Even if this series of winter storms that have been soaking Arizona marks the beginning of the end of the long drought — and it's a big if — we must not stop efforts to ensure our state's water future. If anything, those efforts need to be redoubled, because the long-term challenge is growing as rapidly as our population.
After five years of below-average rainfall depleted the state's reservoirs, Arizona's water managers were getting very nervous last summer. The governor and legislative leaders have been drafting proposals to make sure we're better prepared for the next drought — or the continuation of the current one.
Despite Arizona's impressive system of dams, reservoirs and canals, we must never forget that we live in an arid region. Nearly all of the water we utilize here in the lower Salt River Valley comes from someplace else: mostly from the state's central and eastern high country and from the Colorado River. And we learned a generation ago that it would be foolhardy to depend on a then-dwindling groundwater supply.
Arizona may someday find it must expand its water resources, but for now our major challenge is better management of what we have. We simply waste too much water.
The answer is not, as some cynics insist, to ban swimming pools, drain Tempe Town Lake and convert to gravel golf courses. The Valley's pioneers made the arid desert bloom by carefully storing and channelling an erratic water supply. It produced an enviable quality of life that is a near ideal mix of pleasant weather, natural beauty and Southwestern culture and lore.
And the experts tell us that enviable lifestyle can be sustained with far less water use per capita. Achieving that optimum balance will require a combination of education and legislation.
East Valley cities have been doing a respectable job of preaching the benefits of low-water-use landscaping and plumbing. Some of our artificial lakes are replenished with effluent, and several housing developments have so-called gray water systems that reuse the relatively safe wastewater from sinks, bathtubs and washing machines to irrigate parks and other public areas.
As the Tribune's Joe Kullman reported on Tuesday, state Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Mesa, plans to introduce legislation providing incentives for builders and homeowners to install such wastewater reuse systems. Rep. Tom O'Halleran, R-Sedona and chairman of a House natural-resources committee, told Kullman he'll sponsor legislation requiring more long-term planning and water reclamation projects by utility companies.
So far, the Legislature and cities have depended on education and market-based solutions — mainly through water-rate structures that penalize waste — to encourage conservation. That is a sound strategy and should be continued.
Along those lines, the Legislature should order the Department of Water Resources to determine the actual cost to provide each new household with an ample, long-term supply, and assess that in the form of a development impact fee. That way new residents, not existing ones, pay for stretching the state's limited water resources.
With the right water planning, management, public awareness and cooperation, Arizona will continue to support a pleasant and bountiful way of life.