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Is it really drought contingency or a missed opportunity?


Who could have anticipated that there would be reduced flows in the Colorado River and that the water levels in Lake Mead would drop? Who knew that those who got cheaper, lower priority water from the river might actually have to take the shortages to which they had agreed? Who knew that the river was stretched beyond what it can deliver? Anyone who was paying attention. Anyone who can do basic math. Anyone who has been looking at the Colorado River system and the impacts from climate change.

Despite the recent precipitation, Arizona is in a prolonged dry period that is projected to get hotter and drier, according to the most recent National Climate Assessment. We should no longer refer to it as drought because that makes it seem like it is temporary and abnormal. What we are seeing now is what we can expect more of in the future.

Sandy Bahr

Sandy Bahr

Unfortunately, far too many of the usual water interests seemed to be in denial about that until the last few years and some still are, including a number of legislators, and to some degree the governor – he cannot even manage to say the words climate change and spent a good part of 2017 and 2018 talking about what a great job Arizona has done on water planning. Those that got the cheap water and have to take the first shortages were also ignoring reality, but perhaps they knew they could go to the government (taxpayers) to get a bailout.

The Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) is a multi-state agreement on how the states will take less water from a river that has a “structural deficit,” even without accounting for the impacts of climate change. Reducing the amount of water we take from the Colorado River is necessary and we should look at how we can do more, but the implementation of the DCP for our state represents Arizona doing more of the same old water policies and politics and really missing an opportunity to shift the construct. In the DCP, there was no consideration of deeper conservation, no consideration of mechanisms to shift our state to less thirsty crops, and no consideration of what kind of development is sustainable. There was no consideration of our other rivers and the need for ecological flows.

There were also some key questions that were not asked and answered.

What does it mean for the future when we allow an increase in groundwater pumping to facilitate this short-term fix, as was approved in the Arizona bill? In 1980, the Groundwater Management Act was passed, in part, to begin to limit groundwater pumping and move the state in a more sustainable direction when it comes to water. There was a lot that was left out, however, including any mention of protecting rivers and streams from excessive groundwater pumping and, of course, huge swaths of the state that were left with unregulated and unmitigated pumping. They still are.

Now comes one of the bigger tests for that water planning and we seem to be failing miserably. The DCP is really a plan for the status quo, continuing the thirsty agriculture and unsustainable growth and development that makes a lot of money for big developers, but leaves our state with even more problems. Arizona’s plan actually takes our state backward on groundwater management. Not only does the DCP plan not limit groundwater pumping, it actually facilitates pumping and we pay for it.

The DCP is not a plan for the long term and it does not lay the groundwork for a sustainable future. It only takes us out to 2026. What happens after that? Seven years is a short time horizon when you are talking about something as important as water, something that is essential to life.

So what do we need? For the Colorado River, the rest of Arizona’s rivers, and our groundwater, we need a comprehensive sustainability plan. The over-allocated river, climate change and the hotter and drier conditions for our state, are not going away any time soon. We need to learn to live within our means and look at deeper conservation – less water intensive industries, agriculture, and development; more reuse; and recognition of the benefits of flowing rivers. The excessive groundwater pumping that is drying up wells in rural areas and also robbing rivers of their life-sustaining base-flows must be addressed. It is time to limit groundwater pumping outside of the active management areas.

Maricopa County is the fastest growing county in the United States. Aren’t we overdue in questioning whether that is a good thing and seriously considering what kinds of limits there are on sprawling development and industrial agriculture in a desert that is increasingly arid due to climate change?

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


  1. Drip irrigation, rainwater harvesting and water saving technologies such as aquaponics should be part of any 21st century water plan. 3 of the 5 Cs of Arizona relate to agriculture. You would think we would have a better handle on sustaining it beyond the point where it’s just someone else’s problem.

  2. bradley taylor hudson

    Great article, should be the guiding document for a plan. I came to AZ in 1974, and there was talk of the need for water savings. We said then that nothing will be done until people turn on their faucets and nothing comes out. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a giant experiment for people with learning disabilities.

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