow down the Sacramento River Delta under the Golden Gate Bridge into the Pacific Ocean (to protect the fish); it is suffering from an infrastructure drought after decades of green policies not allowing new impoundments or storage to be developed (the result of anti-growth policies collapsing on growth markets); and it clearly is suffering from a planning drought as California had failed to ever develop or plan for a groundwater management model which had a future vision.

We closed by reminding these journalists that weather droughts are something we have become pretty accustomed to in Arizona. We have become so accustomed to weather droughts we now naturally manage for scarcity – not abundance. Manmade drought is something that Arizona – unlike California – has managed to avoid as we have not yet been required to stop using our surface water resources for production – partly because we have been too busy burning down millions of acres of forest lands. Arizona has consistently over time provided for and invested in infrastructure in a staggered fashion (SRP, CAP, irrigation districts, recharge facilities) so we have kept up with most needs. However, we pointed out that we were soon going to be challenged to add investment to the infrastructure system. Finally, we explained planning droughts do not exist in Arizona. We plan, plan and plan some more on water challenges in our state.

So, when asked to address drought – always ask: “Which drought is it?”

— Bas Aja is executive vice president of the Arizona Cattle Feeders Association.

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