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Flow of water in desert brings life to Arizona’s economy

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Water is life. Its management is a state trust responsibility. In Arizona’s arid environment, rivers, streams, and springs are vital to sustaining a diversity of plants and animals and are tied to the well-being of human communities and our state and local economies.

Sadly, unsustainable water use over the past century has dried up the vast majority of Arizona’s rivers, and our remaining flowing rivers are at significant risk, especially in the Upper Verde and the San Pedro rivers, which are threatened by surface water diversions, groundwater pumping, drought, and climate change. Arizona’s $21 billion-dollar tourist economy relies on healthy rivers and riparian habitat for wildlife watching, boating, hiking, hunting and fishing, and sightseeing, all of which will be harmed by continued diminishing flows in our rivers.

Sandy Bahr

Sandy Bahr

Despite this, concerns about flowing rivers have not even been on the table in the governor’s backroom invitation-only water meetings or with legislators. Instead, the focus has been on a power struggle between the Central Arizona Water Conservation District and the Arizona Department of Water Resources and how Arizona can temporarily avoid taking shortages on Colorado River water by leaving more water in Lake Mead. Even the discussions about the Colorado River itself do not include the need to consider the health of the river. What is wrong with this picture?

First, it ignores what is unique about Arizona. Despite its aridity, our state hosts wonderful, diverse desert rivers. If you have ever viewed these rivers from above, you have seen what a green ribbon of life they represent. Second, it focuses too much on what people and investors from other parts of the country think about Arizona rather than responsibly planning ahead for Arizonans. Third, it seeks to maintain a boom-bust economy, when we need a state that understands that vibrant 21st century economies—and the physical and mental well-being of our citizens—include establishing legal protection for our rivers.

Studies by federal and state agencies report numerous challenges to our water supply that threaten our future economy, our lifestyle, and our environment. The time to address these challenges is now. We must honestly assess if we can continue to afford to base our state’s economy on excessive growth and water-intensive uses without significant reform.

Growing numbers of countries are taking a forward-thinking path that places conservation of environmental/ecological flows in rivers at the center of water management practices. Maintaining Arizona’s rivers and streams is something that is fundamental to the future of our state, its economy, and its citizens. Ecological flows and living rivers are not distinct from or in competition with human uses, but rather, human uses rely on healthy flows in rivers and streams. This is recognized in two bills introduced this session, SB1475 and HB2581, which unfortunately did not get hearings. Water is life, including our economic life.

— Sandy Bahr is director of the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club.

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The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.

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