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Maximize water security with new infrastructure, visionary policy

A low-level irrigation ditch is fed fresh water from the Colorado River, August 27, 2019, in Casa Blanca, Ariz.(AP PhotoMatt York)

Gov. Doug Ducey’s “State of the State” address reflected on a number of challenges facing Arizonans, including the current megadrought that is jeopardizing water supplies we all rely on.

Threats to Arizona’s water supplies are here and will only intensify in the future. We’ve grappled with water shortages in the past, but impacts are now more visible than ever before, as our rivers, farmers, rural communities and cities feel the effects of water cutbacks and declining groundwater levels. Our new water reality demands bolder and more holistic policy and infrastructure solutions from decision makers.

Haley Paul

To ensure water security now and for the future, Arizonans need our leaders to approach updating water policy with the same scale of ambition evoked by mega infrastructure investments like Hoover Dam. They should develop an integrated, statewide Water Security Plan – a set of generational reforms and smart investments in Arizona’s water future to address urgent and interrelated water issues. Doing so would acknowledge the accelerating impacts of climate change and help us plan for the water supplies that experts tell us we are going to have, not the ones we remember, or those we wish for.

In his speech, Ducey announced a $1 billion investment in desalination and other water augmentation projects with the goal of “securing Arizona’s water future for the next 100 years.” While we applaud the long-term vision for water security in Ducey’s speech, these kinds of infrastructure investments will be most effective at improving our water security if we also have the right policies in place.

Many of Arizona’s landmark water policies, such as the 1980 Groundwater Management Act, need updating to reflect our current water situation. The conservation measures mandated by the 2019 Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan, and the recent 500+ Plan, are providing essential support to Lake Mead, and are proof that updating policies is both politically possible and urgently needed.

Christopher Kuzdas

As part of a Water Security Plan that addresses the current realities we’re facing, it is essential that Arizona take steps to protect groundwater for all residents regardless of where they live. Right now, communities in rural Arizona have few tools to manage or conserve their groundwater resources, leading to depleted wells, insecure community water supplies, and dewatered rivers and streams. The state should empower local communities to protect their groundwater resources and plan for their future through a combination of locally tailored options, including incentives and other state-funded water infrastructure investments.

The plan should also support Arizona’s sovereign tribes in resolving tribal water issues. Our state leaders should engage federal decision makers to allocate funding to improve access to clean and reliable drinking water on tribal lands and upgrade tribal water systems. We must support each tribe in achieving full recognition and making full use of their unique water rights to meet their needs and goals.

For tribes, cities, farmers, and businesses, there is too much uncertainty about who can use how much water in many of the state’s watersheds. That makes it difficult to plan for the future. Our lawmakers could help reduce these uncertainties by dedicating more funding to resolve the long-running lawsuits known as the General Stream Adjudications.

This plan must also include investments in the agencies that promote the sustainability and quality of our water supplies. The state’s Department of Water Resources and Department of Environmental Quality must be adequately funded to protect water supplies and support water users across the state. Those agencies need full funding to retain staff and carry out critical functions including collecting and making data available on water quantity and quality, analyzing changes over time, implementing conservation programs, and enforcing water quality standards to protect waterways and groundwater.

We can’t address water problems in this new water era like we have in the past. We must pair infrastructure investments with sound water policy, and accept that improved water infrastructure means many, distributed multi-benefit projects and not singular, silver bullet solutions. Aggressive conservation, recycling and reuse, stormwater and groundwater recharge, and forest restoration to improve watershed health should all be considered among the infrastructure investments to secure Arizona’s water future.
As we grapple with increasing aridification, we should prioritize fixing our water policies as much as we do our infrastructure. We cannot justify expensive public investments in water infrastructure if we have not done all that we can to use the water we do have wisely. The most important legacy we can leave for future generations is a visionary and integrated set of policies, plans, and investments that protect our communities and resources, maximize their benefits, and ensure that the infrastructure we do have works as effectively as possible for all Arizonans.

Haley Paul is Policy Director at the National Audubon Society in Arizona. Christopher Kuzdas is a Senior Water Program Manager at the Environmental Defense Fund. They co-lead the Water for Arizona Coalition.

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