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Arizona's continuing population growth puts pressure on water supply

Arizona Drought
Posted at 4:33 PM, May 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-18 13:14:43-04

PHOENIX — Millions of people are betting on Arizona. They’re buying homes, starting businesses, and families. The future of how we use our water resources may dictate the future of their success.

“We don’t want to put consumers and businesses at risk when they built and there was a hundred years of water but what happens 80 years from now, is there still 100 years of water left,” said Haley Paul, a regional director for the Audubon Society.

That question was addressed four decades earlier with the Groundwater Management Act of 1980. The idea was the law would ensure when water was taken out, just as much was put back in, creating what they called a safe yield goal by 2025.

“40% of our water supply comes from groundwater so that just shows you it’s a major resource we need to protect,” said Paul.

Unfortunately, a new study released by ASU researchers with the Kyl Center shows the law is not living up to its promise as deep, thousands of years old aquifers continue to be over-pumped.

“We are not doing enough to get to safe yield and stay there,” said Sarah Porter, Director of the Kyl Center and coauthor of the study.

She says the three main sectors using the highest amount of groundwater are agriculture, industrial and municipal. All need to use less, some more than others. Agriculture, which is already leading the way when it comes to water conservation, may be tasked to innovate even further.

“To a great degree, cities have done a good job getting off groundwater and turning to surface water,” said Porter.

But for the first time, the state is facing cuts to that surface water flowing in from the Colorado River and Central Arizona Project canals, putting pressure on industries to potentially increase the use of groundwater resources. The study goes on to say grandfathered water rights continue to plague the goal of sustainability. Other large swaths of the state aren’t being regulated at all.

“We need to think seriously about where we’re headed,” said Porter.

The city of Buckeye, one of the fastest-growing areas, remains dependent on groundwater.

The study proposed a number of suggestions to lawmakers, all aimed at strategic conservation which includes considering ways to encourage new urban development on agricultural lands in managed areas, which would reduce water use.

One option is offering incentives to encourage industrial water users to switch from groundwater to other supplies, such as treated wastewater, and taking away the Department of Water Resources’ authority to issue new permits for industries to pump groundwater. Another is budgeting more funding for the Department of Water Resources to manage groundwater at a more local level. And tightening rules to require the Department of Water Resources to deny an application for a “certificate of assured water supply” for a new subdivision in the Phoenix, Tucson, or Pinal areas if the proposed development is located in a subbasin where there is no site available to replenish groundwater.

“I think what this report is doing is sounding the alarm that we cannot rest, we need to continually adapt and look at our policies and ask are they working,” said Paul.

Click here to read the full report.