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Changes in law and policy are needed to sustain all Arizona waterways

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The Arizona Sustainable Water Workgroup (SWWg) advocates for more transparency, expanded stakeholder participation, and more sustainable solutions in Arizona water policy. At this crucial time for water policy decisions,  our group has stepped forward to advocate for a fundamental concept that is often lost in the current water debate – the critical need to save Arizona’s rivers, streams, and springs.

The concept for SWWg, first envisioned as a response to the Governor’s 2017 Water Augmentation Council, is now supported by a group of more than 31 organizations and hundreds of individuals from across the state working together to find ways to keep our rivers flowing.

While much of the water policy conversation in Arizona today is focused on finding ways to prop up water levels in Lake Mead to minimize shortage, this is not the only issue we should be discussing. There is an equally urgent need to address sustaining all of Arizona’s waterways.

The continued existence and health of our rivers and springs is essential to support human livelihoods, wildlife, riparian habitats, tourism, recreation, and local economies, particularly in rural Arizona. And yet there is little to no support in Arizona law or policy for protecting these valuable resources. There is also both a lack of data and a lack of understanding regarding the state of our rivers and riparian areas and what might be required to sustain and improve them.

So while surface water diversions and groundwater pumping continue unabated in many areas, and climate change and extreme dryness has become the “new normal,” isn’t it time to explore whether fundamental changes to Arizona water law are needed? Changes such as tasking the Arizona Department of Water Resources with gathering critically needed data and examining the ecological flow needs of our rivers and streams. We should recognize ecological water as a beneficial use under Arizona law to allow water rights holders to voluntarily leave some of their water in our rivers and streams, without risking losing their water rights.

While these ideas might seem novel to us in Arizona, in fact they are not new concepts. Many Western states provide these sorts of tools in one form or another, in recognition of the multiple benefits of healthy, riparian systems. Arizona should follow suit and catch up with these best practices.  Last year, SWWg worked with state legislators to introduce a bill that would officially recognize ecological water as a beneficial use and create a program for its study and active management.  While the bill did not receive a hearing last session,  its introduction was an important step toward raising the bar in Arizona water policy in favor of the health of our rivers, streams, and springs.

Since then, SWWg has held a series of “People’s Public Hearings on the Future of Water in Arizona” around the state. This has provided a crucial opportunity for people from many walks of life and perspectives to discuss ecological water and Arizona’s water future. We plan to bring an even better ecological water bill to the Legislature next session. We hope it passes for the benefit of our environment, our rural communities, and the future of Arizona’s multi-billion dollar outdoor recreation economy, which includes tourism, birding, hunting, fishing, hiking, water sports – all of which depend on secure, healthy flows in our rivers and streams.

The SWWg was honored to recently receive a “Leaders of the Year in Public Policy” award in the Environment Category from the Arizona Capitol Times. We plan to continue this leadership and invite you to join us.

Kristen Wolfe is coordinator of Sustainable Water Workgroup.
www.azwaterfuture.org

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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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