July 25, 2004
Take off blinders or face a parched, dusty future
Special for The Republic
The question Arizonans must ask is not how to deal with the drought, but instead:
"What if this is not a drought?" Scientists are speculating that Arizona
and the whole Colorado River watershed have experienced a few unusually wet
decades, and that weather patterns are now simply returning to their arid norm
. . . perhaps forever.
From 2001-2003, the Colorado River - the Valley's primary water source - produced
less than a third of the water committed to various users, significantly less
than what it produced during the disastrous Dust Bowl. In addition, northern
Arizona's groundwater supplies and its few remaining rivers are being depleted
at an alarming rate.
Even if the drought ends tomorrow, the Department of Energy predicts that global
climate change will reduce the flow of Arizona's rivers by one-third within
Regardless of the weather, growing urban populations will diminish the available
per-person water budget. Meanwhile, Valley cities have no watering restrictions;
northern Arizona is considering expensive and environmentally damaging pipeline
schemes; rural towns are eyeing each others' supplies; southern Arizona is sucking
the life out of the already depleted underground aquifer that sustains its communities
and feeds the San Pedro River; and if recent precipitation patterns continue
unabated, power generation will cease at Glen Canyon Dam by 2007 and Lake Powell
will revert to a riverbed channel shortly thereafter.
Attacks on the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act compound Arizona's
drought stress. Wildlife, always the last at the table, is suffering from the
effect of drought coupled with ever-shrinking habitat. Complicating the situation
is steady economic pressure for continued statewide growth at pre-drought levels.
As a first step toward comprehensive, long-term, sustainable water management,
we must creatively explore all the flexibilities inherent in the body of law
known as the Law of the River, which governs allocation of Colorado River water
among seven states and Mexico. The law was crafted 80 years ago for a scenario
long-gone and was based on erroneous assumptions.
Arizona water law is equally outdated, refusing to acknowledge that underground
water feeds lakes and rivers. It turns a blind eye to unlimited groundwater
pumping and the resulting habitat devastation and, equally problematic, unsustainable
Buying agricultural water for urban use is viable, but only as a short-term
Band-Aid - especially when you consider the long-term economic impact to rural
Nearly 80 percent of Colorado River water is used for agricultural irrigation,
mostly low-value, high-water-use crops irrigated by inefficient flooding methods.
In arid climates, it takes 3,200 gallons of water - enough to fill a swimming
pool - to grow enough hay to produce one-half pound of beef; 120 gallons to
produce a single cantaloupe.
Long-term, our farmers must be supported by eliminating the "Use it or
lose it'" provisions in water law that encourage waste. Government farm
subsidies provided to Arizona growers for crops that are better suited for the
rainy South should be shifted to finance drip irrigation systems. Efficient
systems such as these can cost up to $800 per acre but could ultimately conserve
enough water to sustain farms, cities and wildlife.
An equally vital step is taking a more balanced approach to growth coupled
with incentives for significant water conservation. It is fine to ask homeowners
to repair leaking faucets, but the Central Arizona Project is in the business
of selling water, not conserving it. Conservation without accompanying policy
changes for where and how the conserved water is used simply fuels sprawl until
our surplus is gone. Policies that encourage the Central Arizona Project to
conserve water and leave some in-stream for wildlife and recreation are imperative.
To nourish our wildlife habitats and rural tourism industries, we must relieve
drought-stricken public lands from the devastating impacts of poorly managed
grazing: water pollution, destruction of vegetation, stream bank erosion, and
The Arizona Voluntary Grazing Permit Buyout legislation would pay up to $2,100
per head to ranchers willing to permanently relinquish grazing permits.
With viable plans for proper management, even in a situation of protracted
drought, enough water exists to sustain reasonable growth, protect and restore
rivers and wildlife, and preserve our recreational opportunities.
Lisa Force works with the Grand Canyon Trust (www.grandcanyon
trust.org) and is an executive member of the Sierra Club's National Board