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Arizona’s budget must reflect our water challenges

(Photo by Ellen O'Brien)

(Photo by Ellen O’Brien)

Gov. Doug Ducey and the Arizona Legislature have announced their versions of Arizona’s annual budget, which lays out key funding priorities to safeguard the well-being of our state. Those funds will be used to address a multitude of issues, but perhaps none is more important than Arizona’s water security.

As our state begins to reduce its use of water from the overtaxed Colorado River, our entire state — both urban and rural communities — needs to rethink how we use our water supplies in a way that better balances supply and demand and protects our finite groundwater resources.

Kim Mitchell

Kim Mitchell

Recent polling from the Morrison Institute for Public Policy found that Arizonans ranked water security as one of their greatest areas of concern. To reflect those concerns and proactively pursue forward-thinking water-saving solutions, it’s essential that the Legislature direct greater funding to the Arizona Department of Water Resources, the agency tasked with managing our state’s water stewardship.

The department suffered deep budget cuts following the Great Recession that continue to constrain its operations and, perhaps more importantly, its ability to ensure long-term, reliable water supplies to support Arizona’s economy. During the economic downturn, the Legislature reduced the Department’s staff positions by 61%. Now, almost 10 years later, the department is operating with only two-thirds of its pre-recession staff.

But this is about more than just adding staff back to the department’s roster. Hiring – and retaining – the kind of experts that ADWR needs requires significant resources. The department and Director Tom Buschatzke need additional general fund dollars to attract, hire and retain groundwater modelers, engineers and other water professionals. And the department must be able to offer a competitive salary and benefits to attract and retain the talent and expertise that Arizona needs to protect our limited water supplies.

Arizona is already feeling the effects of a strapped department. Reports from the state auditor show that due to a lack of funding, the department is less able to fulfill its responsibilities managing groundwater and issuing reports that track water conservation. This is a troubling prospect: A recent series in the Arizona Republic highlighted the challenges surrounding excessive groundwater pumping in rural Arizona and illustrated the acute need for acquiring and compiling supply and demand information about water resources throughout the state.

Chris Kuzdas

Chris Kuzdas

Without these analyses, it’s nearly impossible for communities, farmers and ranchers, and families that depend on groundwater to plan for their water future. Today the department is over a decade late in completing several plans to help the state prevent long-term water declines and better manage groundwater resources.

Additionally, the department plays a major role in helping settle water rights disputes between competing parties by providing critical technical and administrative support to the court that adjudicates these claims. That’s no small task – currently, there are over 100,000 unresolved surface water claims in rural Arizona. The department’s ability to provide this technical support has been severely affected since the agency was downsized during the recession. That creates uncertainty about our surface water supplies – and who has the right to use them – that hurts our economy.

While funding for the department has increased slightly in recent years, it is far from enough. In the years since the recession, prolonged drought across the Southwest, combined with a hotter and drier climate and ongoing population growth, has exacerbated our water challenges. We can no longer kick the can down the road. The department – and all Arizonans – deserve action now.

There’s no doubt that our water challenges are myriad and addressing them will require a range of solutions. But funding the department, returning it to satisfactory staffing levels and providing competitive salaries for employee retention is an essential part of the path forward. Only then can the department fully resume essential functions like facilitating scientific research and data gathering that will help prepare us for a drier future.

The Drought Contingency Plan process showed us that it’s possible to confront our water management challenges head on and bring everyone to the negotiating table. If we’re going to do that in the future, the department will need dedicated funding and support from our Legislature.

“Kim Mitchell is the senior water policy adviser at Western Resource Advocates and former hydrologist at the Arizona Department of Water Resources. Christopher Kuzdas is the Arizona water program manager for the Environmental Defense Fund. Both are members of the Water for Arizona Coalition.”

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