Arizona continues to avoid a problem critical to our future — statewide management of precious water resources dwindling because of a decade-long drought.
The last significant effort to protect our water supplies took place in 1980, when the Legislature established a series of management areas that revolve around the state’s population centers. The goal was to eventually shore up underground water tables and even restore more water to aquifers than Arizonans use every day.
Valley communities have fulfilled state requirements to own and maintain a 100-year supply of water, although in many cases that includes the leasing of water rights from nearby Indian tribes. But the Arizona Department of Water Resources says the Valley water management area is unlikely to meet a 2025 deadline to replace every drop of water pulled from the ground. Currently, we are overdrafting by more than 200,000 acre feet each year.
Meanwhile, state officials have ignored calls to expand these management areas to other regions of Arizona or to establish a single, statewide system.
Gov. Janet Napolitano and a small collection of state lawmakers have tried in recent years to take additional steps toward better oversight. But they have been largely blocked by smaller rural communities that argue their needs would be neglected if they were forced to share ideas and resources with bigger cities. The rural areas also have promoted a myth, sometimes quite cynically, that their water issues are regional in nature and don’t require state intervention.
Tribune writer J. Craig Anderson exposed the fallacies of that myth with a Sunday story about how the explosion of new water wells in Prescott and the Verde Valley has become a serious threat to water supplies of the East Valley. Under the worst possible scenario, unchecked growth in the north could dry up the Verde River and take away one-third of the water delivered to our area by the Salt River Project.
Unless someone steps forward to manage this situation, there will be a water race between Valley cities and these north-central communities, with the losers suffering crippling economic losses because they no longer have access to expected water supplies.
Such conflicts will grow more intense as various regions search for new water sources as long as no one has the power to balance competing interests.
Arizona must shake its malaise of the past 25 years and start to effectively manage water from a statewide perspective. Texas could serve as one possible model. In the mid-1990s, Texas officials set up a series of regions that were ordered to craft long-range conservation and emergency drought plans. Regions that failed to meet state deadlines risked severe penalties including the loss of future water rights.
Critics claimed the process would fail from political infighting. Instead, cities and rural areas worked together smoothly to protect their common interests. The individual plans were integrated into a single, comprehensive strategy that is managed by regional councils with oversight by the state water agency.
The Texas approach wasn’t perfect, as it left tough choices about obtaining new water supplies to future decision makers. But the final plan was remarkable because it required cooperation among 254 counties covering 268,581 square miles.
If Arizona’s leaders stop turning a blind eye to our own water future, we are confident a similar management plan could be written for our state’s 15 counties that cover 114,006 square miles.