Thursday, September 18, 2008

Local water study committee update

I have managed to make it to the two most recent meetings and it has been getting gradually more interesting. The presentations last week, on climate change and related water resources planning impacts, were both excellent and very informative for people who have not followed the scientific developments and predictions for the Southwest. At this week's meeting I was only able to stay for the first presentation, describing the importance of considering the environment in water resources and land use planning. The second presentation on local environmental impacts and planning efforts relating to water resources should have been interesting and was timely considering the discussion of the committee members that morning.
There was a motion to expand the Phase I study area to include parts of eastern Pima Co. outside of the combined Tucson Water-Pima Co. Wastewater service area. The motion was to only include those areas not currently served by a water provider - and there was some confusion as to what that exactly meant - but the overall intention was to look at areas where there might be important riparian resources that would need to be protected from future development. This is an important idea that needs to be taken into consideration, but I'm not sure if it's appropriate for Phase I - the inventory phase. However, there is probably some value in at least putting those sensitive areas on a map for future consideration - most likely in Phase II. There has also been some indication at both meetings that other water providers are starting to show an interest in getting involved in the process - I believe that the more entities brought to the table in this effort, the better the final product will be.
As to Phase II, the committee chair presented (I think for the first time) a proposed structure for the Phase II portion of the study. It was a very rough outline, but the broad goals it presented were very ambitious. And I believe they represent what most people felt would be main purpose of this effort - considering the changes that would need to be made - ordinances, policies, and comprehensive plan amendments - to achieve what is envisioned for the future growth of our community. Big stuff, but it is still early in the process. We'll have to see how this develops as Phase I approaches the wrap-up point.
As always - info on the study is available at their website:

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Some Thoughts on Water Allocation and Perceptions of Shortage

After listening to a discussion by candidates for the board of the Cental Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD - the folks who run the CAP) and presentations on the challenges posed by climate change to water resources planning during the past few days I feel like I have been bombarded by elaborate plans to exploit new sources of water in the future to meet the burgeoning needs of our arid state. Then I pause and think back to some of the earlier presentations from the City/County Water Study Committee that painted a fairly rosy picture of the water supply situation in the Tucson area - which I mostly agree with. The truth is - we have lots of water available in Arizona, at a reasonable cost, which is unlikely to run out in the near future. We don't need to find new sources of water and it's unlikely that we will find significant new sources of water (unless you take the position that price is irrelevant). The problem we have around here is that the water is not always put to the highest value uses. A lot of it is being used to grow low value crops, like cotton and alfalfa. I know, commodity prices are high right now, but in the long term it makes much more sense to grow those things elsewhere - where you don't have to use valuable water supplies for irrigation in order to do so.

I posed the question to the CAP board candidates that maybe we should be looking at reallocation of existing water supplies before we commit ourselves to building nuclear power plants in Mexico that will power massive desalting facilities. Of the four candidates present, one understood the question but deftly sidestepped the issue, two flatly stated that reallocation was a non-starter because of the mess it would create (but they were assuming that the question referred to simply taking away water rights from one party and giving them to another), and the fourth never even addressed the question in his rambling response. Anyway, the idea that reallocation of water should not even be on the table is pure bunk. There should be ample opportunity for cities or communities to enter agreements with agricultural users to free up irrigation water for municipal uses - all you need are two willing parties and agreement on price.

In a sense, this is what is already occuring in the cleverly named Groundwater Savings Facilities, where farmers agree to purchase subsidized CAP water, use it for irrigation in lieu of groundwater they are entitled to pump, while a nearby water provider (who provides the subsidy for CAP water) accumulates groundwater credits (that otherwise would go to the farmer) that can be used to permit future pumping. As was pointed out at the forum, this is a particularly good deal because it uses lower quality CAP water for irrigation, while permitting use of higher quality groundwater for residential uses.

It's quite possible there is not much excess water in the ag sector that could be moved to other uses through such agreements, but because so much water is used by ag a very small reduction in that sector could provide a very significant amount of water for the municipal sector - which should serve to minimize the economic disruption caused by decreased irrigation.

Additionally, the most likely scenario in which CAP would need to secure additional supplies to meet its obligations, would be in the event of long-term drought leading to cutbacks in Colorado deliveries, under the recently completed Shortage Sharing Agreement among the Colorado basin states. And what is the result when that agreement kicks in? Water deliveries to ag users are cut back first, so that CAP's municipal obligations are not threatened. This sounds like reallocation of water between use sectors to me. In a really major drought, where these shortages occur for several consecutive years, farmers will be going out of business in large numbers, resulting in permanent reallocation - which should eliminate the need for supply augmentation.

I know - talk of moving water from ag to municipal is a tough sell politically. But to simply ignore the possible need to do so in the future to meet changing water supply needs is not just short-sighted, it may be dishonest to the voters.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Next meeting on Wednesday, 9/10

The City/County Water Study committee is picking up the pace on their meetings to complete Phase I of the study (the inventory phase). Even so, they announced at the last meeting that they were extending the completion date for this phase to Feb. 2009.
The next meeting is Wed. 9/10 at 7:00 am, at the Randolph Golf Course clubhouse. The main presentations will look at the uncertainties presented by climate change and water harvesting. The committee will also be seeking to finalize the study area - right now the proposed study area is the combined service area of Tucson Water and Pima County Wastewater - and give an update on participation in the study by other water providers in the area.
While I believe it makes sense to limit the study area as proposed for this phase, I hope that future phases will seek to apply the findings of the committee to other areas of the county. This would be in keeping with the idea of bringing other utilities and political jurisdictions into the study in later phases. We'll see how things go.

State Legislature Loses a Strong Voice for Sound Water Policy

I was greatly disappointed to read recently that Tom O'Halleran, a state senator from the Prescott area, was defeated in last week's primary elections. [check out] Sen. O'Halleran has been a strong proponent in recent years of legislation to permit local jurisdictions in rural areas of the state (areas not governed by the water use regulations of the 1980 Groundwater Management Act) to use water supply availability as a restriction on growth. This was very reasonable, and in no way onerous, legislation that simply permitted cities and counties in those areas to deny rezonings and plan amendments that would permit development in areas that lacked a firm, reliable water supply. Even that legislation was weakened in the legislature before finally passing.
His opponent in the primary expressed a desire to allow landowners to possess clear property rights to the groundwater beneath their property - rights that could not be restricted by government. This is a red herring. Real property rights to groundwater are not possible under the legal system applicable in areas of Arizona outside of AMAs. Groundwater is a common pool resource in those areas, subject to rapid depletion without some regulatory controls.
Hopefully, someone up there will assume the mantle previously worn by Sen. O'Halleran. Without a sensible voice on water policy our legislature has shown great reluctance to do anything helpful for rural water issues.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Next meeting on Wednesday, 9/3

The next meeting of the City/County water study committee is this Wed., 9/3 at Randolph Golf Course clubhouse. The topic for this meeting is "Land Use and Planning for Growth." The meetings should be pretty interesting from here on out - this is the real purpose of the committee. This should also be where we begin to learn where this committee might be headed in their ultimate recommendations. Hopefully there will be a good turnout.