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Policies will ensure not having to choose between water and economic growth

water, drought, Colorado River

Low water levels at Wahweap Bay at Lake Powell along the Upper Colorado River Basin are shown Wednesday, June 9, 2021, at the Utah and Arizona border at Wahweap, Ariz. Dwindling Colorado River supplies, as well as inadequate groundwater regulation in large parts of Arizona, have put the entire state in a tough position. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Reading the headlines about water issues in Arizona can be disconcerting. Our state is now more than 20 years into an historic drought with conditions projected to worsen in the coming years.

We can no longer rely on the water resources that once seemed abundant. Dwindling Colorado River supplies coupled with inadequate groundwater regulation in large parts of Arizona have put the entire state in a tough position.

But this is not a reason to despair – or to panic. We don’t need to discourage growth or declare that Arizona is closed for business because of the water challenges we face.

Jaime A. Molera

Instead, we must do what we can individually and together as citizens to demand smart policies from our elected leaders to overcome water shortages and promote economic growth. Thankfully, it seems our leaders are starting to listen.

The state legislature recently approved a $1 billion investment in the state’s water infrastructure in overwhelmingly bipartisan fashion. The money will support a mix of initiatives to conserve water where possible and ensure the state can secure new sources of water as they become available. It’s a pragmatic plan, which Gov. Doug Ducey urged state lawmakers to pass at the beginning of this year’s legislative session.

“Arizonans are, by necessity, water experts,” Ducey said in a statement following the approval of the new billion-dollar water package. “We’re protecting our water supply, strengthening our conservation strategies and ensuring that our future remains bright.”

Arizona has a long history of strong water policy and innovation. This track record includes the Central Arizona Project system that brings water from the Colorado River to Arizona’s major population centers and the 1980 Groundwater Management Act.

These measures helped Arizona grow into the economic powerhouse it is today. But environmental conditions are changing, and we must respond to these challenging new conditions by actively managing our water resources to ensure water continues to be available for industrial, agricultural and municipal users in Arizona.

The recently passed bill is a good start. It sets aside money for critical augmentation projects that will help Arizona shore-up its supply for the long term, as well as $200 million for a dedicated water conservation fund to help Arizonans in the short term.

Noticeably lacking from the legislation were any protections for rural groundwater. Unfortunately, a bipartisan effort to allow rural communities to establish groundwater management areas has failed to pass for several years, and groundwater pumping in large parts of Arizona remains unchecked. That is particularly problematic, as Arizona relies on groundwater for 40% of its water supply and, as supplies from the Colorado River continue to decline due to ongoing drought conditions, that will continue to put groundwater resources under major strain.

Given all this, what will the next chapter of actively managing the state’s water resources look like? To get some answers, I spoke with one of our state leaders, Rep. Joanne Osborne, while the legislature was finalizing the landmark $1 billion water deal.

Representative Osborne says that the bulk of the funding should be set aside for long-term water supply solutions that include desalination technologies to convert salt water into drinking water and “a pipeline to our waterlogged states that have issues of flooding.” However, these high-profile, big-ticket solutions “are going to take some time” and so it’s imperative to also move forward with pragmatic measures to increase efficiency and reduce waste. For example, Osborne said officials could replace “old pipes” that leak water and expand efforts to “reuse and reclaim” as much water as possible from unconventional sources.

Overall, Osborne and Ducey are spot-on in recognizing that the key to future water policy is making sure new initiatives are consistent with Arizona’s “low-regulation, low-tax structure” that has drawn new businesses and new industries to the state.

Too often, environmental challenges are presented in all-or-nothing terms. But thanks to our leaders here in Arizona, our state isn’t falling into that trap. Overcoming big challenges requires both pragmatism and optimism. Because while we must protect our natural resources, we must also maintain a foundation for growth and prosperity.

 Jaime A. Molera is former Arizona state school superintendent, partner of Molera Alvarez, and the Arizona director for The Western Way, a nonprofit organization that builds support for market-driven solutions to environmental challenges.

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