October 2011, Issue 53: Editors’ Notes

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This editorial is from the October issue of M&A’s Arizona Water Policy Update.

Our future water availability need not be based on a simple supply-demand projection… if we are willing to make informed policy choices about water demand.

“Texas Does Not and Will Not Have Enough Water for the Future.”

This recent headline reflected the conclusions of the Texas Water Development Board’s 2012 long-range water plan, published during the state’s worst single-year drought on record. The plan concludes, in unvarnished terms, that the Lone Star state has reached its water resource limits and that it will need to implement aggressive water conservation and management strategies to survive future droughts.

You may recall seeing similar headlines last year about Arizona. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) published a study on water sustainability that compared precipitation and water demand in each U.S. county, reasoning that the larger the gap, the more vulnerable the population to drought. Not surprisingly, Tucson and Phoenix ranked near the bottom of the list in relation to a match between precipitation and water use. The study was followed by a report on risky municipal water bonds in these “vulnerable” areas. When Lake Mead reached the historic low mark late last year, the sky really looked like it was about to fall on Arizona. However, the authors failed to consider—among other things—the unique and significant investments in infrastructure that enable us to store (both above and below ground) and move millions of acre-feet of water in Arizona, where and when it is needed.

Partly to address these misleading messages, ASU’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, under lead author Grady Gammage, Jr., released a new report, Watering the Sun Corridor: Managing Choices in Arizona’s Megapolitan Area. The report provides a systematic and generalized estimate of the state’s current water supply and compares it to demand. However, unlike the NRDC report, it states that the future availability of Arizona’s water depends entirely on how we choose to use it. Far from being powerless, we have enormous flexibility in how we use our water resources. And, although the Morrison Institute report provides no answers, it articulates a series of policy choices that should be made regarding agriculture, economic development, location of growth, landscaping, and the natural environment. It concludes that, given adequate water resources, “the question ultimately becomes how much Sun Corridor residents should adjust their lifestyle and uses of water to accommodate more residents.”

This is a very different question from the one that dominated water management in the West for over a century. The Reclamation Act of 1902 called for teams of engineers to “tame” and develop the water supplies of the West, and Arizona benefitted from the program’s success. But the challenge of this generation is not as much about developing new supplies as it is about addressing the other side of the equation: demand. And the two primary tools for managing demand include water use policies and price structure.

In the end, we may need to reframe the question in terms of our willingness and ability to use these tools. Perhaps rather than asking individuals what lifestyle adjustments they are willing to make, we should ask communities, “What kinds of conservation measures and pricing structures are you willing to adopt to ensure a sustainable future for current and future Arizona residents?”

Juliet M. McKenna, MS, PGTaylor D. Shipman, MS | Mark H. Myers, MBA