Arizona is at a crossroads. Nearly 40% of Arizona’s annual water uses are supplied by the Colorado River. However, the outlook for Colorado River water availability – and Arizona’s junior allocation, in particular – is deeply concerning.
The Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) has determined that there is insufficient water to support various projects in Central Arizona where development would otherwise naturally occur over the next several years (west Maricopa County and Pinal County). Additional water supplies will be needed to support the growth and economic prosperity we all want for our children and our grandchildren. Arizona must start today.
The present water crunch occurs alongside a historic budget surplus that allowed Arizona to make a substantial investment in water augmentation. In July, Governor Doug Ducey signed a bill directing $1 billion to a water augmentation fund over the next three years. The fund will be administered by the Water Infrastructure Finance Authority of Arizona (WIFA). A minimum of 75% of these dollars must be devoted to projects that import water from outside of Arizona.
The new law does not direct WIFA to implement any particular projects. Instead, WIFA is authorized to select importation projects based on a variety of considerations. WIFA has been vested with significant discretion, and it is critical that WIFA make wise investment decisions.
We must hope that WIFA will resist pressures to invest in stop-gap measures. WIFA should focus on projects to provide direct delivery of desalinated ocean water, likely in partnership with Mexico. The technology is proven. More than 15,000 desalination plants operate today in hundreds of countries, and Israel is on the verge of satisfying approximately 90% of its municipal and industrial water demand through desalination.
The previous desalination concept involved a water exchange with Mexico. Arizona would have helped fund treatment plants to provide desalinated water to users in Mexico. In exchange, Arizona would have received a portion of Mexico’s supply of Colorado River water. Investing billions of dollars in an increased Colorado River allocation is now a questionable strategy. Would that water be physically available on a reliable basis?
Arizona should think bigger. The Gulf of California is Arizona’s closest ocean water source, and Arizona’s partnership with Mexico should include a water pipeline to provide direct delivery of desalinated ocean water to Arizona. This would involve more legal issues and land use complications, and it would be significantly more expensive. However, this solution would provide a significant, long-term infusion of additional water to Arizona. It would be drought-proof, and therefore far more reliable than a Colorado River exchange because the source would be ocean water. An international water pipeline would be a large project, but that’s what’s required to adequately address Arizona’s water shortage.
Sean Hood is a litigator and water lawyer at Fennemore. He chairs Fennemore’s largest practice group, business litigation, and has nearly 20 years of experience advising and litigating on a broad range of water rights issues and business disputes.