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