Water experts: Arizona faces challenges, but it's no California

Arizona’s water future is in the hands of today’s leaders and informed voters, just as it was when the state envisioned the big dams and canals now supplying the state, experts said at a water-outlook conference on Tuesday.

As for the present?

Unlike crisis-stricken California, Arizona cities have years of supply stored in underground aquifers ready to fill in for a number of years if a shortage of Colorado River water occurs.

Tomorrow’s questions revolve around conservation, farm efficiency, technology and a commitment to living within the desert’s means. They also will be key political issues.

“Demand water literacy from our elected officials,” said Sarah Porter, director of Arizona State University’s Kyl Center for Water Policy.

The conference, sponsored by the Kyl Center for Water Policy at ASU’s Morrison Institute, The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com, was titled, “The Water Scare: What’s Real?”

More than 250 paid to attend the daylong discussion at the Arizona Historical Society Museum in Tempe.

Participants said what’s real is that the state faces challenges but not an emergency, and nothing like what non-residents often think when they hear the name “Phoenix.”

Porter said she has participated twice this year in panel discussions asking whether a desert city like Phoenix should exist. She said she had to explain that the city and state have repeatedly met water challenges over the decades.

Nonetheless, several presenters discussed emerging challenges that the state will need to overcome.

The Republic presented findings from a yearlong project on regional water issues, including:

•The expected toll of climate change on the Colorado River.

•How California is coping with the drought.

•Groundwater pumping’s limits in rural Arizona areas not regulated under a 1980 law that has prevented much of Arizona from experiencing the groundwater depletion now occurring in California.

Kathleen Ferris, an architect of that law, now leads the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association. She said it’s time for the state Legislature to enable similar conservation in rural areas such as Willcox, where wells are running dry.

A committee in Willcox is seeking authority to create a conservation plan governing pumping, and a neighboring valley is experiencing similar difficulties.

“If there’s not intervention in these basins, they are doomed,” Ferris said.

Phoenix, though, has stored years’ worth of supply underground from river water that it hasn’t needed. And decade by decade, per-person water consumption has consistently declined.

Arizona today uses slightly less water than it did in 1957, despite a six-fold increase in population, Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke said.

He acknowledged that through projected growth of millions more and climate-induced declines of Colorado River flow, there’s a significant projected shortfall within the state later this century. Part of the answer — and a part that likely can fill about half of that shortfall — is greater water reuse statewide, he said.

Solving water scarcity without further depleting natural springs and the people and ecosystems relying on them is as essential as life itself, said Vincent Randall, a former chairman of the Yavapai-Apache Nation.

“It’s the life which flows within our veins and our arteries,” he said.

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