Monday, December 21, 2009

Holiday Greeting

Happy holidays to my readers, followers, and fellow bloggers. Hope you have safe travels, good company, and a prosperous new year. I'll be back in 2010.


Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Technical Feasibilty of Rainwater Harvesting for Domestic Water Supply

Getting back (finally) to my most recent topic I have some numbers to throw out, in order to assess whether relying on rainwater for a domestic water supply is technically feasibly in a semi-arid or arid climate. Tucson would be considered semi-arid because our average rainfall is roughly 12 inches per year (although this year we have only had about 6-7 inches, which makes us arid at this time), but we are classified as arid because of our high evapotranspiration rate.

There are many skeptics who say that rainwater cannot be relied on as a water source in places like this because rain is too unreliable. Our annual rainfall typically comes in two seasons - winter and summer. Our winter rains tend to be gentle, slow rains that might occur several times a month, amounting to about 5 inches on average during the period December to April. Our summer rains, on the other hand, are known as monsoon rains because they result from a seasonal wind shift in summer, and often come in torrents. We typically receive between 5 and 7 inches of rain in the summer and it's not uncommon for the bulk of that rain to arrive in 3 or 4 rainfall events during the months of July and August. In between those seasons we might typically go for 2 or 3 months with little or no rain.

With that type of rainfall pattern, obviously, the key elements of rainwater harvesting will be capture area and storage. If you have a sufficiently large surface area from which to capture water and sufficiently large storage to hold onto that water during long dry periods rainwater becomes a feasible water supply.

Here are a few basic calculations of available water:

10" of rain falling on 2000 sq. ft. of roof surface will yield roughly 12,500 gallons of water.

10" of rain falling on 3000 sq. ft. of roof surface will yield about 18,700 gallons of water.

12" of rain falling on 2000 sq. ft. of surface yields about 15,000 gallons, and

12" of rain falling on 3000 sq. ft. of surface yields about 22,400 gallons of water.

If you take those numbers and average them out over the course of the year you come up with a range between 34 and 61 gallons per day. Obviously you are not going to maintain a home, yard, and pool by collecting rainwater unless you have a very large surface from which to collect the water. But it's perfectly reasonable for two people to survive on 61 gallons of water per day for indoor uses such as cooking, cleaning, bathing, and drinking.

But how do you make rainwater suitable for drinking? That is the tricky part, some of which I will try to address in a post on the regulatory limitations on use of rainwater for water supply. But in a general sense, you must install a home water treatment system to make this water suitable for consumption. This ranges from selecting proper roofing material that won't leach chemicals into the water falling on it, to engineering the collection system so the first flush of water coming off the roof is bypassed (to limit the bird poop in your water supply), to a system of filters and treatment technologies that will ensure no harmful bacteria or other nasties in your water. This is the primary annual cost of this type of water supply - the energy and maintenance of the treatment system. Most of the other costs are upfront when the collection and storage are installed.

This site includes some helpful information on what is necessary for making rainwater suitable for potable uses.

Is this type of system suitable for the average homeowner? Clearly not. But there are people out there who are willing to invest the money, time, and effort to get off the grid, or off the pipes in this case, and whose lifestyle allows them to live on only the amount of water necessary for basic, indoor human needs, without all the extraneous uses of high-quality drinking water many of us find necessary for our quality of life.

More when I find the time, including the aforementioned regulatory analysis of rainwater harvesting.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Starting to think a lot about rainwater harvesting

Life has been extremely busy lately (even before holidays started rolling into the picture) and that has kept me from posting. But the ideas have been churning, just waiting for an opportunity to emerge onto these pages.

One thing I have been spending a lot of time thinking about and discussing with various people is the viability of rainwater harvesting for domestic water supply in places like Tucson. I know of people doing it so clearly it's possible. But I've been wondering what it would take to bring it more into the mainstream and maybe even be viable as a water source for a small development - not just the individual lot scale.

One person I know of who relies on such a system in the Tucson area is in a location where municipal water service is not available and drilling a private well is unreliable. So rainwater probably was their best option. They also weren't overly concerned with the cost of the system - they had resources to cover that and because of their desire to live in a remote location any option for water supply was going to be costly. I suspect this type of situation is the primary motivator for going with rainwater as a water source.

This makes me concerned that greater use of rainwater harvesting would lead to increased sprawl - as people move to locations where previously they may not have been able to build because of the lack of a water supply. But I think the reality is that the people who would choose this type of water supply are the ones who are likely to move into remote areas regardless and harvesting gives them an option for water supply that doesn't rely on a non-renewable source - such as groundwater (under most circumstances).

I'm still putting these ideas together and plan to post on this topic over the next few weeks, where I will try to outline the feasibility of rainwater as a domestic water source and the types of changes I think would be necessary (i.e. regulatory) to permit greater use of this type of system.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Tucson/Pima County Water Study update

Phase II of the study, designed to map out a path to a more sustainable water future for the region is just about wrapped up (I say region even though the study only incorporated the city and county governments - not any of the other local jurisdictions - because it is hoped that the policy recommendations from this study can be applied across the region as a blueprint for water sustainability). City and county staff have just issued the draft of their Phase II report on the study website. On Monday, Nov. 9, from 6 to 9 PM they will be hosting an open house to present their report to the public and take questions.

The committee (including yours truly) meanwhile continues to pound away at a separate report that is intended to provide the community perspective on what water sustainability should mean around here. Obviously there will be considerable agreement with what the staff came up with in their report - after all, they were the ones primarily responsible for educating the committee on these issues. But there are some issues the committee would like to stress more strongly than we feel the staff report does and vice versa. The challenge though is coming up with consensus on the committee. There are divergent and strongly held opinions on some issues, but I think sufficient commonality exists for us to come together and produce a strong report. The committee meets next on Thursday, Nov. 12, in the City IT building, next to the Manning House, to continue the process of drafting our report in addition to discussing the staff report (agenda should be posted soon on the study website if it isn't already). Let's hope for harmonious policy and strong coffee that evening.

Friday, October 23, 2009

What could additional budget cuts do to Arizona Dept. of Water Resources (ADWR)?

Responding to reports that state tax receipts have been running $0.5 billion below projections and the ongoing fact that our state government is unwilling and/or incapable of putting together a complete state budget for the current fiscal year, our governor has asked all state agencies to present plans detailing how they might cut an additional 15% from their budgets for the remainder of this fiscal year (until the end of June 2010). The agency that manages our water supplies has submitted their plan, which they posted on their website here (pdf document).

I am not personally aligned with any political party and am perfectly willing to criticize any politician, from any party, who advocates bad policy, resorts to fear-mongering, and otherwise panders to various vested interests, be they democrat, republican, or Bull Moose. But Arizona is currently controlled by republicans and we can only wish these were the republicans of Barry Goldwater's day. These are the kind of republicans who resolutely place ideology over common sense no matter how stubborn and stupid it makes them look (ok, there are a few moderates still in there, but they're pretty marginalized most of the time). My point is, these are the kind of people who believe the state government shouldn't be wasting tax dollars collecting basic hydrologic information. Number one - decent, god-fearing Arizona landowners don't need the government telling them how to use and manage their water. Number two - if data is so vital, there should be private sector entities that can step up and pay for it's collection. And finally - let the federal government pay to collect the data if it's really that important, just don't use that data to tell the state how to manage our water.

So what will we have to do? The report spells it out in pretty stark terms. Admittedly, the document produced by ADWR is intended to strike fear in the hearts of those who control the purse strings but with the cuts they have already endured, another 15% will absolutely cripple the ability of that agency to adequately provide management of our increasingly strained water supplies.

The plan includes eliminating the Statewide Planning Division, and reducing the Hydrology, Surface Water, and Water Management Divisions. Follow the links if you want to learn more about what those parts of ADWR do, but just as a starter those are basically all the main functions of the Department.

The Statewide Planning Division (SPD), in particular will be a huge loss. There is precious little data about water supplies and water uses in areas of the state outside of the Active Management Areas (AMA) - the rural parts of the state. The primary entity for collecting this data and helping those areas - where constraints on water supplies are often very significant because they don't have access to Colorado River water from the CAP canal - is SPD. Without them the task of developing management strategies for water supplies in those areas will fall on local entities, which have very few resources for those tasks as well as some vested interests that would prefer not to have the bad news that data might bring.

The other Divisions, which aren't being eliminated but are being cut to levels where their effectiveness will be greatly reduced, are responsible for administering surface water rights in the state, developing management plans for the AMAs, and collecting basic data to support all the other programs ADWR handles. I don't want to contend that these functions are more important than education and services for poor people (also being hammered by the current budget situation), but as someone who relies on the data and programs of ADWR for much of what I do this is grim news indeed.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

High Country News article on the problem of exempt wells

This is from the most recent issue of High Country News, describing the pretty much West-wide problem of exempt, or unregulated, wells - typically household wells used for domestic, livestock, and limited irrigation uses.

It's an issue that has started to come to greater prominence in a few areas (in states that recognize the connection between surface and groundwater and regulate both under the prior appropriation doctrine - sadly not the case here in Arizona).

That aside, it's a nice piece, giving a good overview of the problem and how one state - Washington - is attempting to deal with it.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Water Conservation in New Property Development

There was a recent article in the Wall Street Journal about the efforts of property developers along the Colorado Front Range to reduce the water impact of those properties.

I think it's fantastic that developers are embracing water conservation in a significant way, even if you consider that they really have no choice in many cases. For some areas it has become a matter of build smart or don't build at all. Or at least be happy with building something that will make a much smaller profit. But something that tends to get lost in the self-congratulatory language of these developers is that maybe the choice shouldn't be between a high-water-use development and a low-water-use development but between any development and no development.

If you're talking about a new development on untouched land I would much rather see it remain open space than see the most environmentally-conscious, low-water-use development in the world be built there. However, if you're talking about converting an existing use - farming or low-intensity development - to a new higher-intensity use, then by all means they should make every effort to limit the impact on local water supplies.

I realize it's not always so easy. When land is privately owned there are certain rights to develop land that can't just be taken away from the owner without just compensation. And often a larger-scale development offers greater opportunity to exact concessions from the developer, forcing a more limited impact on the environment than is the case when the land is divided into 36 acre ranchettes. But just because the developer is installing rainwater and gray water reuse features, and water conserving appliances doesn't make it something to be praised. After all the developer will most likely have no role in the development once built. The buyers might use just as much water as the development up the road. But for now the developer gets to be the good guy and in addition probably gets to charge a premium for homes in the development because of it's "green" features.

This stuff always warrants a closer look.

h/t to John Fleck for pointing me to the WSJ piece.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Into the Home Stretch on City/County Water Study

Thursday night, 9/17, is the final meeting for the "new information" part of Phase II of the City of Tucson/Pima County Water and Wastewater Study Oversight Committee scope of work. There are three new white papers posted on the study website - here. I think this meeting will easily go the full 4 hours. Because in addition to the new material there will be discussion of the planning for the Phase II report writing.

The new papers are focused on 1) potential new water supplies for the region, 2) availability of water for the environment, and 3) water quality issues associated (primarily) with emerging contaminants. I've been able to read the new water supplies paper - it's only about 30 pages. The other two are 40 and 50 pages. As I have been discovering since being ensconced on the committee*, the papers - while exhibiting a great deal of diligence on the part of city and county staff, under short timelines, and tight budgets - really don't break any new ground. This study should be about breaking with convention and finding new, creative solutions to our water problems. But it just seems to be about educating people about how complex water policy is and how difficult that makes it to implement real solutions to these problems.

Uh oh. I think I may have just given myself a new job. Better get busy on those last 2 papers.

* I was reading the papers before being appointed but not as critically as I have since then. In Phase I, I pretty much waited for the draft report to be submitted before sharpening my pencil and dissecting the findings. This time it's much more critical because we will be making policy recommendations to local leaders and setting the tone for future phases of the study (planned as a truly regional dialogue on these issues). Plus the report writing is going to occur pretty quickly and the committee will have more input on the writing process than I believe they did in Phase I.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Arizona's new Blue Ribbon Panel on Water Sustainability

We already have an effort underway to locate and secure additional water supplies for the Central Arizona Project service area (where the vast majority of Arizona's population resides) - called the ADD Water process. Now the state is jumping into the water sustainability discussion with a splashy (clever, eh?) announcement [pdf; press release from the Arizona Department of Water Resources website (ADWR)] regarding a special "blue ribbon panel on water sustainability" that was announced just over a week ago.

I first heard about it at a water planning conference put on by the Arizona Investment Council the end of August, where all three of the blue-ribbon-bearers were speakers. The Arizona Investment Council was a new organization to me. They are a think-tankish, policy outfit that probably does a bit of lobbying as well, with a focus on utility regulation and infrastructure investment. If you have a lot of free time on your hands and are really interested in infrastructure they have a report on their website called "Infrastructure Needs and Funding Alternatives for Arizona: 2008-2032" (it can be found by clicking on a link on the left side of their homepage), that goes into, at times, mind-numbing detail on how much we need to invest in our water, wastewater, energy, and transportation infrastructure in this state over the next 20-odd years. Trust me, it's a very large number, and probably fairly accurate but reflects a mindset that we must have bullet-proof, gold-plated infrastructure to compete for jobs and outside investment in the future.

Much of the conference was directed by what's in this report and there were some interesting talks, but nothing real earth-shaking.

Back to the water sustainability panel - hard to predict what will come out of this but based on the press-release it appears to be focused on water recycling, which probably means they will explore legislative and regulatory changes that need to be made to expand uses of reclaimed water and ways to convince people that reclaim is a safe, viable option for augmenting potable water supplies. The make-up of the panel indicates a desire to leverage areas of expertise and authority over the companies, municipalities and districts that manage water, wastewater, and probably other utilities as well - considering the whole energy-water nexus that's all in vogue these days.

Can't wait to see how the panel gets fleshed-out and provided with further direction - oh ... and will the legislature fund the activities of the panel next year? ADWR, ADEQ, and most other state agencies have had their budgets slashed in the past year to deal with rapidly declining state tax revenues - to the point where some people are saying it could take years for ADWR to recover to the level of competency it was at just a few years ago. I guess that will be the real determinant of whether this panel will produce anything worthwhile.

What's up with the City/County Water Study Committee?

The last meeting (Aug. 20) had some pretty interesting discussion occurring because of a late addition to the agenda. A local outfit called the Tucson Regional Water Coalition (TRWC) sent the committee a report titled "Water as an Economic Resource" (pdf document). Sounds pretty innocuous, right? And for the most part it was. But I should start by explaining what the Tucson Regional Water Coalition is. It was created last year by the Southern Arizona Leadership Council (SALC), a local organization of business and development heavy-hitters. This fact obviously did not sit well with some of the committee members who will never trust anything coming from those quarters.

But, despite it's detractors, the paper did elicit some good discussion of the merits of, and justification for, regarding water as an economic good in some aspects of water policy. What I thought was particularly good was the discussion by a panel of "experts" brought in by the creators of the paper to discuss it's merits. By and large they were not too impressed with it, although at least one of them did review it and make suggestions to a draft version of it. While they generally agreed with the overall tone of the paper, I thought they felt some of the assertions made were a bit too strong. The recommendations at the end of the paper, in particular, may have overstated the case a bit. Such as: "Establish policy declaring economic efficiency as the central criterion in water management decisions." While it should be a consideration, I don't see how you can justify making it the "central criterion."

I was also disappointed in the examples they chose to use for applying economic principles to analysis of water policy. After opening the paper with a pretty good discussion of how to consider all costs associated with a policy in your decision-making process, they completely failed to do that in their examples. I viewed the examples as a pretty blatant way of demonstrating that conservation and environmental uses of water don't stack up in terms of economic efficiency the same as acquisition of additional water supplies and application of all water to serve growth.

The authors could have done a better job of presenting the value of economic principles in a way that would further the central focus of the study - balancing growth and the environment in ways that provide long-term benefit to our communities. And some of the committee members could have done a better job of seeing the paper for what it was (at least arguably) intending to accomplish - remind us that economics are part of good policy.

As for the primary focus of that meeting - evaluating the cost of growth - representatives of our water and sewer utilities did an admirable job of demonstrating how they have changed their financing and billing structures over the years to shift the costs of new services (growth) onto those customers, rather than sharing the cost among all customers. It's still not perfect, but that is mostly because of failings in state law that restrict the ability of local jurisdictions to recover some costs through impact fees. But even so - the costs of water and sewer will be going up in this area for the foreseeable future because of regulatory requirements and other needs associated with aging infrastructure. Glad to see they're planning ahead.

Follow-up on Imagine H2O Prize

If you follow this blog you may have noticed my recent post on a prize being offered this fall for visionary entrepreneurial ideas in water conservation being offered by Imagine H2O.

Last week I received another email from them asking me to make note of the fact that the competition is now open - as of Sept. 1. Here are a few excerpts from the press release they sent me:
The competition offers prizes of $70,000 in cash and in‐kind services, which will be awarded to the business plans that promise the greatest breakthroughs in the efficient use and supply of water.

The Imagine H2O Prize is designed to encourage entrepreneurs, investors, inventors and academics around the world to address water challenges. This inaugural business plan competition focuses on solutions to improve water efficiency in agriculture, commercial, industrial or residential applications, such as water demand reduction, improved water use, water recycling and/or reuse.

Entries will be accepted from around the world beginning September 1 through November 16, 2009. Winners will be announced at a showcase event in early 2010. The annual competition will feature a different water‐related prize topic each year.

Check out their website if you want to learn more about the competition. One thing I might note is that the press release indicated a total prize amount of $70k, which is $20k more than they originally told me.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

upcoming meeting of the City/County Water Study Committee

The next committee meeting is this Thurs., Aug. 20, at the Tucson Ass'n of Realtors on Tucson Blvd. just north of Grant Rd. (this is where I will be that evening instead of at the Imagine H2O event in San Fran).

The agenda is posted on the study website as well as the technical paper up for discussion this week - covering the "Cost of Growth". It's all about what our water and sewer utilities are doing to separate operation and maintenance costs (associated with their existing infrastructure) from costs of expanding their systems (building new infrastructure to accommodate growth). People around here have been clamoring that "growth needs to pay for itself!" And I generally agree. You don't want existing water customers paying the cost of acquiring new water supplies or for conservation measures that are intended to provide enough water for the people who might move here in the next 20 years. But as with most things, what seems like a simple proposition on its face is far more complicated when you get into the nitty-gritty. It should make for an interesting discussion. I'll post more after the meeting.

A chance to profit from your water conservation ideas

I received an email this week from someone representing Imagine H2O, a "San Francisco based not-for-profit organization committed to enabling water entrepreneurship." They are organizing an event in San Francisco later this week (yeah I probably won't make it either) to launch a new initiative to promote entrepreneurial ideas in water conservation, or as they described it to me:
... on Thursday August 20th we are hosting what we hope will be a uniquely productive evening for identifying water customers’ needs, brainstorming ideas and building teams in anticipation of the upcoming launch of the inaugural Imagine H2O Prize. More information on this event can be found at the event website (
Imagine H2O hopes to positively affect the world’s water problems by forming a dynamic environment for water entrepreneurship. You can view our media page at ( for more information on the organization ...

Here's some more info on the contest they are sponsoring:
The topic for the 2009-10 competition is Water Efficiency. Competitors will provide solutions that reduce the demand or use of water in either agriculture, commercial and industrial, or residential applications. This could be done via demand response, recycling, reuse, or through any other smart management ideas. Total prizes given in 2009-10 will be $50,000. Winners will receive cash, in-depth business incubation including introductions to financiers, potential beta customers and go-to-market partners, and reduced-rate or free office space.

I was provided with two names and contact info if you are interested in learning more than can be gleaned from the websites:
Jared Dunnmon,, or
Director of Operations Aaron Schwartz,

If you think you have a great idea for fostering water conservation and efficiency this could be your big break. Certainly seems worth looking into.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

overdue - some discussion of the link between water and growth from the Joint City/County Water Study

Finally found some time to post on this. The committee discussed the report "Integrating Land Use Planning with Water Resources and Infrastructure Technical Paper" that can be downloaded here. My comments to the committee on the paper are also available on the study website, but I'll briefly discuss them here as well.

My two main points of discussion on the paper were in regards to the concerns expressed over operation of the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District (CAGRD) and their discussion of the Interim Water Service Policy established by the city manager in late 2007.

On the CAGRD, there has been extensive discussion recently about the physical disconnect between the replenishment activities of the District (whereby they recharge renewable water supplies to offset pumping by water utilities or subdivisions that are enrolled in the district) and the actual groundwater pumping that leads to the replenishment obligation. The point I wanted to make is that, in the way the CAGRD was created it was not really meant to replace pumped water in an aquifer with recharged, renewable water. As with much of the Arizona Groundwater Management Act (GMA), it was a water accounting system designed to ensure that accounts remain in balance within each Active Management Area (AMA). Without going into whether this was a good or bad thing, it is what our legislators decided to do to accommodate population growth and further development within AMAs. The problem we have encountered with it is not that the pumping is occurring far away from the recharge, but that the program has been much more popular than many originally envisioned, so the quantities of water being pumped have become pretty large, resulting in considerable water level drawdown in some locations. Here's what I said in my comments to the committee:
Due to constraints on land availability, complexity of hydrogeology, and cost considerations in implementing recharge that directly mitigates effects of pumping it will prove to be very difficult in practice.
... seeking to routinely and effectively mitigate pumping effects by suitable location of recharge will result in many situations where it would simply make more sense to utilize the renewable supplies for the new development, rather than enroll in the CAGRD, because the renewable supply will be brought close enough to make its use economical vs. the cost of recharge. If such policies were strongly pursued the need for the CAGRD would be virtually eliminated, but at considerable cost.

While doing more to use recharge for mitigation of pumping effects is a good idea in theory, I think it's pretty difficult to implement in practice.

As for the "interim water service policy" my opinions on this have been explored in the blog in the past (see this post). I really have a problem with this being referred to as a policy:
I believe it is overly optimistic to refer to this as a “policy” when in reality it is more of an acknowledgment that no policy has ever existed. The former city manager acknowledged as much in an interview published in the Daily Star last October. Until there is an actual policy to evaluate requests for extending water service to new development the City is entirely at the whim of outside forces that will determine how water is supplied to new developments outside of the obligated service area.

I also reiterated my earlier statement that one of the criteria for agreeing to serve a new development should be a requirement that the effluent from that development be available to the city to augment our reclaimed water supplies.

The future linkage between water supplies and growth is a critically important issue for the future of Tucson and other cities like it that have seen their available water supplies stretched almost to the physical limits by rapid growth in the recent past. There should be more exciting discussion on this issue when the committee tries to reach agreement on this portion of the Phase II report.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Playing catch-up: Shameless self-promotion edition

This blogging business sometimes seems like you are having a conversation with 3 or 4 other people who share your interests. That makes it especially nice when, as a water-wonkish type, I have the chance to reach a wider audience with something I say or write. Two specific instances occurred for me recently. I had the privilege of writing a short piece for the current issue of Southwest Hydrology, on a topic that always sparks my interest - property rights in groundwater. My article was a brief discussion of a recent Arizona Supreme Court case that I discussed on the blog previously (here), involving an attempt to separate rights to pump groundwater from ownership of the land itself.

The second opportunity came as a result of various on-line discussions I have had with John Fleck, over at his Inkstain blog. John's day job is as a reporter for the Albuquerque Journal, where he writes on science in general, and frequently water, specifically. He had an article (may require viewing an ad to get to article) last month on the connection between solar power plans and water use, for which he interviewed and quoted yours truly. The article discussed the often overlooked fact that most utility-scale solar projects currently proposed or under construction in the West are of the Concentrating Solar Thermal variety. What that means is that the plants collect the sun's heat and use it to produce a hot liquid (typically some type of oil or molten salt) that is used to boil water and generate electricity with a standard steam turbine - just like traditional coal or natural gas power plants. The big difference between this type of plant and a photovoltaic solar plant is that CST plants use a lot of water (as do most power plants, for cooling purposes) while PV solar requires no water for operation. Unfortunately, these plants have to be built in places where the sun shines a lot and those places are often where water supplies are limited. It doesn't mean you shouldn't build the plant, but you have take water supplies into consideration when deciding where to site the plant to make the most effective use of water for it's operation.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Playing catch-up; City/County Water Study; my new job

I have been a bit lax in posting lately for a number of reasons. Number one of which is the fact that I recently took a job working for the Tohono O'Odham Nation, a local Native American Tribe in Southern Arizona. My official title is "hydrologist" but I will likely be engaged in work that I like to refer to as "water resource specialist." The job involves a little bit of everything that might fall under the rubric of hydrology - surface water, groundwater, water rights, and water quality. With the commute out to the seat of tribal government in Sells I have pretty long days, which cuts into some of my extra-curricular activities.

Fortunately I plan to maintain some of my local activities related to water, including attending the monthly City of Tucson/Pima County Joint Water/Wastewater Study meetings. This is the program I have been reporting on intermittently since last summer, now just past the halfway point in Phase II of the study. I now have an obligation to attend the meetings because I have been asked to replace one of the members who had to relocate out of state. This is a very exciting appointment for me because the issues being discussed by the committee are in large measure the focus of my decision to move away from hydrology, attend law school, and refocus my career on water policy (my current employment situation notwithstanding). My membership on the committee is an outgrowth of my being a member of another committee here in Tucson, the Citizens Water Advisory Committee, which advises the mayor and council on budgets and other operational matters of the City water utility (Tucson Water).

The next meeting of the city/county study committee is taking place tomorrow night, July 16, at the Tucson Association of Realtors offices on Tucson Blvd. just north of Grant, beginning at 5:00 PM. Sorry for the late notice, but as I mentioned above I've been pretty busy. This meeting is really the focal point of this phase of the study. They will be discussing ways to link growth decisions (rezonings, development agreements, comprehensive plan updates) with some form of examination of available water resources (preferably renewable water). The website for the study has a report posted discussing this issue that I am currently working through. I will try to post another update within the coming week with my impressions of the meeting and the report.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Virtues of Conservation - Is Lawn Watering a Wast of Water or a Useful Recharge Tool?

There has been a rather spirited discussion occurring on John Fleck's blog that I was sucked into. I just can't stand by and watch people use bad science to try to influence policy-makers.

The whole thing was prompted by a comment at a Pasadena (California) city council meeting where they were discussing the implementation of new conservation measures to deal with expected cut-backs in water deliveries from the Metropolitan Water District of So. Cal. (MWD - the main water wholesaler in the LA-San Diego region). A retired engineer made the point that convincing people to stop watering their landscaping could have unintended consequences - a loss of recharge to the aquifer that results from infiltration of over-applied water. This concept was leapt on by a local blogger in Pasadena who made it his mission to stop water conservation measures aimed at outdoor water use because it was necessary to save their local groundwater resources.

The point I sought to make is that if water is being pumped from the aquifer (Pasadena typically gets about 40% of their water supplies from wells, the remainder from MWD), pumping more water so people could continue watering their lawns would not help the aquifer - it would further deplete it. Now if imported water is used for outdoor irrigation there is a benefit to the aquifer from over-watering to the extent that some of the irrigation water will in fact recharge the aquifer, but if the goal is to recharge the aquifer there are far more efficient ways to do it than by having residents over-water their grass. And because the city probably cannot determine whether a given resident is watering with imported water or groundwater, banning or limiting outdoor watering probably has more benefit to the aquifer than encouraging wasteful watering practices.

Fortunately Pasadena appears to be listening more to people who actually understand these issues than to rebel bloggers and will be imposing watering restrictions in order to compensate for cutbacks in MWD water deliveries.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Really Big News from the Prescott/Big Chino water hearing

This was another article that came out last week, discussing the conclusion of the hearings discussed below - this time from the Verde Valley paper. Sandy Fabritz-Whitney is the assistant director of ADWR, who testified at the hearing about the agency's role in the process and admitted that the state has been looking into the possibility of creating an Active Management Area (AMA) that would include the Big Chino area. This would be the first AMA created by the State since the Santa Cruz AMA was authorized to form by splitting from the Tucson AMA in 1994. All original AMAs were created by the Groundwater Management Act in 1980.

This might just be a way for the state to encourage local stakeholders to get their act together in this area or there may be genuine local interest in having the state manage the aquifer. Either way I suspect the announcement sent some shockwaves through that part of the state if they were as unaware of this development as I was. I can't wait to hear more on this.

Prescott/Chino Valley water hearing wraps up (with some testimony that really bothers me)

The administrative hearing on Prescott's application to pump nearly 9,000 ac-ft of water from the Big Chino aquifer wrapped up last week, according to the local paper. If you're hearing about this issue for the first time check out my previous posts: here, here, and here.

Now it's a matter of waiting for the administrative law judge to review the testimony and filings of the parties before issuing his opinion, which the article indicates may come in the fall. That opinion then goes to the head of the Department of Water Resources (ADWR) who can then affirm or change his initial ruling. Then one of the parties can move the case into the regular court system by filing an appeal in Superior Court. In other words, this won't be resolved this year.

The day prior to that article, there was another article in the Prescott paper talking about the final day of testimony in the case that I would like to comment on because it really raised my hackles. This was a discussion of testimony by two experts on the validity of the studies conducted to estimate the effect of pumping from the Big Chino aquifer on flows in the upper Verde River. (Everyone acknowledges that the springs that are the source of the Upper Verde are outlets from the Big Chino aquifer, but there is dispute over the contribution of that aquifer to the flow from those springs and hence the degree of impact the pumping will have on those springs.) A USGS scientist, Laurie Wirt, published studies on her work looking at the geochemistry of the aquifer, the springs, and the upper river, where she concluded that the aquifer provided 80% of the flow in the springs. Unfortunately, Ms. Wirt died recently in a kayaking accident so she wasn't available to defend her work in the hearing. But two former USGS employees presented differing views on the robustness of her results. Ed McGavock, currently with the consulting firm E.L. Montgomery & Assoc., argued that Ms. Wirt was biased because of her personal beliefs in support of the river, leading to unreliable results. Hjalmar "Win" Hjalmarson, a retired USGS engineer, who assisted Ms. Wirt on her studies defended her results and her integrity.

Here's what the article says about McGavock's testimony:
McGavock kicked off the debate Monday by testifying that he believed Wirt, who died in a kayaking accident in 2006, rigged her studies to come up with results consistent with her passionate views about protecting the environment.
"Laurie had a different mindset than most of us in the USGS," McGavock said. "We had a long tradition of objectivity."
In contrast, "Laurie cared deeply about what was going on in the environment," McGavock said, adding that Wirt "became very impatient with Survey procedures. No one in the USGS ever accused Laurie of being objective."

Now I have no problem with another scientist getting up to challenge the results of someone else's studies, but to do so by attacking the integrity of another scientist who cannot defend herself because of her untimely demise really bothers me. I hope McGavock also discussed what was wrong with Ms. Wirt's methodology and the reporter just didn't discuss that part. Because to challenge someone's results by attacking them personally goes against most everything that I believe science should stand for.

Then if you go to the bottom of the story the reporter includes this:
Even so, McGavock allowed that he and most hydrologists agree that the Big Chino is the "primary source" of water for the Upper Verde. After the hearing, he estimated the Big Chino contribution at "somewhere between 60 (percent) and 80 percent."

So her results were biased, but not that far off from your own estimates and possibly irrelevant to the real point of the case? Must have been a pretty good cross-examination. This is the kind of work that consultants covet because they charge their highest rates for expert testimony. But at what cost? This sort of behavior can be incredibly damaging to the credibility of the profession. It's an unfortunate trade-off we have to make.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Article touting the growing popularity of rain barrels

I came across this on Aquafornia yesterday. The article discusses use of rain barrels for rainwater harvesting in places like Illinois and Minnesota, but what about in California, Arizona, and New Mexico where they should be standard equipment on all homes? I'm a big fan of making better use of free resources whenever possible and collection of rainwater provides so many benefits in places where lots of potable-quality water is typically used for outdoor irrigation. Installing water storage can be costly, but if water were priced to discourage its use outdoors, it would become very economical to capture rainwater. And there are a lot of benefits to be derived from just doing some landscape modification to slow runoff from your property and direct it to trees and shrubs, which doesn't cost very much at all.

If you have an interest in learning more about rainwater harvesting there are some great resources on the web, here are a few:

And a local non-profit in Tucson that works with neighborhoods and other organizations on rainwater harvesting projects is Watershed Management Group, found here.

More poorly managed groundwater resources

John Fleck posted this link about a week ago. It's got all the familiar themes for us in the West: drying rivers, dropping water tables, unregulated groundwater pumping, and large irrigated lawns. But it's not in the West, it's in Massachusetts!

Pretty amazing to think of people in Mass., where it rains 48 inches a year, watering their lawns. Do they just really enjoy cutting the grass? The article cites some per capita water use numbers showing that some communities use more water than people do in Tucson - where it rains 12 inches in a good year. The state is stepping in to mandate that average water use for residential customers get down to 65 gallons/capita/day - easily enough water for average indoor needs. Which should deal with the people who don't have the ability to sink a well on their property. But unless they also intend to regulate well drilling on residential lots that might not solve the problem entirely. At the very least they should get people to meter their private wells and pay an extraction fee for pumpage above some limit.

Monday, June 8, 2009

A couple of recent articles discussing improvements in irrigation efficiencies by farmers in Ariz. and Cal.

I thought these two articles were very encouraging in showing that farmers in the West (even the ones growing alfalfa) can invest in improved irrigation efficiency and have a positive impact on their bottom line. With all the recent bad news about climate change and diminishing water supplies it's going to be necessary for farmers to adapt and alter their operations if they want to survive as farmers and if we want to continue to grow crops locally, here in the West.

The first of these articles appeared in the Western Farm Press last month and describes a farming family in Central Arizona that started growing alfalfa in fields where they had already installed drip tape and found their yields were enough higher than their neighbors that they claim a system like it can pay for itself in 3 to 5 years.

I confess, I don't personally know enough about irrigated farming or growing alfalfa to properly evaluate these claims, but what I have always heard is that it just isn't economical to install high-efficiency irrigation systems in alfalfa fields because it's considered such a low value crop. Maybe higher prices for alfalfa in recent years have altered the equations sufficiently to make things like drip tape a good investment. But I think the key in this story is that the drip system was already installed in the field for growing things like cotton and wheat (not really high value crops themselves in most years, but probably better than alfalfa). The other thing the story doesn't discuss is the overall effect on consumptive use of water with the drip vs. flood irrigation. Some investigations have indicated higher consumptive use with drip, meaning that any savings in overall water use are illusory because the return flow component of flood irrigation is lost. But this clearly is the most efficient way to irrigate crops.

The second article appeared this week in the Fresno Bee (and I lifted it from Aquafornia - thanks Aqua Blog maven!). The article discusses farmers in the Central Valley of California switching to center pivot irrigation systems to get more crop per slowly shrinking drop of water available. Most farmers growing row crops in that area have always used flood irrigation, probably because there has historically been a reliable supply of cheap water available so there was zero incentive to switch to higher efficiency systems. Some farmers are now finding it worth their while to make investments (and apparently finding sympathetic bankers in the area willing to finance those investments - a very important and often overlooked point) in higher efficiency irrigation systems.

These articles show the ability of farmers to adapt to changing conditions and remain profitable in their farming operations. It would be very interesting to look at how many farmers are actually making changes in these difficult times because all you seem to hear about are how farmers are being forced out of business because the water isn't there and they just can't cut it without intervention to supersede environmental laws and more taxpayer funded water storage projects. The Pacific Institute released a report last year outlining steps that could be taken by farmers to implement water conservation measures potentially freeing up more than 3 million acre-feet of water in Central California. I saw a fair amount of criticism of that report as being unreasonable in its assumptions. Obviously there are efficiency gains to be made out there because these articles show that it is happening. But I don't think anybody really knows the extent to which it could occur, or how much it might cost. These would be good things to know.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Follow-up on previous post, parts 3 and 4 from the Verde News on Prescott/Big Chino/Verde River controversy

The final two parts of this series came out during the past week - find them here and here. Actually, on that last one I'm guessing it's the fourth part - it's not exactly clear from reading the lead-in, but it came out just after part 3, by the same author, and has the same subject, so I'll call it part 4.

Part 3 talks about the history of the area some more, but the real focus is on what is occurring in the Big Chino watershed apart from the Big Chino Water Ranch project.
According to the State Land Department, there are approximately 318,000 acres of privately owned land in the Big Chino basin.
That number will grow when the Yavapai Ranch Land Exchange is completed.
In addition to private land, the State Land Department holds 233,000 acres in trust, which, by state statute, could be auctioned off and become private land in the future.
Virtually the entire basin, since it is rural Yavapai County, is zoned for one residence on every two acres. That, too, is subject to change as developers trade infrastructure, open space and other amenities for higher zoning densities.
And since the Yavapai County Board of Supervisors has yet to endorse a new state law that would allow them to deny a subdivision based on the lack of an adequate water supply, any and all developers have the right to sink a well, even if it eventually dries up.

What they are saying is that in addition to Prescott and Prescott Valley's plans to pump about 12,000 acre-feet of water from the basin, there could be thousands of small ranchettes out there with their own wells, pumping who-knows-how-much water from the aquifer. My guess is that will have some kind of impact on the Verde River eventually and because it will be the result of the actions of thousands of individual landowners, pinning the blame on the Water Ranch, while logistically tempting, will be difficult to do. Oh sure, they will be the only one's pumping from the aquifer and piping the water far away - their use will be essentially 100% consumptive - while the individual landowners will be pumping from their wells, using some of the water in their homes and yards, but eventually returning most of it to the watershed either through septic leachfields or sewer plant discharge. But if the private land in the valley were fully developed at some point in the future, the springs feeding the Upper Verde would dry up at some point.

So will all that land be developed? Pretty unlikely. Hopefully the majority of it will be taken off the market for development by purchase of development rights, conservation easements, or outright purchase of the land. The state land makes for a challenging issue because of the statutory requirement that the state obtain maximum value for that land (typically by selling it to a developer, who can then put the land to its "highest value" use by building homes, highest value strictly in terms of cold, hard cash). But there has been a strong push in the state in recent years to relax that requirement and hopefully the law will be changed by the time that land is considered ripe for development. But some of what you hear from the area is not real encouraging:
The new owners of the CV/CF Ranch, Chino Grande Ltd., have applied to the Arizona Department of Water Resources to pump 20,776 acre feet of groundwater from the aquifer -- twice Prescott's allotment.
They have also proposed selling 3,000 acre-feet a year of water rights from historically irrigated acres on the ranch, to the Town of Chino Valley. And they intend to build 25,000 homes on the land above.

The final article is a profile on two of the political players in this drama. John Munderloh is the water resource manager for the Town of Prescott Valley (one of the parties to the Water Ranch project) and Doug Von Gausig is the mayor of Clarkdale, a small community in the Verde Valley, downstream from Chino Valley. They both talk about sustainability in the article - Munderloh from the perspective of sustaining both water supplies and growth in the Prescott area and Von Gausig mostly from the perspective of sustaining the river.

Munderloh believes that all that is required to protect the river and permit his community to continue to grow is better management. Of course he still believes they need more water to support that growth. He takes the position that the estimates of natural recharge to the aquifer in Chino Valley are grossly understated because anytime water is flowing in the creek above the Verde headwaters, that means the aquifer is full and unable to take more recharge - a condition he claims is fairly common. It's a pretty simplistic view of hydrogeology that the proponents of pumping seem pretty fond of up there. They like to point to the fact that there has been pumping occurring in the valley for years to support irrigated farming and the river hasn't dried up yet. But they only have estimates of how much pumping has occurred (because no one measures those things in rural parts of Arizona) and the timing of that pumping may be quite different than the timing of pumping from the proposed supply wells. There really is very little known about what the long-term effects will be.

Von Gausig just knows that a healthy river is essential to his town because it supports existing water rights in the area (which would not be protected from upstream groundwater diversions under Arizona law) and most importantly is probably a significant source of tourism dollars for the area. That's why he supports a regional governing body that manages the river and the aquifers, plans for future water supplies, and generally ensures that everyone is on the same page. I wonder if the Salt River Project will be represented on that regional body?

Friday, May 29, 2009

More on the Prescott/Big Chino/Verde River controversy

The Prescott and Verde Valley papers are in the midst of running a series of articles on the battle over plans up in the Prescott AMA (in north-central Arizona) to pump groundwater from the Big Chino Aquifer and pipe it south to support the growing communities of Prescott and Prescott Valley. I've been posting intermittently on this controversy and some of the legal issues surrounding it in the past (i.e. here and here). I like to think of this situation as Arizona's mini version of the controversy in Nevada over pumping from aquifers in east-central Nevada to supply water for continued growth in Las Vegas. In both cases you have municipal interests seeking to take groundwater from rural areas to support continued growth where existing water supplies are already overstretched.

So far the first two articles in a four-part series have come out and can be found here and here. The first article is about the geologic history and hydrogeology of the area and the second is about the legal and political history of the controversy. As you might guess the reporter does a better job with the legal and political stuff than he does with the hydrogeology. I'll save my discussion on the articles until the series is complete - the best stuff is yet to come anyway.

Speaking of good stuff - the people who want to pump water from the Big Chino aquifer to compensate for excess pumping in their own aquifer have put up a website to present their side of the issues. It's the Big Chino Water Ranch Project (that is what Prescott and PV are calling the ranch properties they have purchased in Chino Valley, where they plan to pump the water and put it in a pipeline). It's a nice website, with lots of interesting information, although a bit one-sided. It doesn't clearly state who is responsible for the website, but presumably it's the cities, the developers, and the other money interests in the area. I don't know if the other side has a website up yet - most likely the opposition is covered on a variety of websites. If anyone knows of a site, drop me a line or leave a comment.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

update on City of Tucson/Pima County Water & Wastewater study

Tomorrow night (Thurs. 5/21) is the next meeting in Phase II of the study. This meeting will wrap up the discussion of water conservation begun last month as well as protection of riparian areas and stormwater management (collection and use of rainwater, either by landowners or collectively by the city or county).

They are running once-a-month, four hour marathon meetings in this phase, which has weeded out all but the most die-hard attendees. I went to the last meeting, but will miss this one (it's my son's 2nd birthday). Fortunately, all the discussion materials for the meetings are available on the website (here), and if you really want to hear the committee discussion it's available either on the web or on local cable Channel 12.

They are running the meetings slightly differently from Phase I. Most of the time is spent on committee discussion with the presenters - the presentations are kept brief. And they do allow plenty of time for questions and comments from the public. But the technical documents prepared and distributed for each meeting are very informative - I highly recommend reading them. Just keep in mind they are prepared by city and county staff, so don't expect anything really radical or ground-breaking.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Groundwater Management in California

The NY Times ran an article last week about groundwater use in the Central Valley of California. The article was mentioned on Inkstain, Aquafornia, and On the Public Record, but I just couldn't resist throwing my two cents in as well because this is one of my favorite issues.

California may earn the distinction of having less regulation of groundwater use than even Texas, which still follows the absolute ownership rule - the most permissive legal regime governing groundwater. Texas is at least in the process of developing regional planning documents to guide local agencies that presumably "regulate" access to groundwater in the state (there is plenty of debate about how effective those efforts are or are likely to be). California similarly has only local control of groundwater resources and those efforts range from, basically nothing, to fully adjudicated groundwater basins where rights to groundwater are quantified, prioritized, transferable and for the most part fully-regulated. But the adjudicated basins are primarily in urbanized Southern California. This report from the CA Dept. of Water Resources has a map showing what management regime is in place in different areas of the state (pdf file, about 2.6 mb; it's 10 years old, so not the most current). The areas with little or no management of groundwater are in the main farming areas of the state - the Central Valley, in particular.

The article notes that the state has been making noises recently about actually collecting some data on groundwater use throughout the state - most pumping is not metered in any way and those relying on groundwater consider metering the first step in limiting their "property rights" in groundwater (see my previous post). As the farmer quoted in the NYT story says:
“I don’t want the government to come in and dictate to us, ‘This is all the water you can use on your own land,’ ” said Mr. Watte, 57. “We would resist that to our dying day.”

Strong words there. Of course if they were to run out of groundwater they would surely be clamoring for someone (the government, perhaps?) to come to their rescue by spending tax dollars to bring in a new supply of water. We know what that is like in Arizona, where we were racing to the bottom of our aquifers in the central parts of the state back in the 60s when the feds finally came through with approval of the Central Arizona Project (CAP) to bring Colorado River water in to rescue all the farms and cities from a certain fate. But ... it turned out that the feds were carrying a stick along with the carrot of new water. They insisted that Arizona clean up its act on groundwater regulation by setting some limits on pumping, collecting data on how much pumping was occurring, and creating quantified, transferable rights in groundwater. If we didn't do that, funding for the CAP just might dry up - along with our economy. So the state enacted the Groundwater Management Act of 1980 that imposed fairly stringent regulation of groundwater pumping in the areas where overdraft was most severe.

I'd guess that the most likely reason they have been able to resist more significant regulation of groundwater in California is because they only rely on the stuff when the surface water situation is dire - like it is now. If groundwater is your primary or only source of water (as it was in much of Arizona), the pressure to take action is much stronger. But the California farmers (in the Central Valley at least) have been supplied for the most part with ample surface water from the Central Valley Project, State Water Project, and other large water delivery systems that convey surface water from where it is to where it is needed. When surface water is unavailable or limited, the farmers most affected restart their pumps, and everyone wrings their hands over depletion of groundwater. When surface water supplies return, the pumps turn off and water levels are allowed to recover. This removes the pressure to regulate groundwater use. The difference this time is that the surface water may be gone for good in some instances, so there will be more farmers relying on groundwater more of the time. This may lead to sustained pressure for action. And this being California, you can pretty much bet that action will be state action. The best those farmers can hope for is that they implement some kind of system that gives them something more closely resembling real property rights in groundwater - quantified, transferable, and sustainable. That way they will have both an incentive to manage the use of groundwater and more valuable property rights associated with their farmland, generally.

I'd suggest Mr. Watte start pricing flow meters pretty soon.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Chino Valley Town council candidates to protect well owner's property rights (what property rights?)

This little piece showed up in the Chino Valley Review last week, describing a candidate forum for the Chino Valley Town Council. Chino Valley is a very small town just north of Prescott, Arizona and happens to be in the vicinity of where Prescott is planning to pump groundwater that will be transported into the Prescott area to support current and future growth. If you're interested I have posted previously on this project and some of the interesting legal issues that have some up because of it here and here.

I really love the way local politicians pander to their constituents by talking about their property rights in groundwater - when those rights consist of nothing more than the right to pump water out of the ground faster than your neighbors, who are trying to do the same thing. The property rights claims are always made when someone mentions the possibility of metering peoples wells to determine how much water they are using - this is just the first step in regulating how much water people can pump, they say. I guess they will know if they are pumping too much when they have to deepen their wells every 5 years. In this case Prescott is asking people to meter wells in the area, presumably so they can determine the sustainable yield of the aquifer, but those intrepid town council candidates see right through that ruse:
As for metering private wells, Schmidt said, "The metering idea comes from Prescott so it can get more water. Our private wells have no impact on Prescott."
Another candidate, Linda Hatch, said, "I don't think it (metering of private wells) will happen. If the wells go dry the town will offer them an opportunity to go on the town's system."
Candidate Robert Justice said metering of private wells is not the way to go. If a person's well goes dry they will have options.

Their big concern is that pumping by Prescott will dry up individual wells and they might be right, because Prescott has the same "property right" in the groundwater that they do, but they also have the resources to put in large, deep wells with high capacity pumps - giving them a heavy-duty property right.

So these folks are basically saying: there's no need to meter your pumping, because if everyone is pumping too much their wells will go dry and we'll hook you up to the city water system. What they don't mention is that those people will then be paying a lot more for their water and ... their water use will be metered (unless they have flat-rate water service up there). In other words they're happy to talk about protecting your water rights to get your vote even though they acknowledge that those water rights really aren't worth a damn. Do people really fall for this stuff?

Friday, May 1, 2009

Some numbers to look at

I was recently involved in a discussion with John Fleck over at Inkstain about per capita water use numbers - comparing Tucson and Albuquerque data. Then I recently came across this graphic (courtesy of On the Public Record) that shows some pretty startling numbers.

It was in the Sacramento Bee so it focuses on data from that area, but also provides some numbers from elsewhere for comparison. It shouldn't be surprising from looking at these numbers that many areas in and around Sacramento have no metering for residential water service. What is surprising is that anyone from Sacramento could even raise the subject of drought or water shortages when their own consumption looks like this. Mind you, I'm not accusing anyone in particular, just pointing out that it's best to have your own house in order before pointing the finger at others. I'm sure there are other examples of water waste that could be pointed out in California that could be considered contributors to their current water crisis - efficiency is often a moving target.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Can you say irony?

I was looking through some of the Arizona Water News postings on the Arizona Water Institute's (AWI - the same one that is being defunded by our state legislature over the summer) website recently and this piece from the Yuma Sun caught my eye because it appeared just a day before the news referred to in my post yesterday about the falling water levels in Lake Mead.

The Sun article refers to a somewhat common situation on the lower river during spring, when farmers in Imperial Valley and other places along the river must place orders for irrigation water 2-3 days in advance to give it time to come down the river to where their turnout is located. If it rains during those 2 o 3 days the farmer may decide to not take the water he ordered letting it flow down the river. From the article:
The almost .03 inches of rain was enough to cause some water users to not take the water they requested from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation almost three days before. And that caused the river to rise about four to five feet, according to Bob Walsh, external affairs officer with the bureau.

Obviously it doesn't take much rain to alter irrigation schedules and have a big impact on river levels.
...with no place to store the excess water, it runs downstream to Yuma and into Mexico.

Las Vegas funded a project to eliminate this situation somewhat on orders from Imperial Valley. It's called the Drop 2 Reservoir, which would store water off the river, adjacent to the All-American Canal in SE California. When completed it will allow water ordered but not taken to be stored for the next call, which is supposed to save about 70,000 acre feet per year. I believe Vegas funded the project in exchange for any water saved.

I'm not sure whether water ordered but not taken is counted against a given farmers allowable water allocation in a given year - I suspect it isn't. But I'm sure there are a lot of water agencies that shudder to think that, at times, water is being released from Lake Mead that isn't used by anyone (unless farmers in Mexico are grabbing it). Do you suppose efforts will be made to tighten up management of what is currently occurring on the river if it can delay or lessen the impact of water shortages in the basin?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

More bad news on climate change effects on surface water flows

The Christian Science Monitor has a blog on their website called Discoveries, that had a post yesterday summing up the recent Scripps study on the possibly dire future of the Colorado River watershed (discussed in my previous post here).

If you have followed the news this week the story has been pretty inescapable. The gist of it is that with or without the effects of climate change, the Bureau of Reclamation will be unable to meet the existing water delivery obligations in the lower basin almost half the time by the middle of this century because of overallocation of the river. This is primarily due to the fact that the amount of water divided up by the Colorado River compact was based on anomalous weather during the 20th century according to records reconstructed from tree-ring data. If average flows on the river over the past 1300 years or so are an accurate indication of reality, the river is currently over-allocated by as much as 4 to 5 million acre-feet per year.

These reports are on top of the recent announcement by the Bureau that the level of Lake Mead is expected to drop below 1,100 feet at some point this summer. That is a level not seen since Lake Powell was being filled upstream in the 60s and would be perilously close to the level that would initiative provisions of the recently completed shortage-sharing agreement(pdf) under which the basin states agreed to divvy up any shortfalls on the river during prolonged shortages.

The Discoveries post also mentions a recently completed study that shows declining flows in 2/3 of the large river basins in the world over the second half of the 20th century. The only places where flow is increasing is in rivers fed primarily by melting glaciers in places like the Arctic. That's some really ominous data there.

Keep an eye on developments on the Colorado and watch what is occurring in Australia with the Murray-Darling River Basin. If these predictions come true for the Colorado, what is currently occurring in Australia will be an important lesson for planners and policy-makers here.

A real treat for a lowly water blogger

Last night I had the opportunity to meet a guy who passes for a celebrity in the small realm of water wonkery in the blogosphere. Michael Campana, of WaterWired fame (in addition to being a highly respected academic, philanthropist, and generally good guy), is visiting Tucson this week for the National Ground Water Association's Ground Water Summit, a meeting of groundwater professionals from universities, government agencies, and consulting firms across the globe. I'm not attending the conference but decided to attend a networking mixer associated with it last night in order to, well, network.

You may not realize this but shortly after starting this blog in a somewhat tentative (and very locally focused) fashion last summer, Michael - out of the blue - mentioned my blog in one of his posts. Then shortly after that I was mentioned in two other blogs. Suddenly I was on the map and realized that other people actually were occasionally reading what I had to say. It was at that point that I decided to stay with this blog, continue to expand the focus, and try to apply what I know to what is happening around me in the hopes that I can contribute to the discourse on these very important issues and maybe provide someone with useful information they were not previously aware of. But I might not have gotten this far if not for the subtle encouragement provided by Michael in that one brief post. So thank you Aquadoc.

It's been a fun several months and will hopefully continue to be so. And maybe I'll get the opportunity to meet more water bloggers in the future.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Grim predictions for Colorado River

Click on the chart to see the entire image.

This post from Tom Yulsman on the Center for Environmental Journalism website paints a picture of a pretty grim future in the Colorado River watershed. When you have combined trends of steadily increasing water use with a likelihood for steadily (or is it abruptly?) decreasing river flows the outcome of dry reservoirs appears unavoidable, unless some drastic changes are made. The question is: is the Law of the River robust enough to make those drastic changes? Or do we need to scrap it and start over?

Hattip to John Fleck for pointing me to the CEJ post and providing the image above.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Some discussion on using water policy to manage growth from John Fleck

John Fleck is the science writer for the Albuquerque Journal, who blogs on his paper's website and independently at Inkstain. His post today included a link to a post from his Journal blog back in February (still with me?) that caught my eye. In it he discusses the idea of using water policy to manage growth in the context of New Mexico's efforts to assert regulatory authority over deep, brackish aquifers in the state that have recently seen a flurry of speculative activity, seeking to lock up these water sources to supply future development. Previously, the New Mexico State Engineer (who oversees water rights in NM), had no regulatory authority over deep, brackish aquifers because they weren't considered potential sources of usable water - they were mostly of interest to the oil and gas industry because they are associated to some degree with formations containing valuable deposits in the SE portion of the state. But I digress.

The main point of his post is that, while water scarcity would seem to be a natural constraining factor on growth in places like Albuquerque or Tucson, it does not logically follow that policies for managing the water supply are a useful proxy for managing land use and growth. This is a point frequently made by Sharon Megdal at the Water Resources Research Center at the Univ. of Arizona and I usually agree with her, because she's much smarter than me. But if you think about it, it does make sense. Land use policy should be used to manage land use decision-making, while water policies should be used to manage water supply decision-making. The problem is - these two issues need to be considered together, as part of an overall plan for managing and ensuring sustainable growth policies. This means that water policies need to take into account the water supplies reliably available and what sort of growth they can accommodate, while land use policies need to take into account the availability of water supplies and infrastructure and what effect growth of a certain type, in a certain place will have on water supply availability in the future.

An important aspect of this (because of the way laws relating to property development are structured) is that water supply issues related to development have to be considered very early in the process of development approval, because once a developer reaches a certain point, vested rights to develop the property accrue, meaning there may be no turning back (see my earlier post here). In the past, decisions about land use (zoning, planned developments, etc.) were made without considering their impact on available water supplies. It was just assumed that water would be found to support the development when the time came. This has begun to change recently and Tucson and Pima County have actually made some pretty good strides in this area. These are pretty new policies and ordinances around here and there is very little development occurring at the moment, so it remains to be seen how effective they will be and (more importantly) what sort of unintended consequences they may have. It may also be necessary to make changes at the state level for this to really be effective. But as tools for land use planning (comprehensive plans and the like) become increasingly more sophisticated (as seen here) this idea will become much more prominent.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Signs of Progress in the Gila Adjudication?

According to a news report from up in the Verde Valley, signs of visible progress in Gila Adjudication are apparent. For those unfamiliar with the adjudication process, this is the largest court case in Arizona and one of the largest in the U.S., with somewhere on the order of 30,000 parties or water rights holders, seeking adjudication of their rights. The adjudication process is designed to assign both priority and quantity to all surface water rights in the Gila River system.

The article reports that the adjudication of rights along the San Pedro River are nearing completion and that the Arizona Geological Survey is progressing with its mapping effort of the Holocene Alluvium along the Verde River. This mapping effort is intended to permit compliance with one of the key court rulings from the adjudication declaring that all wells pumping within the subflow zone of the rivers would be required to file for surface water rights (prior appropriation rights). This subflow zone was defined by the court to encompass the full extent of the Holocene alluvium along those rivers. So this mapping effort will effectively decide which well owners are to sucked into the adjudication (assuming they aren't already in it) and could impact their ability to pump water from their wells.

As to the final adjudication of rights along the San Pedro, I know that there are still hearings occurring related to some of the federal reserved rights in that basin - i.e. San Pedro Riparian area, Aravaipa Canyon - but because there is historically limited water in the river the number of surface right claimants should be fairly low compared to say the Verde. So I think it would be safe to say that this tributary is further along than anywhere else in the Gila system. But I think in terms of overall progress of the adjudication the thing that resulted in the most progress being made was the settlement of nearly all tribal rights to water from the Gila. While its encouraging that mapping is proceeding on the subflow issue I don't see significant evidence that the pace of progress in the adjudications has picked up recently.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Arizona Supreme Court Rules on Severability of Groundwater Rights from Property

This is a follow-up to a previous post regarding a recent legal case in Arizona that considered whether rights to groundwater associated with a parcel of land can be held separately from ownership of the land.

The Arizona Supreme Court obviously felt it was an important case because they accepted it for review near the end of 2008, then scheduled it for oral argument in early Jan. 2009, and published their opinion late last week.

If you read my earlier post you will notice that I half-heartedly endorsed the Court of Appeals decision and thought the Supreme Court would affirm. On further consideration I changed my mind because the property rights to groundwater created by the Appeals court reading of the cases would be incomplete and do nothing to encourage efficient use of groundwater. I also began to see the illogic in their reading of the cases on which the decision hinged. It turns out I was right the second time. The Supreme Court went with what I would call a much more straightforward reading of the law (and the nature of property rights in groundwater) and held that, because there can be no future right to groundwater in Arizona (outside of an AMA), a property owner cannot reserve the right to pump groundwater from property after conveyance of the property.

The ruling appeared to hinge on the way the appeals court interpreted a few earlier cases they thought meant that a real property interest in future groundwater use could exist. But the Supreme Court differed in their interpretation of those cases and relied primarily on the Arizona case Town of Chino Valley v. City of Prescott and the U.S. District Court case Cherry v. Steiner to support the notion that rights to groundwater are perfected only by pumping the water to the surface (usufructory rights), therefore land ownership vests no rights to groundwater prior to pumping, so the previous owners who tried to reserve rights to groundwater had no actual property rights to reserve.

This reading of the law is in agreement with traditional economic notions of property rights to fugitive resources - something not all courts seem to grasp. In Texas, by contrast, their courts have interpreted the rule of absolute ownership as creating actual property rights in groundwater in situ (also the original common law view in Arizona until changed by the courts), permitting the reservation of rights to groundwater when property is conveyed. I looked at a couple of cases decided by their appellate courts recently affirming this view. One thing I found very interesting in the Texas cases was the statement that the rule of absolute ownership is distinct from the rule of capture. They claimed the rule of capture is simply a rule of tort liability (non-liability really) but the rule of absolute ownership is a property rights rule. That is a legal interpretation so it does not have to relate in any way to economic realities - but I think they would be better off if it did.

update on City/County water study

Last week was supposed to be the first meeting of Phase II of the study, but first the committee had to clear up some unfinished business on the Phase I report. Unfortunately, that unfinished business dominated the evening and bumped the discussion of drought preparedness off the schedule. I didn't wait around til the end of the meeting and am still waiting for the revised schedule to be posted, but I'll assume the report was wrapped up and the next meeting (4/23) will be devoted solely to Phase II.

While I was at the meeting most of the discussion was focused on language in the report describing uncertainties associated with our water supply resulting from possible shortages on the Colorado River. This discussion focused on a need to clarify that the potential for shortages on the river does not affect Tucson Water's designation of assured water supply - which is true. But this brings up the distinction between paper water rights (the amount of water you have legal rights to) and wet water rights (the amount of water physically available to satisfy your paper water rights). This was something that possibly could be more clearly stated in the report, although doing so is likely to result in more questions for the average reader who may have some difficulty with the subject. And in the end what people really need to know is what the effects on our wet water supplies are likely to be - and the impacts from those effects.

The remainder of the discussion I was present for mainly related to dropping or inserting a sentence here and there - housekeeping mostly.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

World Water Day - 3/22/09 - Focusing on Transboundary Waters

To commemorate World Water Day, happening this Sunday, Daniel Collins, an Australian (correction - Kiwi) hydrologist who blogs at Crikey Creek, suggested that all bloggers who focus on water dedicate a post to the issue of transboundary waters - water resources that are shared by more than one country (or state).

Transboundary waters are commonly discussed in the context of surface water sources - i.e. the Colorado River in the Southwest U.S. that is shared by 7 states and a portion of Mexico - but just as contentious can be conflict over shared groundwater resources, which is what I will focus on in this post because of both the importance of groundwater as a water supply in Southern Arizona (where I reside) and the importance of groundwater in terms of its interaction with the few remaining surface water sources in this area.

The two locations arguably of greatest importance in this regard, in Southern Arizona, are the upper Santa Cruz valley in the vicinity of Nogales, Arizona and the upper San Pedro valley, near Sierra Vista, Arizona. These are locations of historically rich riparian areas supported by perennial streams that depended on baseflow from adjacent aquifers to maintain streamflow during the driest parts of the year. These are also northward flowing rivers that travel from Mexico into the United States.

Baseflow to the Santa Cruz River has been significantly compromised by urban growth and development near the border with Mexico. Nogales, Arizona has a population of approximately 21,000 while Nogales, Sonora has an official population of about 200,000 but some estimates place the actual number closer to 300,000. Although residents on the American side of the border undoubtedly use much more water per capita than their poor neighbors in Mexico, the sheer numbers south of the border in addition to poorly maintained, leaky water systems result in significant groundwater use in Mexico. What Mexico does provide to the river/aquifer system, however, is effluent. This is why the Santa Cruz River, which historically was perennial over much of its course between Nogales and Tucson is currently perennial in two distinct stretches - north of Nogales and north of Tucson, where the flow is supported by effluent.

Among the management goals for the Santa Cruz Active Management Area (AMA), which encompasses the valley from Nogales north about 45 miles, is to maintain the riparian area and local aquifers. This goal is only possible with the contribution of the effluent from a border treatment plant that handles most of the sewage from Nogales, Sonora. North of the border, much of the historically irrigated acreage along the river has been retired to permit further population growth (which has been rapid in the past 20 years). Interestingly, pursuit of this goal requires recognition of the connection between surface and groundwater, something the common law in Arizona typically ignores. Hopefully the new residents of the area will appreciate the riparian area in their neighborhood and understand the potential impact future growth can have on that resource.

The story along the San Pedro River, about 40 miles east of the Santa Cruz, is similar in that the major factor impacting the aquifer (and hence the river) is rapid population growth. However, in this case the growth is almost entirely on the Arizona side of the border. This area is not within an AMA so there is little regulation of groundwater pumping under state law.

The San Pedro drainage located south of the border is still largely undeveloped apart from ranching and some mining so the focus of efforts to maintain the aquifer/river system has been in the vicinity of Sierra Vista, the largest city in the area and a rapidly growing community during the last several decades. There has been much concern about the fate of the San Pedro River since the creation of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area in 1988. Fortunately the Federal Government has considerable leverage over the growing cities and towns in the area, not just because of the federal reserved water rights associated with the Conservation area but also because the main economic engine in the area is a military base, Fort Huachuca. The fort has been a leader in the region in promoting water conservation measures so that constraints on the local aquifer can be minimized. Local political and business leaders are terrified of losing the fort, resulting in an alliance of business, governmental, environmental, and military interests to ensure that river remains flowing (and the area continues growing).

So far they have conducted numerous studies of the river and aquifer, the connection between the two, and the sensitivity of the river to groundwater pumping in various areas. They have reduced per capita water use in the area, constructed projects to capture and recharge both stormwater and reclaimed water in an attempt to minimize the extent of the effects from local groundwater pumping (hopefully providing long-term protection to the river) and different organizations have purchased land adjacent to the river to retire irrigation rights, which provides the best short-term protection of the river, although there is still considerable pumping occurring adjacent to the river (again the issue of legally distinct surface and groundwater in Arizona rears its ugly head). But the biggest threat of all could ultimately be from climate change which might alter recharge patterns to the aquifer (less winter precip and more summer precip, meaning more flash floods that are less effective recharge sources than the widely dispersed, cold weather precip that historically occurred during winter months).

The saving grace for the San Pedro is likely to be the fact that there are lots of people watching to see what happens and lots of data is being collected, so hopefully someone will notice when changes need to be made in the region and they will have the necessary data to support those changes. But the population growth that has already occurred or has been approved for the near future could be too much for the aquifer to support long-term. That would mean augmenting water supplies in the region somehow. They have already been looking at that but funding will be a significant issue.