We’re going to run out of water.
Well, not Payson: Two decades of effort have secured Rim Country’s water future. But everyone else is starting to feel a little panicked.
As a result, the House Agriculture and Water Committee chaired by State Rep. Brenda Barton (R-Payson) is holding a series of hearings on how the state can cope with a looming water shortage — including a session today in Payson.
The hearings come on the heels of a failed effort to establish regional water authorities, which could enforce cooperation in what may prove an increasingly contentious struggle for water. Critics bridled at the idea that water authorities would have any actual authority.
Now, Barton is heading up the search for alternatives, as the projections of future shortages grow increasingly grim.
“We will have to make some hard decisions. We know that this is going to take a long time, but we want to have some short-term solutions to bridge from now to when we have the big projects completed.”
In many ways, she said Payson remains a model for the rest of the state. Local officials worked for 20 years to obtain rights to 3,000 acre-feet of water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir, enough to double the town’s long-term water supply. Payson then negotiated an agreement with the Salt River Project that controls rights to all the surface water in the Tonto National Forest and lined up federal grants and financing to build the pipeline.
“The Blue Ridge agreement is very good for Payson and the Payson community,” said Barton. “We really should be celebrating. It’s fabulous. That’s why I’m saying, it takes a long time to put these agreements together.”
A report by the Arizona Water Resources Development Commission says that in coming decades the state’s annual water use will grow from about 7 million acre-feet to about 11 million acre-feet. An estimated 1.2 billion acre-feet remains stored in underground water tables, however, much of that water is too deep and too far from the areas that need it to solve the problem.
Recent developments have underscored the value of Payson’s assured future water supply — especially when comparing Rim Country to other rural areas that depend on groundwater.
For instance, a recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey concluded that the flow of the Verde River will decrease by 8,600 acre-feet annually in the course of the next century, mostly because of groundwater pumping. As a result, the river could go dry intermittently — as well as many of the groundwater wells in the area. Cities in the Verde Valley and the Salt River Project are in a protracted legal struggle with Prescott and Chino Valley, arguing that groundwater in those rapidly growing areas threatens to dry up the Verde River.
Will state run out of water?
The House Agriculture and Water Committee chaired by State Rep. Brenda Barton (R-Payson) is holding a series of hearings on how the state can cope with a looming water shortage — including a session today in Payson.
U.S. Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake last week put out a joint appeal to elected officials in the Verde Valley and Prescott to develop a long-term water management strategy to protect the Verde River.
Sierra Vista and other communities in southeastern Arizona face similar questions concerning the impact of groundwater pumping on the San Pedro River, one of the last free-flowing streams in the Southwest and a migration super highway for songbirds.
Other studies have predicted a major crisis on the Colorado River, which drains half a continent and whose waters and reservoirs provide water to an estimated 40 million people in seven states.
The various water districts and states entitled to a share of the river currently use about a million acre-feet more than the river has provided in recent years. Projections suggest the shortfall could rise to a disastrous 8 million acre-feet in coming decades — which could virtually cut off the spigot for Arizona, which stands in line between California and the upper basin states. Such a cutoff could cause a major water crisis in Phoenix and Tucson, both of which now rely on water from the Central Arizona Project.
A recent study published in Nature Climate Change predicted a 10 percent decline in average flows in the Colorado River by 2040, given a projected 1-2 degree Celsius increase in average temperatures. The warming trend could actually increase rainfall by putting more energy and more moisture into the air. However, any increase in rainfall would be negated by an increase in evaporation. As a result, the climate models suggest that the snowpack and therefore the spring runoff would decrease by about 20 percent on the Colorado River watershed, concluded the researchers.
The projected shortfall has triggered intense study and speculation about how to close the growing gap between demand and supply on the Colorado River.
One proposal would essentially drain Lake Powell, concentrating the water in Lake Mead, which is now often half empty. That would reduce evaporation by about 300,000 acre-feet a year — about equal to the state of Nevada’s claim on the Colorado River. Presumably, the Bureau of Reclamation could still use Lake Powell to capture extra water in the increasingly rare wet years.
Water conservation can also stretch the dwindling supplies. Phoenix has reduced its per capita average water use from about 250 gallons per day to about 108 gallons per day in recent years. That’s still above Payson’s average of about 89 gallons a day, but a dramatic improvement. The average Los Angeles resident uses about 123 gallons per day.
The Water Resources Development Commission also recommended the state sharply increase its use of reclaimed water for irrigation. The study projected the potential supply of useable reclaimed water statewide at about 750,000 acre-feet in 2035 rising to about 1.3 million acre-feet in 2110.
Again, the use of reclaimed water falls far short of providing the 3 million to 4 million acre-feet of additional water supply needed to sustain future growth.
The commission concluded, “It is now known that portions of the state have sufficient supplies developed to meet future needs, while other areas within the state will require development of additional supplies for the future.”
The scramble for water may set off regional and local water wars, as the Verde Valley and Prescott can already attest. Those small rural areas may also find themselves overshadowed by the thirst of Phoenix, with the Salt River Project as the Valley’s enforcer.
Rep. Barton said the fate of the Owens Valley in California when matched against the water greed of distant Los Angeles provides a cautionary tale. Los Angeles water providers secretly bought up farmland in the fertile Owens Valley, watered by runoff from the eastern slopes of the Sierras. All they wanted was the water rights that went with the land. The Los Angeles water interests then piped the water to LA, turning the Owens Valley into a high, windswept desert.
“That’s a good example of what we don’t want to have happen,” said Barton. “That has been mentioned many times. You kill the Owens Valley, but metropolitan LA is as happy as they can be. We have a wealth of rural communities — we need to make sure they stay that way.”