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.