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.

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