The ugly “bathtub ring” currently visible at Lake Mead is a stark visual example that all is not well with our water supply and water policy. The hardworking Colorado River, which supplies Lake Mead, has been overallocated for decades and now growth, drought, and climate change are lowering water levels even further.
Other Arizona rivers and creeks are facing a similar fate as the Colorado. Flowing rivers are in decline, water levels are decreasing and, in some places, drying up completely. For too long Arizona’s flowing rivers have been viewed as a resource to tame, exploit, and fuel growth. Water is taken from rivers with no thought for the needs of future generations, preserving riparian habitat, or saving the plants and animals that depend upon flowing water. Arizona has lost hundreds of miles of flowing rivers and riparian habitat. The right for a river to exist is neither recognized nor protected in our state.
While growth, drought, and climate change are all partly to blame for our declining rivers, Arizona has fallen behind other Western states in modernizing water use laws and protecting our environment. Under current Arizona law, surface water can be appropriated for designated beneficial uses, with water rights granted “first in time, first in right.”
Water uses that may have been appropriate 100 years ago continue today. High water-use crops, such as alfalfa and cotton, are depleting our rivers and aquifers. Municipalities, industries, and large mega-farms are free to pump unlimited quantities of groundwater (in most of the state), lowering the water table and starving flowing rivers of a water source. And, the final insult, the state does not recognize that groundwater and surface water are connected (except in a very narrow context that does not reflect reality).
Meanwhile, the Arizona Legislature is in full denial of Arizona’s water policy needs, refusing to hear bills that might limit groundwater pumping overdraft, examine surface water overallocation, and help preserve our remaining rivers and creeks. Instead, they are openly talking of fantastical plans to spend millions of dollars to look into piping flood water from the Mississippi or Missouri Rivers. The focus of our problem-solving must evolve from building the next big canal or pipeline, to preserving and better using what we have.
The solutions require new thinking, redirection of resources, and a greater respect for our natural environment. Treatment and re-use of wastewater helps to maintain flow in parts of the Santa Cruz and Salt rivers.
Southern California plans to reuse nearly all its wastewater, instead of dumping it in the ocean. Our state government and the Central Arizona Project are even paying California $6 million to do so. Why can’t more be done to reuse water here in Arizona? Agriculture uses 70% of our water supply. Water-intensive crops and flood irrigation must change to conserve more water. Newer farming methods including hydroponics, greenhouses and drip irrigation systems offer much greater water efficiency. Rural groundwater pumping (outside of Active Management Areas and Irrigation Non-expansion Areas) needs to be measured and regulated to bring certainty and protection to existing groundwater users and to preserve groundwater tables that support our streams and rivers.
Arizona promotes itself as a world leader in water management. Yet rural wells and rivers are drying up since sustainable water management plans are hindered by laws no longer appropriate for these times. Our relationship with desert water has changed, and our water laws must change too.
Lynda Person is a steering committee member of the Sustainable Water Network.