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Is Arizona’s Water Crisis Headed Toward Catastrophe?

"Gary, let's keep the water crisis from becoming a catastrophe!"

I thought about that comment, dated August 20, 2009 and signed Robert Glennon (on the inside flap of my copy of his book, Unquenchable) yesterday when I read this headline in the New York Times: "Water Use in Southwest Heads for a Day of Reckoning."

Every so often and we get frenzied about the water crisis, vowing to reduce our water consumption, increase water reclamation, and search for other sustainable supplies.  Then we turn our attention somewhere else and forget all about changing our water use habits.  If we keep doing the same thing, it is inevitable that the crisis will become a catastrophe.  That's when we'll really pay attention, but by then our options will be far less attractive than they are today.

I had an opportunity to talk about this issue earlier this week at a conference on the Future of Water Partnerships in the West.  I ad-libbed my opening remarks, asking the audience (some of whom were attending from the east coast) how many had packed an umbrella in making the trip to Phoenix.  Nobody packed an umbrella.  Neither did they expect the temperature on September 28 to reach 108 degrees.  I said it might seem strange to them, but those of us living here in the desert get downright giddy every time it does rain.

Thanks to remarkable feats of engineering to collect and distribute water in an area where natural recharge can be infrequent, we've been spoiled.  Looking ahead, though, we could be in a world of hurt, unless we begin some serious planning today.

First let's consider where we're at

In 2008 we commissioned a study on Arizona's infrastructure needs to 2032.  One of the chapters was about water and wastewater and, in part, analyzed the gap between supply and demand for water in Arizona's most populous 3-county area (Maricopa, Pima, and Pinal) as well as in Arizona's other counties.  Here's what the study found:

 

arizona-investment-council-water-demand-supply-shortage

 

arizona-investment-council-water-demand-supply-shortage-counties

 

Many of Arizona's counties already face gaps between supply and demand (meaning that they're importing water, drawing groundwater at unsustainable levels, or both).  In the three-county area (where some 85 percent of Arizonans live), there will be a water shortfall beginning well before the mid-century.

And that's the best-case scenario: it doesn't assume any changes in the amount of water Arizona gets from the Colorado River (which accounts for well over 40 percent of the state's water supply).  Yet the New York Times reported Monday that "Barring a sudden end to the Southwest's 11-year drought, the distribution of the river's dwindling bounty is likely to be reordered as early as next year because the flow of water cannot keep pace with the region's demands."  That would reduce the amount of water Arizona gets from the Colorado River and bring the three-county area's "day of reckoning" home much sooner.

Now what to do about it?

Glennon's book, subtitled "America's Water Crisis and What to Do About It" is well worth the read (one laugh-out-loud chapter is titled "Shall We Drink Pee?")  But in the interest of brevity, let me cut to the chase.  Glennon offers "a new way of thinking about water that involves numerous changes in how we value it."  These reforms, he writes, include the following (verbatim from page 317):

  • Encouraging creative conservation
  • Using price signals
  • Creating market incentives
  • Reexamining how we dispose of human waste
  • Requiring developers to pay their own way
  • Reconsidering the location of wastewater plants
  • Separating storm water from sewer water
  • Creating infrastructure with dual pipes to supply potable and reclaimed water
  • Abandoning business as usual (more dams, diversions, and wells)
  • Recognizing the link between water and energy
  • Appreciating the critical role played by water in the economy
  • Removing barriers to water transfers while providing for government oversight of them
  • Creating incentives for homeowners and others to harvest water
  • Stimulating alternative waste disposal technologies
  • Metering water use
  • Securing water for the environment

I understand that there are many issues that capture our attention, even beyond our own lives - the economy, jobs, the election, taxes - but this is one that truly deserves our immediate attention.  If we don't begin to change how we value - and use - water, what is now a crisis will indeed become a catastrophe.


Written on Thursday, 30 September 2010 12:06 by Gary Yaquinto

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