Like water? Then don't leave agency in a drought

It is time for the business community, all water interests and anyone who cares about Arizona to add their voices to the chorus calling for increased state funding for the Department of Water Resources.

The reason is simple: the economy. Water is essential for every aspect of our economy — agriculture, copper mining, power generation, attracting industries with high paying jobs, and meeting the needs of homes, schools, hotels and hospitals. Without sustainable water supplies, our economic growth will come to a screeching halt.

The Department of Water Resources is the state agency charged with helping to ensure that catastrophe does not happen.

It defends Arizona's rights to Colorado River water, protects critical groundwater supplies and determines whether new subdivisions have a 100-year assured water supply. It is supposed to provide planning assistance, especially to rural areas where water supplies are far less reliable than in the major metropolitan areas. The department also collects data on stream flows and groundwater levels, so critical to understanding our water situation and to plan for shortages.

In 2008, the department received more than $22 million from the state. By 2014, that funding had dropped to about $12 million, and staff had been slashed by 40 percent. Lack of funding is seriously hampering the department's ability to do its job.

Consider the following:

-- The department is responsible for critical negotiations with the other Colorado River Basin states, and for working on important international water issues with Mexico. To be effective on our behalf, it needs adequate staffing for research, along with the manpower necessary when important deliberations are occurring simultaneously on these and other top-level issues. If we shortchange the department, we shortchange ourselves.

-- The 1980 Groundwater Management Act requires the department to develop a series of management plans to reduce the major metropolitan areas' reliance on groundwater, thereby protecting our groundwater resources for emergencies.

Management plans for the period 2010 to 2020 were supposed to be proposed by Jan. 1, 2008. But the department has yet to propose management plans for the Phoenix, Pinal and Tucson areas because three people are trying to do the work that used to be done by 40.

-- Water managers report that approval times for permits for new wells and underground storage projects are nearly twice what they once were.

-- Many rural areas of the state are seeing the alarming depletion of their groundwater supplies, but the department has limited ability to help local leaders find solutions.

-- The department is unable to compete in the salary market, restricting its ability to fill key positions and retain talent. Dedicated employees shoulder too great a burden.

The Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University's Morrison Institute for Public Policy has called for increased funding for the department. In December, the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association Board of Directors sent a letter to Gov. Doug Ducey requesting his support for increased general fund appropriations for the department.

The department is stretched to the breaking point. It is time for the state to re-invest in this crucial agency.

This is a small price to pay for our continued economic prosperity, and is even more essential in this time of drought. When it comes to water, Arizona cannot afford to gamble with its future.

Kathleen Ferris, former executive director of the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association; Senior Research Fellow, Morrison Institute for Public Policy