Seeking water solutions through consensus

For generations, water has been the issue in Arizona which transcends partisan politics.  George W.P. Hunt, the "old walrus" of early statehood was said to "walk on land, but run on water" whenever he faced an electoral challenge.  Hayden, Rhodes, Udall, Babbitt and Goldwater all understood the fundamental reality of life in the desert:  private citizens and organizations along with the state and federal government must work together to ensure reliable water supplies for the people of Arizona.

The Salt River Project, the Central Arizona Project, and the Groundwater Management Act are all examples of Arizona's Citizens recognizing critical needs and creating structures to deliver and manage our water supplies.  More recently, the Groundwater Replenishment District and the Arizona Water Bank were formed to create more options for water preservation.  Just within the last month, the cities of Phoenix and Tucson announced a cooperative water management strategy, and two weeks ago Phoenix announced another innovative step to shore up water supplies against future drought by acquiring additional Colorado River supply.

As Arizonans, we should all take great pride in this legacy.  No place in the world can boast of doing a better job of long term planning, thinking, building, transporting, storing and managing water.  That legacy has enabled us to weather the current prolonged drought far more easily than other Western states, even while preserving agricultural use, holding down municipal water rates, avoiding mandatory rationing and banking water for future needs.  As a state, we are currently using about the same amount of water we did in 1960, even as the population has increased nearly fivefold.

But legacies can be squandered.  We face a complex and potentially difficult future.  It is likely the current drought will continue.  The Southwest may well become hotter and drier over the next several decades.  Or not. We do know we will not have as much water as predicted in earlier years and that growth will strain our ability to continue our current lifestyle, growth trajectory and urban form.  Will we have enough water to get through a crisis and meet future demands in any event?

Early this year the Arizona Department of Water Resources looked at these questions in its report:  Arizona’s Next Century:  A Strategic Vision for Water Supply Sustainability, and concluded that we could be facing an imbalance between projected demands and water supply availability approaching 1 million acre feet in the next 25 to 50 years.  The process of developing new water projects and management techniques is complicated and takes a very long time, so  in order to address that potential shortfall, Arizona must start planning now.

To help jump start this planning process, the Morrison Institute for Public Policy, with a seed endowment from the Morrison family, is launching the Kyl Center for Water Policy.  The Center will serve as a forum for generation of solutions for public evaluation and subsequent consideration.  As an ASU resource, the Center will promote research, analysis, collaboration and open dialogue to identify opportunities for consensus to ensure sound water stewardship for Arizona and the West for generations to come.

The Kyl Center has already hosted two meetings of water experts to prioritize actions that will begin this process. The consensus focused on three time frames:

1.        Short-term priorities (to be tackled in the next year)

a.       To resolve competing claims to surface water and make pending stream adjudications more efficient.  To deal with our water future, we first need to figure out who has how much water and in what priority vis-à-vis others.  But for almost 40 years, water rights adjudications have been languishing in the courts.  At the Kyl Center, we hope to suggest some alternatives for more expeditious resolution of these issues.

b.      Develop enhanced funding opportunities for the Arizona Department of Water Resources and for water supply augmentation.  ADWR’s 2013 budget is about half of what it was in 2008.  More stable and consistent funding must be found to operate the Department and provide technical expertise to the courts handling the adjudication process.  But beyond that, we need to open a discussion about the funding of future water projects.  The federal government no longer can be counted on to fund big water projects and augmentation of supplies will be enormously expensive.

2.       Medium-term priorities.

Several water management efforts are already underway but may need to be enhanced or altered to be more effective. For example, though our use of treated wastewater and strong conservation have yielded significant benefits, more may be possible. The scope and pace of watershed management needs to be improved. And it may be time to evaluate potential changes to groundwater management. These and other issues should each be addressed in relevant timeframes.

3.       Longer-term priorities.

Augmentation.  Finding new sources of water is the long-term challenge for Arizona, and is especially acute in rural Arizona.  Thinking about the alternatives and analyzing the viability should start now, though implementation will require very long term commitment.

The Kyl Center hopes that its efforts will broaden the participation of Arizonans in dealing with our shared water future.  In that spirit, we invite you to visit the Center’s new website at MorrisonInstitute.asu.edu/Kyl-Water-Center. We will be hosting a series of public events, starting at the State of Our State Conference on Nov. 14, to further inform and advance the dialogue.

The issues of sharing, developing and managing water are at the center of our civilization in the arid Southwest.  The Anasazi, the Hohokam and our Hispanic and Anglo forefathers all realized this.  The legacy is ours to share, to celebrate, and to protect.  Let’s get on with it.

Jon Kyl is a former U.S. senator from Arizona and Senior Of Counsel, Covington and Burling, LLP, Washington, D.C.
Grady Gammage Jr. is a senior research fellow at Morrison Institute for Public Policy and a land-use attorney.