July 25, 2004

Arizona Republic

Take off blinders or face a parched, dusty future

Lisa Force
Special for The Republic

The question Arizonans must ask is not how to deal with the drought, but instead: "What if this is not a drought?" Scientists are speculating that Arizona and the whole Colorado River watershed have experienced a few unusually wet decades, and that weather patterns are now simply returning to their arid norm . . . perhaps forever.

From 2001-2003, the Colorado River - the Valley's primary water source - produced less than a third of the water committed to various users, significantly less than what it produced during the disastrous Dust Bowl. In addition, northern Arizona's groundwater supplies and its few remaining rivers are being depleted at an alarming rate.

Even if the drought ends tomorrow, the Department of Energy predicts that global climate change will reduce the flow of Arizona's rivers by one-third within 40 years.

Regardless of the weather, growing urban populations will diminish the available per-person water budget. Meanwhile, Valley cities have no watering restrictions; northern Arizona is considering expensive and environmentally damaging pipeline schemes; rural towns are eyeing each others' supplies; southern Arizona is sucking the life out of the already depleted underground aquifer that sustains its communities and feeds the San Pedro River; and if recent precipitation patterns continue unabated, power generation will cease at Glen Canyon Dam by 2007 and Lake Powell will revert to a riverbed channel shortly thereafter.

Attacks on the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act compound Arizona's drought stress. Wildlife, always the last at the table, is suffering from the effect of drought coupled with ever-shrinking habitat. Complicating the situation is steady economic pressure for continued statewide growth at pre-drought levels.

As a first step toward comprehensive, long-term, sustainable water management, we must creatively explore all the flexibilities inherent in the body of law known as the Law of the River, which governs allocation of Colorado River water among seven states and Mexico. The law was crafted 80 years ago for a scenario long-gone and was based on erroneous assumptions.

Arizona water law is equally outdated, refusing to acknowledge that underground water feeds lakes and rivers. It turns a blind eye to unlimited groundwater pumping and the resulting habitat devastation and, equally problematic, unsustainable growth.

Buying agricultural water for urban use is viable, but only as a short-term Band-Aid - especially when you consider the long-term economic impact to rural communities.

Nearly 80 percent of Colorado River water is used for agricultural irrigation, mostly low-value, high-water-use crops irrigated by inefficient flooding methods. In arid climates, it takes 3,200 gallons of water - enough to fill a swimming pool - to grow enough hay to produce one-half pound of beef; 120 gallons to produce a single cantaloupe.

Long-term, our farmers must be supported by eliminating the "Use it or lose it'" provisions in water law that encourage waste. Government farm subsidies provided to Arizona growers for crops that are better suited for the rainy South should be shifted to finance drip irrigation systems. Efficient systems such as these can cost up to $800 per acre but could ultimately conserve enough water to sustain farms, cities and wildlife.

An equally vital step is taking a more balanced approach to growth coupled with incentives for significant water conservation. It is fine to ask homeowners to repair leaking faucets, but the Central Arizona Project is in the business of selling water, not conserving it. Conservation without accompanying policy changes for where and how the conserved water is used simply fuels sprawl until our surplus is gone. Policies that encourage the Central Arizona Project to conserve water and leave some in-stream for wildlife and recreation are imperative.

To nourish our wildlife habitats and rural tourism industries, we must relieve drought-stricken public lands from the devastating impacts of poorly managed grazing: water pollution, destruction of vegetation, stream bank erosion, and wildlife losses.

The Arizona Voluntary Grazing Permit Buyout legislation would pay up to $2,100 per head to ranchers willing to permanently relinquish grazing permits.

With viable plans for proper management, even in a situation of protracted drought, enough water exists to sustain reasonable growth, protect and restore rivers and wildlife, and preserve our recreational opportunities.

Lisa Force works with the Grand Canyon Trust (www.grandcanyon trust.org) and is an executive member of the Sierra Club's National Board of Directors.