Arizona faces a potentially disastrous water shortage — but no one’s paying attention.
That’s the message that emerged from a presentation in Payson that featured Mesa Mayor Scott Smith, a potential candidate for governor, and Payson Mayor Kenny Evans.
Projections suggest that Arizona may face a shortfall of a million acre-feet by the end of the century, said Evans. Rural areas may suffer the most drastic shortages, even though the state’s rivers and streams all run past their doorsteps.
That’s because the metropolitan areas of Phoenix and Tucson have the money and the political clout to lay claim to surface water and build dams and pipelines that can divert most of the state’s runoff and even groundwater supplies to the urban areas, he said.
The hour-long discussion before a small but knowledgeable audience at The Rim Club underscored not only the looming water shortage, but also the advantage Payson will enjoy as a result of work on the Blue Ridge pipeline, which will double the region’s long-term, sustainable water supply.
But most of rural Arizona faces a much worse future.
Only an aggressive, visionary effort to reawaken an interest in water policy and supply on a statewide basis can avert the crisis and keep the rural areas from dying of thirst economically, said Evans.
“The last time in my lifetime we had an opportunity as significant as this was in the early 1950s,” said Evans, who spent decades farming as much as 10,000 acres in Yuma. At that time, the state’s political leaders were lining up behind the Central Arizona Project to bring Colorado River water to the Valley. The 336-mile-long, $3.6 billion canal delivers 1.5 million acre-feet annually to the Valley and Tucson.
“We thought that was the dumbest idea you could have ever thought of,” said Evans in recalling the initial reaction to the audacious plan to dig a canal across more than 300 miles of desert and pump water uphill some 1,500 feet to the Valley — and another 1,500 feet to Tucson.
He said that unless the state comes together to provide water for the future, the urban areas “will reach out and scavenge all the water in the state.”
Curiously enough, the mayor running the third largest city in the state, the president of the National Conference of Mayors and an undeclared but bandied about candidate for governor agreed.
“Most people in urban Maricopa County don’t believe there is a water problem. And that’s a huge danger. There’s no sense of urgency. We could not have another drop of rain in Mesa for four years and we still wouldn’t run out of water. But with the great dysfunction in government, we seem to only manage by crisis.”
Smith avoided proposing any solutions to the predicted shortfall, beyond putting the problem on the top of the state’s political agenda. “We’re falling behind. Are we going to wait until they are like they were in Pine — where you turn the faucet and nothing comes out?”
He said the Central Arizona Project demonstrates the way in which the state used to come together for big projects. He cited the effort to bring an Arizona State University campus to Payson as another example. Mesa also lured several colleges to town. In Mesa’s case, after years of inconclusive negotiations with Arizona State University the city acquired a site and essentially sought what amounted to competitive bids from contending colleges — most of them private. The city ultimately selected five colleges to open programs in a centralized campus.
He lauded Evans’ effort to bring a campus to Payson. “He has a vision of a college here in Payson. When the bottom fell out of our sales tax in 2008, he didn’t curl up in the corner and stay in survival mode. In Arizona, we don’t seem to dream big enough anymore — and we didn’t used to do that.”
Evans did offer one surprising solution to the state’s projected million-acre-foot water shortfall: Forest thinning.
He noted that tree densities across nearly 3 million acres of forest in Arizona have increased dramatically. Research suggests that the 30 to 50 trees per acre in the pre-settlement forests now have 800 to 1,500 trees per acre. As a result, the thickets of trees drink up every drop of water and streams all along the face Mogollon Rim like Pine Creek have gone dry for most of the year.
Evans estimated that thinning 2.6 million acres of forest to pre-settlement densities could yield as much as 1.5 million acre-feet of water — as much as the CAP delivers each year. Thinning 2.6 million acres by hand would cost about $2.6 billion, at a rate of $1,000 per acre. That’s much less than the cost of the CAP, but would have to be repeated every 10 years or so unless forest managers returned fire to its natural role in the system.
The Four Forest Restoration Initiative was designed to provide that thinning at no cost to the taxpayers by developing a logging industry that could profit on the brush and small trees removed. That project has been stalled by a search for the right contractor and a developing debate about whether to include larger trees in the project.
The state has made several efforts to estimate future water needs and do something to ensure an adequate supply, but most of those efforts have faltered on larger divisions between farmers, urban areas and rural areas.
The state currently uses about 7 million acre-feet of water annually. A state task force projected water supply and needs out to 2110. The best guess put the shortfall at somewhere between 500,000 and 900,000 acre-feet.
Evans said the projections indicate a possible 50 percent shortfall statewide and a 170 percent shortfall in rural areas. Current law gives urban areas first call on most of the water in the state. For instance, Congress created the Tonto National Forest in the early 20th century to give the Salt River Project control of the surface water flowing into the Salt and Verde River watersheds, which then goes into reservoirs that supply the Valley.
The federal government did require long-term water planning as a condition of financing the Central Arizona Project. It required the urban areas receiving CAP water to form water management areas, called AMAs, to avoid exhausting groundwater supplies. But that meant to sustain growth, those urban areas had to look for additional water.
The state task force charged with developing with solutions to the projected shortage came up with a list of potential projects to increase the water supply. The 50-year shopping list totaled about $1.3 billion in the urban areas with water management areas and $1.8 billion in the rural areas, which have no state or federal requirement to not use up all their underground water. Other long-term estimates put the need for new water projects at up to $34 billion in the next century.
The task force went as far as identifying a way to fund the needed water projects, including impact fees, a tax on bottled water, well fees, earmarking sales taxes and other plans. However, neither state or federal lawmakers have acted on the proposals, said Evans.
Smith agreed that the state so far lacks the political will to undertake long-term planning.
The problem will only grow worse if changes in the climate alter rainfall patterns. Already, average flows in the Colorado River have dropped, along with reservoir levels. If the supply of water from the Colorado continues to drop, Arizona may have trouble getting its 1.5 million acre-feet allotment for the Central Arizona Project — intensifying the projected shortage.
“The climate is different than it was five or 10 years ago — and it doesn’t matter what’s causing that, we’ve got to adapt,” said Smith. “I don’t want to get into the politics of climate change, I want to talk about what we do if it is (changing). Things are changing and we have to be aware.”
Fortunately, Payson now stands as one of the few rural communities with an ample supply of water to support future growth. Other rural communities like Prescott, Flagstaff and Sierra Vista already face water shortages — with no assured source of additional supply.
“We have a perpetual supply of water in Payson now, but the region faces a 90,000 acre-foot shortfall,” said Evans. “We did solve the problem here in Payson, but it was a multi-generational effort and it wasn’t because we won and ‘they’ lost.”