Saturday, December 4, 2010

On the rise

Lake Mead is finally beginning to climb - see projection graph.

This was supposed to start happening a month ago, but ... better late than never.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Everything old is new again

So I finally got around to reading "Water and the West" by Norris Hundley, Jr. (yeah I'm a little behind the curve on some things) and came across this passage in the section discussing the 1944 treaty with Mexico and a report by the Bureau of Reclamation about that same time describing their most recent estimations of flows on the Colorado:
Even so, calculations revealed that during a future drought, there would be a shortage.  Though the shortage could be temporarily met by extra releases from Hoover Dam storage, the drawdown on the reservoir result in power losses; and if the drought lasted more than thirteen years, the reservoir would be exhausted.
This was reported in hearings on the treaty in the Senate in 1945.  Just in case anyone thought that awareness of the likelihood of shortages on the lower river was a more recent phenomenon.  Additionally, this is reported in a book that was written in the 1970s.  1945 was still a few years before the construction of Glen Canyon Dam, which certainly changed the projections for reservoir exhaustion at Mead, but the possibility remains frighteningly real.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Lake Mead expected to hit historic low today. Is anyone paying attention?

John Fleck is winging his way to Lake Mead to observe an historic event expected to occur later today (10/17).  As I'm writing this the water level elevation in the reservoir is at 1083.2 ft.  As John points out, the lowest level the reservoir has ever seen (except when it was filling after first being constructed) was back in 1956, when it dropped to 1083.19, during what had been the historic drought of record for the river basin.

This is momentous for water geeks like John and I who love to observe the significance of historical events, but probably not so momentous for the average person.  The number that should have great significance, especially for anyone who relies on water from the Central Arizona Project, is 1075.  That is the elevation at which Arizona's share of Colorado River water will be reduced under the Shortage Sharing provisions adopted by the basin states a few years ago.  Many water managers in the Southwest think it's likely the reservoir will reach that level as early as next year.

When the level of 1075 ft is reached, Arizona (specifically the Central Arizona Project) will have it's water delivery reduced by approximately 300,000 acre-feet.  That's enough water to irrigate about 50,000 acres of alfalfa in central Arizona, or enough to provide municipal supplies to a city of almost 1.5 million people for a year.  Does this mean any cities in Arizona will have to cut back on their water deliveries.  No.  This means that the amount of excess water being taken by Arizona mostly to recharge aquifers in the central part of the state will be reduced.  Some farms will probably have to go back to pumping groundwater, but no municipal or industrial supplies will be affected until reductions become much larger - an unlikely occurrence in my lifetime.

But I can't help but wonder - what is the average Arizonan, who doesn't track these kinds of issues on a regular basis going to think when they hear Arizona's allocation from the Colorado River is being cut because of shortages on the river?  Will they drill deeper and learn that the water they use in their home will be unaffected?  Will they panic and start extraordinary conservation measures?  Or will they look to move somewhere else?

I don't know how much resource managers in Arizona are thinking about these questions or if they have developed strategies to get the right message out to the public, or even thought about what the right message is.  Do you tell people not to worry or do you say this a real threat to the continued viability of some communities in this state?  I'd like to know if there are answers to these questions, because I don't have them and I think they are needed.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Water Sustainability Policy in Action - Sort of?

Back when I started this blog my main objective was to report on the progress of an ongoing study by the City of Tucson and Pima County (where I live) that was intended to develop policies for a new water resources paradigm in this one little Sun Belt city, built up over the years on the promise of water - of sufficient quantities and suitable quality - to sustain whatever growth might come our way.  After two years, 36 public meetings, 14 technical reports, and one comprehensive summary of water/wastewater resources and infrastructure in the region, an amazing collection of city and county staff (prodded on by a 12 member citizen's oversight committee) produced a Phase II report that outlined a menu of 19 community goals with 56 specific recommendations for reaching those goals.  It was enormous effort that produced some impressive reports that could very easily have proceeded to sit on a shelf in someone's office.

But the process was designed from the start to prevent that from happening.  To the credit of our public officials and staff who work in the city and county departments involved in the study, they were tasked with developing a plan within 6 months for implementing those 19 goals and 56 recommendations.  The results of that effort were recently posted to the study website.

Having been involved in this process from the beginning - initially as an observer and concerned citizen, then as a member of the oversight committee during Phase II - I had very high hopes for this implementation document.  I have also been frustrated by the failure of this city and most southwest cities to make the connection between water resources planning and land use planning for so very long - leading to horribly planned and potentially unsustainable conurbations in the midst of deserts, completely reliant on imported water supplies that could become unreliable and extremely costly in a climate-and-cheap-power-constrained future.

Coming from that perspective, on my first read, I was pretty disappointed in what I saw.  It was mostly a collection of promises to study this, assess the feasibility of that, and a list of things that we were already doing or intended to do before this process even began.  On further reflection, I decided this rather tepid implementation approach was due primarily to current budget problems in local governments limiting available resources.  I think that has a lot to do with it.  But I think it also reflects what is commonly seen as the play-it-safe approach of public employees.  Radical ideas are not often rewarded in that setting.

I'm probably being too impatient with what is at heart a very political process, with the potential for some definite winners and losers.  But I believe there is good reason for some impatience.  We are currently in the midst of a near-standstill in property development around here due to the economy.  It's possible we will never get back to the kind of development pressures we were seeing 5 years ago, but I have no doubt that our local economy will pick back up and this region will see more growth in the future.  This makes now the ideal time to implement some of the policies that will help guide that renewed growth.  Otherwise we will just go back to playing catch-up all the time.  We will be trying to implement new policies while growth is occurring, always having to determine which projects those new policies apply to.  And some development will be rushed into the approval process to obtain vested development rights - creating the potential for too rapid development with impacts that are very difficult to mitigate.

I don’t have the answer for how the city and county can find the resources for a more complete implementation of the Phase II policies, but I know that waiting until the economy is growing enough to provide them with the fiscal stability to obtain those resources could add greatly to the cost of implementation.  We can still get there; it’s just a matter of how hard do we want to work to get there.  And what might be lost in the meantime?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

What is Safe Yield and Does it Actually Matter?

Arizona's Groundwater Management Act (GMA), the landmark legislation passed in 1980 intended to finally get groundwater pumping under control in the state, has a mandate that by 2025 groundwater mining (pumping out more that is replaced) should cease in the most populous parts of the state. The law also defined safe yield as the condition where water pumped out of the aquifer is in balance with water entering the aquifer, whether naturally or artificially. The law mentions artificial recharge specifically, reflecting an understanding that natural recharge to many aquifers in the state is very limited and must be augmented by adding water through specially constructed recharge facilities.

Does this mean that water tables in the state would stabilize when safe yield is reached? Not necessarily, because the safe yield concept applies over large areas, only requiring that there be a balance over those large areas – called Active Management Areas (AMA) – which, in reality, could mean that water levels could be continuing to drop precipitously in one part of an AMA but if that pumpage is offset by recharge in another area it's still kosher under the law. That is the precise situation that is currently occurring in the Tucson AMA (TAMA) and is one of the issues to be addressed by a recently created working group, called the Safe Yield Task Force. These specific problems are known as sub-area management issues.

This problem has been significantly exacerbated by the creation of the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District (CAGRD). Many in the water field know of the CAGRD as the legislative acquiescence to the needs of the property development industry in Arizona – the one sector of state commerce not at the table when the GMA was being crafted. The less cynical view is that the CAGRD became necessary for the state to implement the Assured Water Supply rules that were necessary as part of the GMA – rules that required future development to rely on renewable water supplies (essentially Colorado River water via the Central Arizona Project (CAP)).

The CAGRD is an entity that acquires and recharges (replenishes) renewable water to offset the groundwater pumping of cities, towns, and subdivisions that enroll as members in the district. And because the GMA only requires that water use be in balance on an AMA-wide basis, there is no requirement that this pumpage be offset in a way that mitigates water level drawdown caused by that pumpage – i.e. the replenishment can, and often does, occur many miles away and down-gradient from where the groundwater was pumped.

While I would like to think that this Safe Yield Task Force will be able to tackle these sub-area management issues it's an issue that reaches too far into our local economies and involves several key entities who are probably less than enthusiastic about solving these issues (in the most rational and cost-efficient manner). In a nutshell, resolution involves a combination of infrastructure investment (extending renewable water to up-gradient areas for recharge or direct use) and regulatory restrictions on pumping in the most-affected areas (setting pumping limits and restricting new wells in areas where water declines are greatest and the cost of extending renewable water supplies is prohibitive). Property owners in the sub-areas with water supply problems don't want to be excessively restricted in their use of groundwater – they want taxpayers to subsidize the installation of infrastructure to offset their excessive pumping. Taxpayers don't want to subsidize expensive infrastructure to save the bacon of property developers who continue to insist on building in areas with limited water supplies, so they are ok with imposing restrictions on pumping.

As I'm an ongoing participant in the Task Force I will try to post updates on what is occurring there periodically.

Another issue that deserves a post in the next few days is the Draft Phase II Action Plan recently developed by the city and county staff charged with implementing the recommendations of the Phase II City/County Water Study report. There is currently an open comment period on the Action Plan until 10/7. I haven't decided yet if I will submit comments, but will be going over the Action Plan with the Phase II report this weekend to assess whether I should.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Fun article recently in Inside Tucson Business

I recently ran across this article that happily combined two of my favorite topics – water and downtown redevelopment. Oh what fun. The general premise is that the only thing lacking from our recent downtown redevelopment efforts (which if you're from Tucson, you know have been mostly laughable) is water. Of course – splash it and they will come, right? So what sort of brilliant ideas have these folks come up with to add water to our moribund downtown, thereby creating green shoots of life?

The first guy wants to build a canal running from just south of downtown to a spot about 4 miles north of downtown. It would run east of the freeway that generally follows the path of our currently dry Santa Cruz riverbed – except the riverbed is west of the freeway. According to Mr. Rose, who came up with this idea, it doesn't make sense to just use the existing riverbed to create this man-made river for, among other reasons the fact that it's west of the freeway. I guess the whole idea is that this is meant for downtown, which is east of the freeway. But downtown is only about ½ mile of the route of this canal and he envisions a canal that would run for about 6 miles – some of it through, frankly, some currently butt-ugly parts of town. He's right, though, that putting the water in the river is a bad idea because the channel capacity is needed to convey our infrequent flash floods.

But building a 6 mile canal, 8 feet deep and 25 feet wide just doesn't sound like the right way to go about adding a water attraction to downtown. Let's start by looking at the water involved: the capacity of a canal like he envisions is just over 6.3 million cubic feet – in water terms that requires about 145 acre feet to fill up. But this will be a recirculating system, so in addition to the water in the canal you will have water being pumped from the northern terminus of the ditch back to the south, where it will go into a holding pond before travelling back north. Let's just say conservatively that the whole system will have about 300 acre feet of water in it. Mr. Rose further states that because it's essentially a closed loop system there will be minimal water lost to evaporation – huh? Is this canal going to be covered by some sort of enclosure to maintain a sealed environment? Cause that will bump the cost up considerably right there. No it will be an open canal, as will the holding pond. And because this is southern Arizona it will lose several feet of water to evaporation each year. He's talking about a lot of water for this ditch. And the only way you going to do that is by using reclaimed water – which precludes most human recreation in that water – something I think would be necessary for this to work. You need people fishing, kayaking, swimming – not just walking or riding a bike along the canal, looking at the nice water. Something similar to this (but on a much smaller scale) was proposed and partially built along the west side of the Santa Cruz river back in the late 90s and it was conceived (I believe) to be a part of the redevelopment of the area west of downtown, which is still ongoing. Mr. Rose wants to do something like Riverwalk in downtown San Antonio, but the fact is, this is Tucson, not San Antonio. And what makes the Riverwalk work is not so much the river, but everything along the river. You don't just re-create downtown San Antonio in downtown Tucson – you need to re-create downtown Tucson first.

The second idea I actually kind of like – it's bold, although like the first, not real original. But I like the idea of tearing down and replacing our current convention center, which looks pretty dumpy these days even with the recent upgrades. A large, impressive fountain would be a nice addition to downtown – not something overly garish like the one in Fountain Hills, outside of Phoenix – but something with enough heft to make people say wow when they turn the corner and see it for the first time. It also proposes bringing some much needed development to downtown. The problem is finding investors to actually build something that impressive downtown. Maybe in another 10 to 20 years when some of the smaller development project in downtown have proven its viability, but the only way something like that gets built any sooner is with public money and that's the huge problem we are trying to deal with right now. But this guy has at least put a little more thought into his project than the first guy – even putting together a website.

The last idea really doesn't even belong here. It's not an idea that specifically includes a water element to make it successful. It has a grass element that heavily depends on water to remain attractive. The guy pitching this idea claims it has a dual purpose – recreation fields that would bring people downtown and groundwater recharge. OK, sure having soccer tournaments downtown would bring people down there but what would they bring to downtown? Parents with their kids don't spend a lot of time in clubs or fancy restaurants – they go to IHOP and Applebee's – is that what we want downtown. He says downtown is the best location because of access, I say availability of land is important too, when you're talking about large open fields for sports. Plus when our new convention center, hotel, and multi-use development goes in downtown that land will be much too valuable for soccer fields. But let's talk about his idea that the fields can also serve to recharge the aquifer. The article says this would occur by irrigation water draining off the fields into the river. Why would you want to irrigate the fields so that excess water drains away and enters our rivers? Are you going to be applying fertilizer or pesticide to these fields at any point? Why not just build the fields so that excess water percolates through the soil beneath the fields and recharges the aquifer? Having it drain into the river just provides further opportunity for the water to evaporate or be transpired. Finally, the only reason you would pursue recharge as part of this project would be to earn groundwater storage credits. But at present the statutes governing recharge facilities do not have provisions for recharge from overwatering of soccer fields. At best this would be a managed recharge facility that earns credits for 50% of the water that can be shown to be entering the ground. But I guess you need to provide more than just grass if you want to stick your straw in our limited water supplies for a new project.

In general, a pretty silly article. But I guess when the economy is in the toilet and everyone is out of town for summer vacation, this is what passes for news in a publication like Inside Tucson Business. I think I might propose an idea to install a massive misting system downtown that would cool the entire area by 10 degrees in the summer, making it much more attractive for new development. That might get my name in the papers. And I swear it won't use that much water.

Monday, August 23, 2010

A Short Commercial Break

OK, I never envisioned using this blog as a platform to seek financial support for anyone.  But there is a truly wonderful non-profit located here in Tucson, AZ (for which I am a board member) that is in the midst of their summer fund-raising drive and was recently informed by one of their supporters that they would match all donations during the month of August.  This non-profit for which I schlep is called Watershed Management Group and I believe strongly in their mission.

But aren't they just involved in work in Tucson - which is not where I live? - you might be asking yourself.  And the answer is - no, they do not only work in Tucson or in southern Arizona for that matter.  Since the creation of the organization a few years ago they have engaged in work in India and West Africa, as well as training certified water harvesting technicians from throughout the United States and Mexico.  They are creating community-based, grassroots momentum to encourage more sustainable use of water in neighborhoods throughout Tucson, Phoenix, and wherever the graduates of their certification program land and begin to teach.

I decided to use my blog on this one occasion to promote their organization because I believe that my readers (however few you may be) are the type of people who would like to support the efforts of a group of dedicated young professionals trying to make a difference in local communities.

If this sounds interesting to you, please take a moment to visit the website and consider making a donation to support them.

Friday, July 30, 2010

some sad news to report

I heard this afternoon that Gregg Houtz, deputy counsel with the Arizona Department of Water Resources, passed away this morning.  I only met Gregg on a couple of occasions and saw him speak on a few others.  But in those brief encounters I could tell that he was one of the most knowledgeable people around on Arizona water law in general and the rather arcane world of Native American water rights settlements, in particular.  He was also passionate about his work, down to earth, and a pleasant guy to be around.

Gregg had been with ADWR for several years and prior to that had worked as a legislative attorney on Capitol Hill.  If I come across a complete bio on him from somewhere I'll post it.

The recent difficulties at ADWR with budget problems and staff reductions probably created a lot of stress for people like Gregg.  I just hope that wasn't a major contributor to his death.  What I do know is that he will really be missed in some circles around this state.  My sincere condolences go out to his family.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

City council decides not to decide

This is a follow-up to my previous post.

The city council first voted unanimously to reconsider their previous vote in favor of annexation (as was expected).  Then they heard from a few people in the audience and voted to go into executive session so they could discuss the options with the city attorney.  When they came out, they simply voted to give the city attorney 30 days to find an alternative solution to resolving the lawsuit - i.e. find some other land for the pension fund to develop, or more specifically, ask the county to find some other land they could trade with the developer or just buy this parcel outright.  OK.

Seems to me that if that option was on the table in the first place the county wouldn't be asking the city to refuse annexation and water service to the developer.  And that's pretty much what the county administrator says in the article.  So 30 days from now we'll have another round of political theater, except this time the final act will be the council seeking forgiveness because their backs were really against the wall on this one and the only thing they could do was to cut a deal with the developer.  But hey - they tried right?

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Seeing red over Painted Hills - aka another edition of Using Water Policy to Manage Growth

There's a big, ongoing fight coming to a head this month in Tucson.  On one side you have the county administrator, environmentalists, and a powerful and well organized neighborhood association.  On the other side you have a property development company that represents the interests of the Dallas Police and Fire Pension Fund.  And in the middle, for the moment, is the Tucson City Council.

The fight is over the right to develop a parcel of land just west of downtown Tucson, but outside the city limits, known as Painted Hills.  This parcel is just under 300 acres of prime Sonoran desert landscape, just 10 minutes from downtown.  Most of the land surrounding the parcel is developed (to the extent allowed by the terrain), but there is also a large county park in the general vicinity.  The site is supposedly home to over 1000 10,000 mature saguaros - the acknowledged symbol of the Sonoran desert - as well as prime habitat for many birds, small mammals, and probably quite a few coyotes.  It's a pretty location and something of a rarity so close to a rapidly growing Sunbelt community.

more below

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Economist special report on water

The Economist magazine has a special report on water in its latest issue and they tackle subject in the thorough and well-written style they are known for.  The articles in the report have a very international flavor - special focus on China, India, and Africa with only passing mentions made of much of the developing world - such as the U.S.  I think the focus is wholly appropriate, considering that while water crises are much discussed in places like the western U.S. and Australia, the real dire situations in the near future are in areas of the world undergoing rapid economic development - with rapid development of water supplies going along with it.  The effects of climate change on water supplies are also going to be disproportionately felt in places like China and India, which have extensive arid areas, enormous populations, and astounding economic growth - coupled with little effective management of water supplies.

The sections of the report that really impressed me were:

1) The section that discussed local management efforts to protect groundwater resources in parts of India.  This is a great example of how communities on the watershed or basin level can develop workable solutions to managing their resources without top-down mandates from governments imposing one-size-fits-all policies.  It also demonstrates how good science, coupled with good data collection, can empower farmers and other local water users to manage their resources for the benefit of all - what gets measured, gets managed.

2) The author also does a pretty good job of debunking the water footprinting concept in the section on using economics to encourage conservation.  There was some good discussion of the general need to match demand with supplies but he didn't go into much depth on how this can be used to develop sustainable water policies.

Overall a really good bit of journalism - about what I expect from the The Economist.  Check it out for yourself.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Chiming in on the ADWR situation

At this point the fate of the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) should be old news to most people.  But I've commented on this in the past so I wanted to chime in with a few observations.

First of all this was in the works for quite a while - the budget problems in Arizona have been big news around here for almost two years now and any part of the state budget that isn't protected by a voter mandate or required by some existing law has been fair game and taking major hits.  That's what happens when the yearly deficit in the budget equals about 20% of the total budget.  There were plans floated in the legislature to allow ADWR to become self-funded through fees and/or taxes.  The problem with using fees is that the same factors leading to the state's budget deficit have seriously impacted the ability of the department to collect fees.  Most of those fees would come about as a result of economic development occurring that requires various permits from the state.  That economic development just hasn't been happening.  One idea that came up was to allow ADWR to impose a tax on most large water users based on the amount of their usage.  Arizona has a state legislature that wanted to cut corporate taxes during what must be the biggest budget crisis the state has faced since it became a state - you don't really think they would allow a new tax on water use?  And of course they didn't.  It was an ambitious plan, but it had some merit.  A main reason for having a department of water resources is to provide some certainty to water users (especially those who have a significant economic stake in their continued water use) that those water supplies are being properly managed.  So instead the department's budget has been reduced from over $20 million just two years ago to about $7 million for the coming year.  The staff in the department was over 200 two years ago and is currently at about 90.

The only ADWR office that will remain open is in Phoenix - there used to be satellite offices in Tucson, Nogales, Casa Grande, and Prescott that handled matters related to the state Active Management Areas (AMAs), which were created by the Groundwater Management Act of 1980 that finally imposed a sensible legal structure on groundwater use in the areas of the state under greatest development pressure.  That legal structure is supposed to bring those areas into safe yield in the next 15 years and those local offices were responsible for developing the management plans to guide that process.  The fourth of five management plans mandated by the law was supposed to be nearing completion about now because it would cover the period from 2010 to 2020.  If it does get completed it's going to take a few more years.

So why would our legislature gut a state department that has such an important role in the functioning of water management in a state where very little development can occur going forward without adequate management of water supplies?  Are they just ignorant of the importance of ADWR or are there more sinister motives lurking under the surface.  Other people have speculated on this point and I've talked to some others who have their opinions.  John Mawhinney, who was a state legislator when the Groundwater Management Act was passed and currently helps run the Arizona Water Banking Authority and heads up the Groundwater Users Advisory Council in the Tucson AMA, wrote an op-ed piece for the Tucson paper recently where he speculated that ADWR was a victim of their own success in some respects.  They have done such a good job of managing water in the state that no one is aware of what they do or thinks they serve an absolutely necessary purpose.  There may be some truth to this - in regards to some in the legislature and much of the general public.  Also John, as a former legislator, may be giving some in the current legislature the benefit of the doubt.  But many other people I have talked to - very knowledgeable people - think that there is an element in state government and the private sector that wanted to see ADWR emasculated, presumably to remove the yoke of regulation and give them freer reign with water.  Seems to make sense, but frightening nonetheless.

One other place where some discussion of this matter has been occurring is on the blog run by Gary Yaquinto, of the Arizona Investment Council.  He put up a very thoughtful post on this earlier this week and has received some enlightening comments.  He references an article from the Arizona Republic that pretty well spells out what is going on with the budgets of both main state agencies that regulate water ADWR (quantity) and Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) (quality).

The amount of institutional knowledge that is being lost from these departments in order to balance our budgets is staggering.  Even if they can return to previous staffing levels when the economy recovers it will be a long, long time before they can return to their previous level of competence.  And I mean nothing against those people who remain in their jobs there.  They must all be stellar performers and dedicated to what they are doing.  But they can only do so much.  Keep an eye out for those people who want to take advantage of the lack of oversight to endanger our water supplies - we are all watchdogs now.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Update on previous post

My last post included a feeble attempt at showing that there is some correlation between price and water usage.  The connection, I believe, still stands but a helpful reader made a suggestion that greatly improves the interpretation of the data.  So I switched the x and y axes and tried some other types of regression and came up with a pretty good fit using a power function.  Here's the new graph:

I'll spare myself the embarrassment of trying to explain power functions, but the equation listed on the graph (above the R-squared value) describes the curve and indicates a non-linear relationship between price and consumption.  As might be expected, demand drops off rapidly when price increases initially, indicating greater sensitivity to price at the high end of water usage, then drops off more slowly when you get down towards 50 gpcd, which would mostly be indoor water use (less discretionary).  That seems to make sense to me.

Also, the most recent update from Circle of Blue includes the data shown on the map in their previous update in table form.  And provides sources for the data as well!  Ask and ye shall receive.  The article also discusses the alarming phenomena of falling demand and rising prices that seems prevalent among water utilities recently.  This is an unintended consequence of some of the more progressive rate-setting policies (like increasing block rates) and has been occurring for several years here in Tucson.  It could be largely avoided, most easily by returning to single or seasonal rates for water but that would have other, unwanted consequences.  So until the standard formulas for cost recovery in water rates are changed it will continue to be a fact of life in many cities.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

How strong is the connection between price and water use?

I get a weekly email with updates from the website Circle of Blue, that occasionally contains gems like this one that showed up recently. What I've really been impressed with on their site are some of the nifty things they do by combining data with mapping functions.*  So if you scroll down on the Circle of Blue page linked above you will see a Google map that has a bunch of data call out points on it. Click on any of those points and it will show you data on per capita residential water use and average costs for water in each of the cities shown.**

By way of background, I received an email from John Fleck last year where he asked if I knew of a source listing per capita water use that compared "apples to apples" - i.e. comparing only residential water use, not just taking some random total water use number and dividing it by population. This can be surprisingly hard to find.

So as I was looking at the water use data I got the idea that it might be interesting to try plotting the gpcd numbers against the average price numbers just to see how well they correlate. And this is what I came up with:

 If I remember my statistics, 0.3563 indicates pretty strong correlation, but obviously there are other factors present besides price.  You might notice that I pretty much cherry-picked the data I presented as well.  I tried to include data from Western cities that might have similar water use patterns so that price would be main variable being tested here.  Is the result fairly obvious - sure.  But that's often the point of statistics - to test something that appears obvious and try to figure out if it really is.

Oh, and there was one other nice bit of data in the call outs attached to the map - it says what type of rate structure each city uses.  I hope the Circle of Blue folks keep up the good work.

* My only quibble with data presented in this way is that they don't indicate a source for their numbers.  There's an email address for the person who put the graphic together, so I might have to email him and find out where he got all his data from and verify that it really is "apples to apples".

** The data for Fresno is pretty shocking, but when you consider that they charge a flat rate for water and I believe still don't meter most of their connections it seems pretty self-evident.  Also I was disappointed that there was no gpcd data for San Diego and Los Angeles - they're probably pretty tired of taking their lumps for residential water use.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Still here

Yeah, it's been awhile - I know. I hate it when the real job keeps me so busy I can't spend any time on my pretend job.

There are some things going on that I need to comment on, so I will try to get to it soon. First is the impending, near-complete destruction of the Arizona Department of Water Resources that now appears imminent as a result of our state budget crisis and the shameless way our state legislature and governor have dealt with the problem. This will have very serious and long-lasting ramifications for water management in Arizona.

Second, I still plan to get back to the discussion of water harvesting I started at the end of 2009.

And finally, there are some rumblings going on in Tucson about getting the next phase of our regional water resource sustainability discussion going later this year. Which should tie in nicely with some recent developments at the state level related to water resources (of course who will staff and pay for any such efforts will be a real question - see above).

It's gonna be a very weird and busy year. Should be fun.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

on-going brouhaha over water policy in the Tucson area

Anyone who has followed this blog through most of its existence will be aware that I started it during the initial stages of a local water resources study initiated by the City of Tucson and Pima County - where I live. This was a 20 month, two-phase, multi-disciplinary, multi-agency effort to catalog our existing water resources, water and wastewater infrastructure, and existing policies for managing those resources; followed by a discussion of recommended policy changes that could help ensure sustainability of those resources as this area continues to grow. Those recommendations were contained in a Phase II report that was issued in December of last year.

On Jan. 12, the City Council and the County Board of Supervisors held a joint meeting where they considered a resolution to accept the Phase II report and commit to following through on its recommendations. At that time the county voted to endorse the report but the the city, expressing reservations about the content of the report and the process of its creation, voted to continue the comment period for another 30 days then revisit the resolution.

Last week the city council (the paper incorrectly reports that the council approved the study, but all they did was agree to reconsider the resolution next week) held a study session and a public hearing on the report, which were well attended by both proponents and opponents of the report findings. Some on the city council are very concerned about recent charges that city government is unresponsive to the needs of the business community and that posture is stifling economic growth in the city. They point to the current slump in the development industry as evidence of those charges and insist that loosening up some of the regulations on development would spur this industry and restore the sort of economic growth we experienced during the years immediately preceding this current slump. This argument is preposterous (in my opinion, but I think it's a well-supported opinion) because the city policies and regulations regarding development were pretty much the same during the go-go years as they are currently AND the city has been looking at suspending a number of fees during the current slow-down.

The development folks are also pointing to a current policy (as I discussed here) recently enacted by the city to deny extension of water service to areas outside the current service area of the water utility unless there is a legal obligation to serve that area. They claim that there are many developments that would be moving forward if only the city would agree to provide water service. This is purely a bluff. There are other water providers in the area noted that could potentially provide water service (although there may be greater infrastructure needs for those utilities) if these development really were "shovel-ready", but I doubt they actually are.

This is basically a situation where our political leaders have to make a choice between serving the short-term economic needs of the community or caring for the long-term sustainability of the region. If you understand politics like I do, you'll understand why I'm worried about the prospects for full approval of the report. But they may yet surprise me. I'm hopeful that they will, but prepared to be at least a little disappointed.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Give us more water ... or the aquifer gets it!

This is just priceless.

A farmer from the Central Valley of California makes the argument, in an opinion piece for the Modesto Bee, that if only the Delta restrictions could be dropped, allowing more surface water to be delivered to farms, they could stop overpumping the aquifers - resulting in subsidence, diminished water quality, and wholesale dewatering of their insurance supply.

Come on guys. Are we really supposed to be sympathetic to your plight? OK, you're behaving rationally under the circumstances because the State of California has chosen (start at p. 8) not to govern in the case of groundwater use, but you could still choose to manage the resource more wisely by setting up local governance that actually collects some data on groundwater use, sets some pumping limits, and tries to avoid some of the external costs of over-pumping. But no, this is just another lame opportunity to whine about the Delta smelt and how the little fish is harming farmers.

Time to move on.

Once again, thanks to Aquafornia for bringing this to my attention.

Monday, February 1, 2010

LA Board of Public Works calling for on-site rainwater retention

There has apparently been much talk of low-impact development (LID) standards in the Los Angeles area recently and now their public works board is calling for a new requirement that 100% of runoff from a 3/4 inch storm must be contained on-site on all new developments and some redevelopments. The plans are detailed in an LA Times article here.

Tucson has a rainwater harvesting ordinance that is aimed primarily at collecting rainwater to replace use of potable water for on-site landscape irrigation, but also has incidental effects of reducing off-drainage of stormwater. The LA proposal is strictly aimed at realization of benefits from reduced runoff.

In some respects, the LA proposal is much stricter than Tucson's ordinance because it requires containment of all water produced by a 3/4 inch rainstorm, while the Tucson ordinance requires using on-site generated rainwater for at least 50% of on-site landscaping irrigation. Tucson does have regulations about managing runoff generated by property development - and these have resulted in a few recent developments around town that manage stormwater on-site to avoid costly mitigation of runoff effects - but in most cases there is infrastructure in place to handle some or most runoff from developed property.

If LA successfully implements this change it could prove difficult to comply with. As the story notes, in some locations getting the runoff to infiltrate into the soil will be a real challenge. And a 3/4 inch rain might occur over 30 minutes or over 36 hours - with the amount of runoff generated varying greatly between the two. This definitely changes the type of development you do - how much of a lot is built on, use of underground parking (if storage of runoff is necessary) - it could get costly. As this is just a proposal at this point it will undoubtedly undergo some changes before implementation. But should be interesting to keep an eye on it.

h/t to Aquafornia for bringing the Times article to my attention.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Some recent news from the Arizona water community

There were a few news items of note this week that I wanted to post on briefly.

First the good news. Kathy Jacobs of the University of Arizona (and formerly head of the Arizona Water Institute) was recently appointed to a new position in the White House (the one in Washington, D.C.) Office of Science and Technology Policy where she will work on climate change policy. Prof. Jacobs has pretty impressive credentials in that area and should be a real asset to the administration. Congratulations professor!

Second, the bad news. The latest issue of Southwest Hydrology showed up in my mailbox this week with a banner on the front indicating that it would be the last issue. This is a significant loss to the regional water resources community because SW Hydro has been a tremendous resource for disseminating new research and policy ideas in the management of water resources in arid and semi-arid hydrology. And they've been important to me because I have published a couple of short articles in the "On the Ground" section of the magazine. Betsy Woodhouse, who was the publisher has taken a new position at the University of Arizona and her colleague Gary Woodard gives the impression that they would like to bring the magazine back in the future if they can find a new funding source. But, their major source of funding - the National Science Foundation - has dried up for now. If anyone has ideas for keeping the magazine running send them to Gary Woodard (

Finally, the final Phase II report on the Water & Wastewater Infrastructure, Supply and Planning Study (aka the Tucson/Pima County Water Study) has been released and can be downloaded from the study website - - of you're interested. The report will be formally presented to the local elected leaders of both jurisdictions in a special joint meeting next Tues., Jan. 12, at 9:00 am in the Pima County Administration Building, 130 W. Congress, 1st Floor, Board of Supervisors Hearing Room. Hope to see you there. If not, take a look at the report. It's no masterpiece but it provides a pretty good roadmap to a sustainable water future for this piece of dirt.