Saturday, December 10, 2011

Nefarious shenanigans in redistricting process

Found a link to a funny article from the Yuma Sun in BC Arizona Water News this week and just had to share.  If you're from Arizona and follow the news you have probably heard about the big fight going on in the state over the decennial redistricting process that is currently going on.  I won't go into the details here, it's too convoluted and at times sordid.

Let's just say that folks from both political parties have their gripes about the way the process has been going, but the ones who identify with an elephant have been griping the most - probably because they have the most to lose and since they hold most of the power now, they actually have some ammo to derail the process.

But the alarm bells being rung by State Senator Don Shooter from Yuma are a new form of attack on the process that I confess I never saw coming.  His premise is that because the new district boundaries that include the Yuma area - along the Colorado River where this is lots of farmland and high priority rights to water from the river (higher priority than CAP rights) - divide the area and those districts stretch all the way to Phoenix and Tucson, there must be plans afoot by those city folk to rustle up some water rights.  Well maybe not plans afoot, but the idea is that if someone were to concoct a plan it would be easier to implement if there was no one representing the interests of those folks out in Yuma in our state legislature.

Have to admit it makes for a nice story.  Seems pretty far-fetched though, right.  Yeah, probably.  The only way the cities are going to wrest that water from the farmers out in Yuma, though, is by buying up the rights and getting approval from Reclamation to transfer that water.  That certainly seems more do-able if you have the state legislature and our congressional delegation on board.  But really if they are intent on doing that, how much difference will one local representative make?  If those water rights could be taken away by legislative fiat I think it there would have been more action along those lines already.  The water rights, if and when they are transferred to cities, will be purchased in a heavily negotiated transaction that the people giving up their rights will fully support.  And they're not gonna let some state senator stand in the way of that deal.

And if you take a look at the maps, his claim about those Yuma districts being controlled by people from Maricopa and Pima Counties is a bit overdone as well.  The districts that cover Yuma do stretch towards the big cities, but only touch the outskirts, so the population should be pretty well balanced between urban and rural.  Sounds to me like just another shady attempt to derail the process.

Friday, December 2, 2011

C'mon, the Arizona legislature never acts without thinking things through first

A quick follow-up on my earlier post about funding the Arizona Dept. of Water Resources (ADWR).  Seems some people in our fine legislature here in Arizona came to the realization that a tax imposed to cover general services of a state agency is probably not accurately described as a user fee.  The Phoenix paper reports that they might reconsider the bill passed last year that allows ADWR to make up the money they used to receive as a general fund appropriation by taxing municipalities in the state on a per capita basis.  It's not an idea entirely without merit, but the way it was implemented just reeked of a hastily devised plan to patch a hole in the state budget.  What I find really amusing is that the political mind finds it preferable to admit that they didn't really know what a bill they voted for meant than to admit that they previously supported a complete piece of garbage.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Some worthwhile things to read

I'm way overdue on one of these and only a little bit on the other.

I have often wondered if the concept of unitization (a governance regime for oil/gas reservoirs that imposes reservoir-wide management by combining the interests of multiple producers under a single management entity) could be applied to aquifer management.  In my opinion there are certain aspects of existing forms of aquifer management that incorporate elements of unitization - adjudicated groundwater basins probably come closest, but none are truly unitization as practiced in the oil fields.  Todd Jarvis, who is on the faculty of Oregon State University, as part of their Institute for Water and Watersheds, recently authored a paper (links to the abstract, I think you have to pay for the full paper) that looks at this idea from a theoretical perspective.  Todd points out in an email that this approach might be useful in places, such as California, that have very little existing management of groundwater resources but considerable experience with unitization in oil fields.  It's an interesting idea that I think merits further study.

The other document that is of great interest to me is the final Cornerstones Report on Market-Based Responses to Arizona's Water Sustainability Challenges prepared by the talented folks at Ecosystem Economics and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation under a grant from the Walton Family Foundation (who have been funding a number of initiatives related to preservation of riparian ecosystems in Arizona).  I haven't had a chance to do much more than glance through the report, but I did have a chance to review a draft copy last winter and participated in one of the workshops that helped brainstorm ideas to inform this report.  It's a very honest and thorough assessment of the realities and challenges associated with using market-based approaches to securing water for environmental needs in Arizona and I highly recommend taking a look if this interests you.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The White Man's Viewpoint on Indian Water Rights

This is purely coincidence - but just after I decided to post something about Indian water settlements I came across this opinion piece recently published in the Phoenix paper.  Don't be mislead by the title referring to the "role" of Indian tribes in Arizona's water future.  This is the same role tribes have had throughout history - donors of water supplies to non-Indians.

The author notes that the story of how the Indians came to control a major portion of Arizona's Colorado River water supplies is "too complicated and lengthy to be told" in his short opinion piece, but then goes on to completely disregard the significance of that story in concluding that there has been an "unfair distribution of Arizona's Colorado River water... ."

Giving people the impression that tribes have been highly favored in the apportionment of water in this state, when in fact they have barely been compensated for the fact that over the previous 100 years the outrageous favoritism toward non-Indians in water supply management left tribes impoverished, thirsty, and unable to pursue many traditional aspects of their cultures, is clearly disingenuous if not simply dangerous.

And as I plan to lay out in my next post, even the rights that tribes have earned in their settlements may turn out to be mirages, once the full cost of that water comes to bear.  The views expressed in Mr. Zarbin's piece need to be denounced in very strong terms and the rights of tribes to their water must be protected.  When non-Indians can come to terms with that, then the tribes might be willing to become a larger part of Arizona's water future.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Failed Promise of Indian Water Settlements, Pt. 1

If you know me, or know this blog well, you might be aware that I work for an Indian tribe in Arizona.  While my views expressed in this blog post are clearly informed by my work with that tribe, they in no way express the views of the tribe itself and I write this not as an advocate for any specific tribe but to shed light on some challenges for tribes in Arizona, specifically, but my observations may have applications outside Arizona.

I will try to present this story in two parts - there's too much for one post, maybe too much for two, but that remains to be seen.  I'll start by laying out the history and rationale behind the existing water rights settlements (focusing on Arizona because that's what I'm familiar with) in this post, then explaining why they amount to failed promises in the next.

In my work I have been involved in the implementation of one very significant water rights settlement, as well as participating in negotiations for another settlement being sought by this same tribe.  I have learned a great deal about how such settlements work and how they are developed.  I have also learned that the promise of those settlements - intended to compensate these tribes, who were in Arizona, using water to support their communities, economies, and cultures for hundreds (if not thousands) of years before the arrival of non-Natives and their boundless thirst for water to support their farms, mines, and cities - is currently proving to be yet another of many empty promises made by the U.S. government to tribal sovereign nations over the past 200 years.

The Arizona Water Settlements Act (AWSA) was enacted in 2004 (but not actually implemented until 2007).  It is a complex, often cumbersome piece of legislation that attempted to resolve, in a single legislative action, several lawsuits (via negotiated settlement agreements that became part of the legislation), several pending Federal reserved water rights claims in the largest surface water adjudication (this link goes to a webpage with all relevant documents in the adjudications) in Arizona, the repayment obligations of the State of Arizona to the federal government for construction of the Central Arizona Project (CAP) and the reallocation of hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of Colorado River water that had been under long-term contract to several irrigation districts in Arizona.  What is truly amazing is that most of that was actually accomplished.

The tribes that received settlements through this legislation were the Gila River Indian Community and the Tohono O'odham Nation (the links provided go to the Arizona Dept. of Water Resources website, which has comprehensive summaries of each settlement), and to a minor extent, the San Carlos Apache Tribe.  The Gila River tribe received a water entitlement that totaled over 650,000 acre feet of CAP water, groundwater, effluent, and other surface water sources.  The Tohono O'odham received 66,000 acre feet of CAP water plus rights to 13,200 acre feet of groundwater.  The legislation authorized use of money from the Lower Colorado River Basin Development Fund (sort of a slush fund for lower basin projects left over from the Colorado River Basin Project Act) to pay for much of the cost of the CAP water that was included in the settlements, as well as for construction of irrigation projects to put that water to use.

The intent of the settlements was to compensate the tribes for the fact that their surface and groundwater supplies were taken, over many years, to support the growth of Anglo communities.  The settlements incorporated both water and money - the water intended to provide the tribes with a resource for economic development; the money to enable purchase of the water (and development of things like farms to use the water).  The money was necessary because, in most cases, the water included in the settlements was Colorado River water, delivered by the CAP.  The delivery costs for this water are significant.  This water source was necessary because the surface water previously relied on by tribes is long gone and groundwater was well on its way to being in the same state.

In exchange for agreeing to these settlements the tribes were giving up all future claims to water as compensation for what was lost.  They were supposed to be getting water and the ability to use that water to compensate them for the considerable lost economic opportunity that resulted from having their water taken previously.

These are the things that were promised to the tribes in return for settling their water rights claims.  In the next post I'll lay out why I think the government may soon fail to deliver on that promise.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Our failed development model

I found an interesting series (links to part 1 of 5) about the failure of the suburban planning model in a journal (Aug. 2011 issue) of the American Planning Association and thought it was worth sharing.  I traced the article back to a series of blog posts by the author on the website of the New Urban Network - one of those New Urbanism advocacy groups that have sprouted up over the last two decades.

This isn't really about water - but water resource planning plays a huge role in it, especially in arid areas like the southwest.  But I found this series very interesting because it does a really good job of articulating some things I have been trying to say, somewhat inarticulately, for a long time.  I think the Ponzi scheme language is maybe a bit strong - maybe because that term has been so degraded through use by a certain presidential candidate, but the overall point of the series is pretty much dead on.  The way we have grown - especially in the Sunbelt, but all over the U.S., since WWII has resulted in financial obligations taken on by most local jurisdictions that are proving to be unsustainable.  Especially since the financial meltdown.  I call it the junkie model of growth - a city gets a taste of something it likes, in this case subsidized growth that increases local tax bases, and before you know it they can't seem to get enough of it and if they stop getting it they're headed for a nasty crash.

I highly recommend checking it out if you find this sort of thing interesting like I do.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Hit the high points

There are a number of initiatives currently on-going around Tucson.  I've got my hand in two of them, have dabbled in another, and may become involved in a fourth.

1)  Way back in 2007, the city changed directions in its role as a regional water provider when the then city manager decided the city needed to have some sort of coherent policy to guide decisions to expand the service area of our water utility.  This policy change (it actually was the creation of a policy that didn't previously exist, in my opinion, because prior to that the city would provide water to anyone who asked for it and agreed to pay for the infrastructure needed to make the connection) was a huge step around here and I'm still a little surprised that it has remained in effect.  I have several other previous posts on this topic: i.e. here, here, and here.
This was just an interim policy.  The city wanted to wait for completion of the City/County Water study before implementing a final policy - which happened in mid-2010.  One of the requirements with that adoption was that the policy would be reviewed annually.  That annual review process has been underway for the last 4-5 months, coming before my subcommittee of the Citizen's Water Advisory Committee on several occasions.  After receiving feedback from the development community, the city council requested that Tucson Water staff set up a formal stakeholder process to request feedback from other sectors of the community.  That has resulted in two public meetings occurring the 2nd half of October to provide people with background on the policy and give them an opportunity to comment and suggest modifications.  After the public meetings are complete I'll post something on the likely changes to the policy - which should be fairly modest.  One change has already been made, when Mayor and Council approved changing the time that water assurance letters are valid from one year to two.  This gives a developer more time to finalize development plans and get their development underway with iron-clad assurance that they will be provided water once built-out.

2) The Safe Yield Task Force, which I wrote about briefly here, has continued chugging along.  We have revisited the main issues/recommendations that came from a similar effort a little over a decade ago (the AMAs produce a new planning document every 10 years and they usually lead to a certain amount of soul-searching within the region).  This group has been meeting almost monthly for about a year and has probably accomplished most of what it is likely to accomplish - but it hasn't accomplished what some in the group had hoped it would accomplish - deal with sub-area management issues.  That is because most of the issues addressed require regional solutions to regional problems, but sub-area management requires figuring out who is causing more localized problems and getting them to fix their own mess - unless you can get everyone to agree that we will deal with the mess as a region.  But the good outcome has been (I think) a commitment to measure and monitor what is happening in the region to get to full utilization of our renewable water supplies - which is a pretty big step.

3) The city is currently in the first part of the process to update the General Plan that is used to guide zoning and growth decisions for the next 10 years.  One of the working groups assigned the task of establishing goals to be accomplished via enumerated policies is discussing the role of water in growth decisions.  That group has a working document that was developed at the last meeting (probably the extent of my involvement) and will be further refined at their next meeting, Tuesday 10/18.

4)  When the City/County Water Study wrapped up, the intent was for the discussion to move to the regional level - incorporating all jurisdictions and major water users in the Tucson AMA.  The mantle was taken up by a group of 5 individuals representing some of the major water interests around here, calling themselves the Regional Water Assessment Taskforce.  This self-appointed group developed a pretty clever way to assess the motivation and possible methods of implementing some sort of regional effort to develop more sustainable water use practices.  Last year they convened a number of local individuals with expertise and/or influence in the use and management of water resources in a series of discussions they called "think tanks".  Which were kind of like focused internet chat rooms where everyone was talking about local water policy, guided by a set of common questions.  You can find out more about the process by reading the report on the website linked above.
After completing these discussions they compiled all the comments made into a report that tried to distill them into distinct areas of common interest.  This report was recently unveiled to the public at a well-attended meeting.  They are hoping to elicit feedback on the report and a series of recommendations they made to continue the discussion within a set of 4 regional water strategy groups - water supply, infrastructure, conservation/demand management, and reliability, sustainability and aquifer health.
It will be interesting to see if the region can sustain any momentum with this effort in the face of anemic economic growth and struggling government budgets.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

New Funding Source for the Arizona Department of Water Resources

Back in April I posted about a piece of legislation passed up in Phoenix that would allow the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) to replace the funding they used to get as a general fund appropriation by taxing all Arizona cities, based on their population.  ADWR finalized the rulemaking (specially exempted from the governor's moratorium on new regulations, that seems to be a moratorium in name only) last month and set the fees for each of the cities in the state.  The authorizing legislation allows ADWR to use the fee to collect up to $7 million each year, but they gave the cities a break by only going for just over $6.25 million this year.  Obviously Tucson and Phoenix, as the two biggest cities, will be covering a big chunk of the fees - $650k and $1.8 million, respectively.  This municipality fee is meant to cover roughly half of ADWR's budget - the rest coming from fees on permits, permit reviews, and other services the agency provides.  But in the current economic climate I suspect that is probably most of what the agency will be operating on for the coming year.

The big question that has been bugging me is - how are most cities planning to pay for this new fee?  There are many cities that have public water utilities that will permit them to pass the fee along in their water rates.  Tucson has a utility, but about 30% of that utility's customers live outside the city limits, so it doesn't seem fair to do that here.  There are also many cities that don't have their own water utilities - usually they have private water utilities.  That requires some cities to just cover this fee out of their general fund.  But budgets are pretty squeezed for everyone these days.  Then there are all the people who live in unincorporated areas.  They will pay nothing, presumably, but still derive some value from the services that ADWR provides.

Bisbee, a city of 5,500 people in far southeast Arizona has a private water utility and their city manager sounds none too happy about having to pay an additional 7 grand to the state to keep the doors open at ADWR.  I wonder how much value Bisbee receives from the work that ADWR does?  Or how much value the city of Tucson receives for their share of the money.  Admittedly, you might say that funding the agency the old way probably resulted in many parts of the state receiving more from ADWR than they were paying for, so maybe this method makes more sense.  But I have a feeling the only place that will be getting what they pay for under this system is gonna be the Phoenix metro area.  Although, that has arguably been the case since ADWR closed down all their offices outside of Phoenix last year.

It's just that the services different parts of the state require from a state water management agency vary based on the hydrologic issues that area is dealing with and those services are usually not directly related to population, although population is a factor - but in my opinion it's more about population growth than absolute population.  Maybe that gets covered by the fees for services part of ADWRs budget, hard to say.  But I remain astonished that things looked so grim for ADWR that the cities agreed to fund their activities in this way.

Oh and one other thing.  If you look at the bottom of page 2 of the notice of proposed rulemaking there is a sentence that says: "Monies in the fund are subject to legislative appropriation".  That means the legislature can sweep the fund in future years if they need to top off their budgets, just like they have been doing for the last 3 years.  They have had their wrists slapped by courts on a couple of occasions recently - including their sweep of money from Las Vegas that was intended to buy excess Colorado River water for banking in Arizona.  In that case the court said the fund sweep was unconstitutional, but they refused to order the legislature to give the money back.  Real nice.

A few water conservation ideas

I have received a couple of emails recently from people wanting to publicize their water conservation info.  One is about some simple ways to conserve water during droughts.
When I first saw the url I thought it said Connecticut Utilities and thought to myself, "well they certainly don't have to worry about drought right now."  But it has nothing to do with that soggy New England state.
The next one is from and presents a list of ways that different colleges are implementing water conserving projects.  Looks like some pretty progressive water conservation is happening on college campuses.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Recent Recognition

You may have noticed I have a new gadget along the right margin.  I was notified last month by someone from that I was on their list of Top 25 Water Conservation blogs.  I of course promptly added the link on the side but failed to acknowledge the honor in any way.  Noticing who some of the other blogs on the list were I was humbled and felt quite honored to be included.  So this is a shout-out to all those other blogs on the list and to the good folks at Seametrics for including me.

Assorted Property Rights for Sale

For some reason I was searching through a list of books on water marketing on Amazon the other day and an advertisement on the bottom of the page caught my eye.  It offered a forum for buying and selling water rights and listed a website:

So I clicked through to take a look.  Seems they offer just about every sort of interest in land there could be: easements, mineral rights, hunting/fishing rights, etc.  It must be fairly new because they are offering free sign-ups to list and bid on properties in order to build their traffic.

So I checked out their listing of water rights for sale.  Not real extensive at this point, but pretty good geographic diversity for what is there.

I'm kind of curious if anyone out there has any experience with this outfit or knows of the people behind it.  Anyone .... Bueller?  Chris Corbin?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Training in Urban Stream Restoration

Watershed Management Group (WMG)* is planning a 3-day hands on short course in urban stream restoration this fall in Tucson.  If you or anyone you know might have an interest in this the info is below:

Technical Training in Urban Stream Restoration with Watershed Management Group, October 6-8, 2011, in Tucson, AZ
Apply by August 1 for Reduced Course Fee!

Join Watershed Management Group (WMG) for a 3-day, hands-on course in Stream Restoration through the Watershed Technical Trainings program.  This course will provide participants with a basic understanding of how desert streams and arroyos function, how they change over time, and the human influence on them, both positive and negative.  Based on this foundation, students will participate in hands-on sessions in site assessment, design, and implementation of small-scale restoration features.  Emphasis will be placed on urban wash restoration approaches and practices from backyard to larger drainage scales.

The course curriculum includes:
·  Classroom lectures
·  Site assessment, surveying, design, and planning sessions
·  Hands-on restoration workshops
·  Tour of local restoration sites
Apply early for the reduced registration fee by August 1, 2011; application deadline for the regular registration fee is September 1, 2011.  To view the full course announcement and download an application, visit WMG's Watershed Technical Training webpage.  For more information, please contact Tory Syracuse at or 520-396-3266.
* While I am a board member with WMG I derive no financial benefit from any of the work they do, only the satisfaction of seeing them be successful.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Sweet, wonderful rain!

The monsoon arrived in So. Arizona on schedule over the 4th of July weekend.  We received more rain at my house during the past week than we had received during the previous 7 months - almost 1.5 inches.  See how much fell in your neighborhood at

Monday, July 4, 2011

Trying to re-discover my focus

I've had a number of things swirling in my brain for the last few months (being shoved out of the way several times by exogenous factors) but have been waiting to find some sort of motivation or focus to help them coalesce into a cogent written form.  In the meantime, I'll just take the route of some of my fellow water-bloggers and shoot out some quick updates.

Many of the readers of this blog probably already know this but for any who don't, David Zetland, of Aguanomics, recently released his first book - self-published no less - called "The End of Abundance: Economic Solutions to Water Scarcity."  David's a very bright guy and I'm sure his book includes some outstanding insight into water allocation problems, including actual solutions, and the dry wit that he is known for.  Should be an excellent read and I'm hoping to get a copy for myself before my vacation in August. 

But for the moment I'm working through Jamie Workman's recent book, "Heart of Dryness," about the struggles of the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert and how the indigenous wisdom of drought-adapted societies can help modern humanity cope with coming water shortages.  I'm a few chapters in right now and it's a very compelling narrative Jamie presents.  Of particular interest to me are the similarities I see between the Bushmen - their interactions with outsiders, struggles to maintain their traditional way of life, and the failure of those outsiders to learn important lessons from ancient cultures - and some of the traditional Native American cultures of the Southwest.  I had the opportunity to meet Jamie in Tucson a few months back and really enjoyed talking about our mutual passion for changing existing paradigms in water management to deal with scarcity.

A few things I'm hoping to compose some thoughts on in the near future:
  • Response within the Arizona water management community to the CAP proposal for allocating new water supplies by a market-clearing auction.  This was a novel and interesting proposal that was given a less-than-warm reception when released almost 9 months ago. 
  • The recent US Supreme Court opinion in Montana v. Wyoming that has important implications for the significance of return flows in interstate river compacts.
  • The prospects for future Indian water rights settlements in Arizona - essentially, not especially good right now.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

In memoriam, Steve Brooks, 1959-2011

My brother Steve passed away recently, losing his battle with cancer.  Steve was both my inspiration and my nemesis at various points in my life.  He was the reason I went to school to become a hydrologist (he was already in the masters program at University of Arizona when I entered to pursue my BS).  I followed him into consulting in Arizona, where I was forever known as "Steve's younger brother" within much of the local hydrology community.  At times I think I may have left consulting to go to law school as a concession that I would never be as good a hydrogeologist as he was.  But the reality is, he had things he was really good at - computer modeling and theory - and I had things I was very good at - field hydrogeology and policy.  In the end I came to the understanding that he pushed me at times to make myself better at what I did (which I often resented), but ultimately I would not be where I am today without his influence in my life.  I am a better person both professionally and personally because he took the time to care about me and where I was going with my life.  I owe him a huge debt of gratitude that I was never very good at expressing.  I hope he occasionally looks down on me and smiles at my accomplishments.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Quick follow-up on Rainwater Harvesting legislation in AZ

I recently posted about a piece of legislation being considered in Phoenix that first would have created a new water right to harvested rainwater, then was modified to create a state commission to study the practice of rainwater harvesting and how it could be used to augment renewable water supplies.  Just to keep you up to date, I recently learned that the bill, SB1522, didn't make it out of the legislature this year.  According to an article in the Prescott paper, the bill was held up in committee by the committee head who says he just doesn't like study committees.  Maybe next year they'll try to move it through a different committee.

King in Waiting says "Lay off the beef!"

Prince Charles was speaking at a conference at Georgetown this week (taking a break from the royal wedding festivities, I suspect) to tell Americans that our fondness for dead cow is seriously straining the worlds water supplies.  He's absolutely correct, that the amount of water needed to produce each pound of beef is almost outrageously disproportionate to the value of the nutrition produced.  But I suspect that if you did a similar calculation of the amount of water needed to grow the grains to produce a fifth of gin or a pound of almonds it would look similarly disproportionate [I did a quick check online - 1) the numbers reported vary widely by source; 2) I didn't find any reported numbers for water used in the production of gin and the numbers I found for almonds were not useful].  Another thing is that probably 1,900 gallons of the 2,000 needed to produce the beef is used to irrigate the feed and if we didn't eat the beef we would still need to be fed so that 1,900 gallons of water would probably still be used to irrigate something.

If you look at trends for beef consumption and water use in the US for recent decades, it's clear that beef consumption is down and water consumption is flat.  So maybe he's preaching to the choir in this country.  What would really be helpful would be to convince people in the rapidly developing parts of the world that as they grow richer, greatly increasing their meat consumption is going to put enormous strains on their water supplies, which generally are pretty poorly managed at present.  If they want to avoid significant negative environmental consequences of economic development it would be smart to manage water supplies in such a way that the majority of their water isn't used to grow food for animals that will be fed to people - especially if the people they are being fed to live in other countries.

Finally ... I don't really appreciate members of the one of the wealthiest families in the world telling me what I should eat.  I'm a commoner, living in a constitutional democracy, that's just how I feel.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Making some changes

I'm trying to play around with the design within the confines of Blogger.  I'm not convinced I like the result and might consider moving to a different platform.  If any of my 3 or 4 readers has an opinion I'd appreciate if you let me know.  And if you have a favorite blogging platform that I should check out let me know about that too.

Monday, April 25, 2011

More AZ Legislature stupidity

Many in our state legislature have signed the Taxpayer Protection Pledge of Americans for Tax Reform, in which they vow to never vote for any tax increase.  As evidence of the anti-tax zeal of our legislators they even pushed through a very large corporate tax cut during the legislative session that just ended - before they got around to dealing with our current state budget, which is $1 Billion in the red.  Never mind that any future shortfalls in state revenues that might result from those budgets cuts (if the projected increased revenues due to expanded business activity in the state fails to cover the foregone taxes) will have to be made up somehow - and the state budgets are cut pretty much to the bone at this point.  They are also reducing state-shared revenues to the cities and counties, which will have to be made by either cutting local services or raising local taxes (property or sales) and forcing cities and counties to fund things that the state previously did - like housing prisoners short-term.  And more recently they passed legislation, that has since been signed by the governor, that determines how certain state agencies can spend the money they have available to them and permits the Department of Water Resources to make up a gap in its budget (caused by the legislature taking away previous general fund appropriations) by imposing a new tax on municipalities in the state (they call it a fee in the bill, so maybe they think that means it's not really a tax).

So, no, our state legislature will not permit the imposition of new taxes that would violate their pledge.  But they have no compunction about establishing rules that require other entities to increase taxes to make up for revenue shortfalls that result from fund sweeps, budget cuts, and sweetheart tax breaks to favored entities.  Way to be consistent in your ideology folks.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Nice job, Tucson

Tony Davis has an article in the morning daily congratulating Tucsonans for their thrifty water use habits.  In the article, he does a nice job of pointing out the obvious connection between conservation and giving consumers information about their water use - unmetered uses will almost always be higher than metered uses (assuming there are volumetric charges for the water).  But there is always bad news that must accompany good news (wouldn't want folks getting too cocky).  In this case, reduction in water use is rewarded by increases in water rates because of the way rates are structured in Tucson.  Here's how it works:
  • Tucson water rates are set in increasing blocks - the more water you use, the higher your rate per unit of use; this is intended to send a strong conservation message to consumers
  • when rates are increased most of the increase is added to the upper blocks (don't want to punish the people who are doing the best job of conserving)
Here's what Tucson's rate structure looks like on a graph, comparing it to other 4 block rate structures:

  • over time, because most water revenue is derived from water sales, the utility becomes overly dependent on sales in the higher blocks to meet its revenue targets
  • who do you think is most likely to conserve when water rates increase, especially rates in the higher blocks?  That's right - the users in the higher blocks, because much of that use is discretionary
  • the next year, the utility projects another revenue shortfall so rates go up again, even though there was increased conservation the previous year
How do you fix this?  You restructure your revenue model so that more of your fixed costs are covered by fixed revenues (monthly service charges paid by all customers or increase the rate in the first block). 

Here's how Tucson's monthly service charge compares to those from several other cities:

This is what Tucson Water is trying to do this year, but they are certain to get pushback from the city council because of the potential impact on low-income customers.  So we'll be revisiting this issue again next year, and probably the year after that.

Monday, March 28, 2011

What's going on up in Phoenix?

Our legislature in Arizona is currently in session.  This has always been a somewhat frightening prospect, but never more so than this year.  We have the usual raft of bills seeking to demonize illegal immigrants and micromanage state agencies, but the big story this year has been the legislators efforts to collectively flip a large bird at the federal government.  Everything from re-interpreting the 14th amendment's birthright citizenship provision to seeking to seize federal property through eminent domain.  Fortunately, most of the crazier stuff has not made it out of committees or has been voted down on the floor.  But I don't consider it my job to comment on everything they do up there - there are plenty of other people doing that.  I just want to talk about some of the ideas that have been floated this year dealing with water.

One in particular caught my eye recently.  It's SB 1522, which relates to use of harvested rain water for aquifer augmentation.  The original bill would have essentially created a new form of water right in Arizona - a right to harvested rain water.  The idea was that someone could harvest rainwater on a sufficiently large scale - think cities or large subdivisions - and put that water in some form of recharge facility where it would percolate into the ground and recharge local aquifers.  The entity that collected and recharged the water would then get a groundwater storage credit equal to 50% of the water that they could verify actually went into the ground.  That credit would allow them to legally pump the amount of water represented by that credit and call it "renewable water."  This idea was being pushed by a couple of legislators from Yavapai County (i.e. the Prescott AMA and city of Prescott) where there is a very serious lack of renewable water supplies (data from 2003 - it's definitely worse now).

If there is anyplace in this state that could really benefit from large-scale rainwater harvesting, it's the Prescott area.  Problem is, this area is also where a couple of the rivers (Verde, Agua Fria, Hassayampa) that supply quite a bit of water (both surface and groundwater inflow) to the Phoenix area have a source or sources.  So it obviously piqued the interest of a few of the bigger players in the state in terms of water.  This was evident in a recent article from the Prescott newspaper. 

In addition, the legislation asked the Arizona Department of Water Resource (ADWR) to develop a new regulatory scheme that would set rules for how rainwater recharge facilities would be managed, how the water collected and recharged would be accounted for, inspection of those facilities, and presumably a permitting system and accounting system to track the water.  But the legislature, I'm sure, had no intention of providing ADWR with additional money to take on and complete those responsibilities.

Looking at the original legislation, it seemed pretty silly to me that you would go to the expense of harvesting rainwater just to put it in the ground, then pump water back out of the ground to provide to customers.  Seems a lot simpler to just spend that money buying rain barrels for people they could use to harvest their own water to then use in place of potable water.  In theory, that would permit water providers in the area to reduce their pumpage, thereby cutting into the amount of the overdraft.  But it doesn't really work out that way.  Having decisions made by thousands of individual homeowners is not how water providers like to manage their water supplies (although to some extent it is kind of like that now).  And having current customers reduce usage doesn't mean that water will stay in the ground, it will just be used somewhere else or at some other time.  This also doesn't create more renewable water that satisfies the requirements of state law, so it can't help areas that need renewable water to keep growing.

This is an issue I've been wrestling with for a while now.  How do you set policy that encourages individual water users to do the right thing AND gives the water provider an incentive to want their customers to do the right thing?  Setting prices for potable water that make harvested rainwater competitive with tap water is clearly one option - just a politically difficult one.  And somewhat logistically difficult as well, but not impossible.  The other problem is that you want customers to actually replace existing uses of potable water with other sources - rain water or gray water.  Again, if you just incentivize it by providing subsidized rain barrels or mandating gray water stub-outs on houses there is no guarantee that people won't just view that as free water with which to support additional vegetation, rather than replacing existing water uses - which would seem to lead you back to the pricing solution.  And it's important to note that you don't need to change state law to use pricing to encourage more use of unconventional supplies of water.

Anyway, the law (as amended in the State House) now merely calls for creation of a commission to study the feasibility of establishing a scheme to do large-scale rainwater harvesting.  I think this probably puts the idea of any sort of state-sanctioned water right for harvested rainwater to rest.  It remains to be seen if this commission can come up with a viable way to make rainwater harvesting a significant component of regional water management strategies - as clearly it should be in places that lack imported, renewable supplies.

That was the main bit of water legislation that interested me enough to write about it here.  If anything else comes along that gets me excited I'll mention it in an upcoming post.

Note - Edited 3/29/11 to add reference and link to Prescott Daily Courier article.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Wacky Shenanigans in the AZ Legislature

I wish I had more time to track what our legislature is up to ... sometimes.  But it seems that when I do try to pay attention lately, what I find out just makes me want to smash things.
They do have some bills in the works that affect water use, water management, and especially the state agencies that oversee water.  I should try to make a few comments on them soon, so that's what I'm planning to do next.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Development Community Attempts to Derail Environmental Water Allocations

Previously I alluded to efforts by the development community in Southern Arizona to derail plans by the city and county to allocate up to 10,000 acre-feet of treated sewage for environmental uses in the region.  These folks have decided that the process for allocating this water to environmental uses wasn't sufficiently rigorous and risks the loss of a significant portion of renewable water that can be used to support future population/economic growth.  They sent a letter to both the County Board of Supervisors and the City Council saying (among other things) that: "[e]ffluent is a highly reliable, locally available component of our region’s renewable water supply portfolio" and "the proposed IGA does not contemplate replacement of these entitlements, which are needed to promote and support regional economic growth."

Whoa!  Wait a minute.  I didn't know that this water was surreptitiously taken from some magical bucket of water reserved to support future growth in the region?  Admittedly, that is one possible use for that water - not to be turned into potable water to be provided to future residents of Tucson (unless state law changes, that's currently illegal), but to be recharged to generate storage credits that permit future pumping of groundwater to supply homes and businesses.  But this water belongs to the entities that generated the effluent (the city and the county), who are free to allocate it in ways they believe will best benefit the region.  Clearly there was some discussion within the community when the decision was made to set aside this water for environmental restoration.  I don't remember any similar discussion when the decision was made to wipe out 90% of the riparian habitat in the region so that water could be provided for the growth of the community.

But the current reality is that most of that water is currently wasted (this links to a fairly large pdf, but go to page 6 - the table shows where the water goes from the treatment plants - the row titled AZPDES discharge is what is dumped in the river; some of that generates storage credits, presently, but most of it does not and quite a bit of it actually flows out of the AMA).  It does support some pretty degraded habitat along the Santa Cruz River, downstream from the sewage treatment plants and when the upgrades of those plants are completed in the future, the quality of that water will actually support some aquatic life.  But for now, some of that water is used to supply the reclaimed water system (replacing groundwater pumping for turf irrigation), a portion of it recharges naturally along the rivercourse and earns credits for various entities, but over 20,000 acre-feet of that water provides essentially no benefit to the region.

Fortunately, both the city and county governing bodies chose to continue with plans to implement their agreements for dedicating this portion of the water to environmental uses.  But I suspect this battle is not entirely over, because parties wishing to use this water for environmental projects still have to go to the city and county to be approved to take it.  Many of the arguments being made will be made again, especially because water supplies will almost certainly be tighter at that point than they are now.  But when it comes to finding ways to restore lost riparian habitat (and especially the water needed to do so) I think this is the most promising avenue to realize that objective.  It's not elegant, it's not simple.  But it may just be effective.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Conserve to Enhance - helping the environment via water bills

While my previous post discussed the myriad problems associated with allocating water for the environment, here I'd like to talk about something novel being tried in Tucson to connect individual water conservation decisions with environmental restoration.  The program is called Conserve to Enhance (C2E) and operates by having municipal water customers here in Tucson implement something on their property (i.e. rainwater harvesting or graywater reuse) that will decrease the amount of water they use each month, leading to a regular savings on their water bill.  That savings does not come off of their bill.  Instead they continue paying the same amount and the money they would have saved is put in a funding source for environmental restoration projects that typically require a water source to establish and maintain riparian ecosystems.

A pilot program for C2E was just started, so the program has been in the news recently (see here, here, and here).  The program evolved from an idea developed at the University of Arizona's Water Resources Research Center (WRRC) that was originally known as Environmental Water Banking.  It evolved from what was perceived as a need to link water conservation activities with environmental benefits in the community.  A common complaint in the past has been that water conservation only frees up more water for new development so why bother.

I'm not involved in the program, but Watershed Management Group (for whom I'm a board member) is the entity running the program, with assistance from WRRC and the Sonoran Institute and grant funding from EPA that is providing subsidies for some of the pilot program participants to install the infrastructure necessary to realize their water savings. 

While this is a rather small step in the overall goal of bringing the environment to the table when water is being dished up it is a very big step in public perception of water conservation and how it's connected to protecting the environment.  And perhaps more than that, it's an example of people assigning an economic value to environmental amenities and backing that up with real money to provide water for the environment.  Hopefully in a year I'll be talking about how successful the pilot project has been and that plans for a full-scale roll-out are imminent.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Allocating Water for the Environment

View of the Santa Cruz River near downtown Tucson from 1904.
Copyright Information: 1904 - Arizona Historical Society. Photo ID: 26691

Back in 2009, when I participated in a study of regional water resources with the objective of finding policies that would encourage sustainable water use in Tucson and Pima County (the City/County Water study - see multiple previous posts), one of the key findings of that study was that future water planning in the region needs to incorporate environmental water needs as well as water for people and our economy.  While acknowledging that fact was an important step in this community, the real challenge is determining how to actually incorporate the environment in water allocation decision-making.

The Phase II report produced from that study identified 5 broad goals and 13 recommendations related to "Respect for the Environment" that talked about identifying opportunities and water supplies for environmental restoration and preserving the few existing riparian environments remaining in this area.  But in terms of actually identifying those opportunities it talked about things like seeking to incorporate multiple benefits into future infrastructure projects and maintaining the "effluent dependent" riparian habitat that has been created in the Santa Cruz River as a historical accident of our need to dispose of treated wastewater.  Not exactly earth-shaking stuff.  As for identifying water supplies for the environment the main recommendation was to finalize a 2000 inter-governmental agreement (fairly large pdf) between the city and county allocating up to 10,000 acre-feet per year of the effluent coming from county-owned treatment plants for future environmental restoration projects.  Don't get me wrong - it was very important for that to be completed - but it hardly constitutes a long-term strategy to "put the environment at the table where water is distributed," as stated in the report.  That's putting the environment at the kids table, where the grown-ups tell it what it can have and when.

And this water is not entirely safe until they start actually allocating it.  The local development community has been trying to derail the plan to implement the Conservation Effluent Pool (CEP), as the 10,000 acre feet is known locally.  But that is the subject of a separate post.

So how does the environment get a seat at the grown-up table in future water allocation decisions?  One idea is to have the environment as a full economic participant in water allocation.  That means obtaining water rights for the environment by outright purchase (of water or land with water rights attached), various types of lease agreements, or conservation easements.  Some of these ideas are described in a recent article (links to pdf) in the Arizona Journal of Environmental Law and Policy, by Aaron Citron (a fellow Arizona law grad).  But there are a lot of limitations to this type of solution because of various quirks of water law and land use law in Arizona. 

Those limitations are described very well in a forthcoming report from Ecosystem Economics that I hope to be able to share when it's finalized.  Their report resulted from workshops they conducted with a variety of Arizona water policy experts last summer (I was honored to be included in the second workshop) and will hopefully culminate in a number of policy recommendations the state could implement to foster greater market activity in water rights in the state that could benefit the environment if water from low-valued uses could be shifted to environmental uses via market transactions.  The biggest challenges (in my opinion, but also echoed in the report) are the failure of Arizona water law to fully recognize the connection between surface water and groundwater and the highly uncertain nature of many water rights in the state.

The first challenge means that even if surface water rights can be secured for environmental purposes they cannot always be protected from depletion resulting from groundwater pumping (i.e. San Pedro River).  The second, results from the lack of adjudication (another pdf) of most surface water rights in the state, which means that determining the value, the quantity, and the seniority of many of those rights is challenging - leading to high transaction costs that hinder the creation of robust markets.

What this all means, is that until the right conditions can be created for markets to reallocate water in the state, the best way to allocate water for environmental purposes may be by government edict (or enforcement of federal environmental laws - this could be another series of posts in its own right).  It's not entirely hopeless, the particular circumstances in some parts of the state do lend themselves to economic solutions to environmental problems with water allocation.  But those solutions most often require outright purchase or partial purchase of land with associated water rights - not the most efficient solution.  In the meantime, we can enjoy those rivers in the state where downstream senior rights holders (very politically powerful senior rights holders) will ensure that the rivers supplying those rights continue to flow.  But in other areas we have to rely on people flushing their toilets to provide the water necessary for rivers to flow.  How's that for imagery.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Moving on

OK.  I had my brief foray into political discussion (non-water related).  Time to get back on message.  I've been involved in a few things dealing with the challenges of allocating water for the environment within the context of western US/Arizona water policy/law.  I'm going to try to post something in the next week on that topic.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Enough already!

Something tragic forces me to speak to an issue other than water today.  Earlier this morning, my congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, along with several of her staff and bystanders were shot by a nut-job with a gun as she was meeting with constituents at a grocery store here in Tucson.  I didn't know Rep. Giffords personally, but I have supported her in the past and believed she was a good person, who did an excellent job of representing a district that is almost evenly divided among democrats, republicans, and independents.  What that means is she knew how to compromise and craft common-sense solutions.

First, I want to express my condolences as well as my thoughts and prayers for those injured and killed, their families, and those who worked with them and knew them for the good people they are.  While Rep. Giffords, at this point has a good chance of surviving despite being shot in the head at point blank range, it appears that among those killed were a federal district judge and a 9 year old girl.

Second, I want to note that while a part of me wishes that this were nothing more than another random, senseless acts of violence, the character of the political discourse that has evolved in this country, and especially some of the comments made about Rep. Giffords in the recent election, which she narrowly won over a republican candidate who ran a very negative campaign (supported by a lot of national conservative money that often used language against her that could be construed as advocating violence against those they oppose) makes me think there was more than that involved.  In this kind of political climate, common sense tells me that the acts of this individual, while clearly indicative of some degree of mental illness was surely motivated by political belief and may have been nurtured by strong statements against democrats from conservative commentators and bloggers.

It's time to return to more civilized discourse in this country.  If this tragedy can help us all realize that political power is not important enough to threaten or incite violence and focus our leaders in on doing what is truly important, then at least something good may come out of this tragedy.  But if it only leads to more anger and invective then we will have learned nothing and will be doomed to repeat tragedies like this.  I sure hope that's not the case.

Update:  A gunman is in custody and it appears that he was a very disturbed young man.  While his particular motivations are currently unclear, it's inevitable that the current state of politics will lead many to read a lot into his motivations and actions beyond the seeming prevalence of senseless violence in the world around us.  As I said before - if leads to some genuine discussion and redirection of our political discourse, that's great.  But if it will only add fuel to the flames, I'd prefer that we just call this more random, senseless violence.

Friday, January 7, 2011

1 foot of elevation - could mean 80,000 acre-feet or 320,000 acre-feet

      There have been a few news articles recently (i.e. here and here) about an announcement by Central Arizona Project (CAP, interestingly there's no mention of the idea on the CAP website) that they are considering leaving a portion of their allocation of Colorado River water in Lake Mead this coming year in an effort to maintain a higher lake level and hopefully avoid the potential for a declaration of shortage.  

      How does this work, you might ask?  Part of the agreement from 2007 that allocated who will bear the brunt of shortages on the river also included some complex rules for what is called Intentionally Created Surplus (ICS).  The general idea is that the lower basin states could develop arrangements whereby water that they don't really need in a given year - usually by engaging in some activity that actually conserves water that would have been used, i.e. fallowing farmland for a year - is left in Lake Mead, to be withdrawn in some future year.  I don't know if Arizona's actions are considered ICS because nothing extraordinary is being done to save this water - it's basically water that Arizona doesn't currently need and for various reasons it might make more sense to leave it in Mead rather than pump it into the canal.  But California entities (MWD) have taken advantage of this arrangement in the past.  Arizona - or more specifically, the CAP - has not.  CAP has been doing everything it can to take all its water.

      Here's a little background.  Arizona is allocated 2.8 million acre-feet (MAF) from the Colorado.  1.6 MAF goes to the CAP and the rest is used generally along the river for irrigation.  But the thing is, entities that contract for CAP water don't currently need 1.6 MAF - so much of that water is put in the ground for storage, to be pumped out at a later date, like when there is a shortage on the river.  Here is how the 2010 uses of CAP water break down, according to documents on their website:
  • 2010 scheduled subcontract deliveries – 425,000 ac ft (this is mostly the water that is used by cities)
  • 2010 scheduled deliveries to agriculture (technically excess water, but specifically allocated to the Ag pool) – 400,000 ac ft
  • Other excess scheduled deliveries (includes deliveries for firming*; water purchased to offset pumping; probably some water purchased, taken and used directly for industrial purposes; and water purchased and recharged for generation of credits by private entities) – 474,000 ac ft
  • Deliveries to Indian reservations (primarily Ag uses) – 104,000 ac ft
  • Deliveries of Indian water for off-reservation uses (mostly recharge and leases to non-tribal entities) – 240,000 ac ft  
    • this adds up to slightly more than 1.6 MAF because some of the water delivered was water previously stored that was recovered (pumped out of ground) and delivered 
This means that somewhere around 1 maf of water taken off the river by CAP was actually needed and used, while the rest was taken and stored underground, primarily so the state would not lose that water and to provide insurance against future shortages (*this is what is termed "firming" the water -taking lower priority water and changing it's character so it will be available during a shortage that otherwise would have curtailed the availability of that water).

By leaving this water in Lake Mead this year, Arizona hopes to 1) forestall a declaration of shortage and 2) make that water available to be taken out of the river in a future year when the reservoir storage is higher.  This strategy makes a lot of sense for several reasons.

1) The water will hopefully be available in the future.

2) The in-state entity that handles most of the firming for the state (by recharging excess water or using it to replace groundwater pumping that would otherwise happen to supply irrigation water) is the Arizona Water Banking Authority (AWBA), an entity created specifically to help the state take its full allocation of Colorado River water sooner than we could actually put it to use in more traditional ways.  In past years the AWBA has been given money from state budgets to carry out those activities, but some of that money has been taken away, leaving them with a reduced ability to carry out that function.  But the main reason it makes sense at this point is:

3)  If it really looks like Lake Mead is heading for that magic elevation of 1075 ft Arizona stands to lose out on 320,000 ac ft of water from the Colorado, which is a whole lot worse than temporarily losing out on 80,000 ac ft.

The whole reason Arizona has been taking all that extra water and putting it in the ground in the Central parts of the state was because we knew that shortages were gonna come some day and it would be much better to be able to pump that water out of the ground in-state than try to get any additional water from the Colorado.  We're last in line at that tap anywayBut that was a good strategy as long as the level of Lake Mead stayed high enough that we should be able to take our full allotment.  When shortages are looming - possibly in the next 2 years - a new strategy is called for.  That's when you try to limit your losses as best as you can.

But, looking at the snow pack in the upper basin, it may be a very good year for flows into Lake Powell, which means more water will flow down to Mead in the summer and possibly forestall that shortage a little longer.  We'll see.

updated 1/8/11 for content and clarity