2013 Conference Offers Wide Range of Perspectives on Water Security Challenges

Back to Spring 2013 Newsletter

By Susanna Eden and Katharine Mitchell, WRRC Graduate Outreach Assistant, University of Arizona

The opportunity to hear expert presentations and discussion on the issue of water security attracted approximately 300 people to the WRRC’s annual conference, “Water Security from the Ground Up”. The audience represented more than 40 communities across Arizona.

Participants spoke to the topic of water security from a wide range of perspectives. A narrow definition of “water security” as protection of water system integrity was quickly discarded. Although it is an important component of water security, (see this issue, p. 1) conference speakers expanded the security concept in many directions. Although a single definition of water security never emerged, the differences among the presentations illustrated its scope and complexity.

The conference keynote speaker, Anthony Cox, Head of Climate, Biodiversity and Water Division, Environment Directorate, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), observed that water security has multiple dimensions. These include amount, quality, distribution and uses of water. Globally, population growth and development are straining water resources. The potential for conflict over the many rivers, lakes and groundwater resources that cross borders is increasing. Ecosystems are vulnerable where the water needs of the environment are ignored. Fundamental human health and safety already suffer from lack of services and natural disasters. In much of the world, institutional capacity and economic resources may be insufficient to deal with these challenges.

Cox proposed using a risk approach to deal with water security challenges. Such an approach allows for a realistic balancing of likely consequences of action, or inaction, across dimensions. As Rodney Smith, President at Stratecon, Inc. noted, “We can’t live without risk.” He said that we can never have perfect security, but prudent risk management provides tools to allocate and reduce risk and thus improve water security. Smith suggested that risk management can be improved by harnessing “the wisdom of crowds” through markets.

Kathleen Ferris, Executive Director of the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association, on the other hand, focused on the role of governments. Within the global context, Arizona is relatively well positioned to deal with its water security challenges. As characterized by Ferris, Arizona’s Groundwater Management Act, passed in 1980, was “one of the most progressive laws in the country governing groundwater.” Ferris was part of the group that created the law and has watched its implementation and evolution over the years. She said she would like to see a reflection of that visionary government action to address current water security concerns. As an example, Ferris described efforts to provide tools to Arizona’s rural communities to meet their growing water supply needs.

Water supply—continued availability and sustainability—was foremost in the minds of many. Brian Betcher, General Manager of Maricopa Stanfield Irrigation District, focused on the supply challenges facing agricultural water users. Physical challenges such as drought and aging infrastructure are only part of the picture. The economic pressure of rising energy costs, unintended consequences of regulation, increasing competition for existing resources, and uncertainty over water rights also keep Betcher up at night.

Very similar concerns disturb the sleep of Alan Forrest, Director at Tucson Water. Water outages caused by infrastructure failure are not an option for the water utility, which has invested in redundant facilities to ensure reliability. The large amount of water recharged into Tucson area aquifers provides a buffer against the impacts of drought and shortages on the Colorado River. Forrest emphasized that recharge of supplies available today buys time to find the new supplies that will be needed to meet future demands.

When Arizona’s water users worry about the security of their supplies, a major focus is the future of the Colorado River. The United States Bureau of Reclamation’s Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, released just weeks before the conference, was described as a wakeup call by WRRC Director Sharon Megdal. The study assessed future water supply and demand and found a sustained imbalance over the next 60 years of 3.2 million acre-feet more demand than supply. A major collaborative effort, the study not only assessed supply and demand, but also assembled portfolios of options that might be used to rebalance the system. Carly Jerla, Program Manager for the study, stated that storage structures on the river can hold more than four times the annual supply. This provides some security against short-term supply shortages. However, demand has already surpassed supply, Jerla said, and we are vulnerable if nothing is done. The study laid a technical foundation that will allow stakeholders to move forward on the same platform.

Providing a science-based platform from which to address water security concerns was another conference theme. The conference’s science panel brought the need for better scientific understanding into the water security discussion. Peter Mock, an independent consultant, spoke from the water chemistry perspective on the need to understand the system as a whole. He emphasized that water quality security depends on vigilance that goes beyond meeting standards.

James Leehouts, Associate Director and Investigations Section Chief at USGS Arizona Water Science Center, also advocated water system understanding. He warned that common misconceptions about the groundwater-surface water connection hinder realistic planning for water sustainability. The physical system has more interconnection than people realize. The interconnections frequently are not obvious because of the difference between the human time scale and hydro geologic time scales. William Alley, Director of Science and Technology at the National Groundwater Association, warned that impacts of human actions, such as groundwater pumping and contamination, may not be evident for many years and do not stop when the actions stop. Depletion, subsidence and the spread of contaminants can continue for many years.

Loss of important environmental values may be the consequence of failure to understand the physical system. Linda Stitzer, Senior Advisor at Western Resource Advocates, argued that the environment has not had a place at the table where water policy decisions are made. “It is difficult to include environmental demand in planning and water budgets, since it is hard to quantify,” she said. However, water in the environment supports many benefits. In addition to quality of life values, Stitzer described ecosystem services and economic benefits. For example, wildlife based recreation and birding generates billions of dollars for Arizona’s economy. Stitzer suggested mechanisms to secure water for the environment that would extend existing programs, build publicprivate partnerships and expand citizen-voter support.

When describing environmental benefits, Stitzer included heritage benefits to tribal, ranching and farming communities. The concern with cultural heritage was the focus of Elma Montaña’s presentation. A researcher at National Scientific and Technical Research Council and Professor at the National University of Cuyo, Argentina, Montaña used the case study of Mendoza in central eastern Argentina to illustrate linkages among the physical system, institutions, and cultural heritage in their water security situation. In Mendoza these interlinked systems tend to disadvantage traditional culture to the point that its existence is endangered. She argued for protection against cultural loss in water security policy decisions.

Preservation of cultural values associated with water also concerns Arizona’s native tribes, according to Katosha Nakai, Tribal Affairs and Policy Development Manager at Central Arizona Project (CAP). She warned, however, that the various tribes do not have a single perspective but have many different perspectives (see Guest View, p. 10). They are also in different situations with respect to the security of their rights to water. The CAP is a major source of water for some tribes through agreements and water settlements. Only a small fraction of the CAP water allocated for native tribes remains to help with water settlements for the 11 Arizona tribes whose claims have yet to be settled.

Nakai also illustrated the multiple dimensions of water security with the case of the Navajo Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant that provides most of the energy needed to pump CAP water from the Colorado River to its customers. New air quality regulations for plant emissions are projected to raise the cost of power and therefore the cost of CAP water to customers. The Gila River Indian Community is the single largest CAP contract holder and would therefore bear the largest percentage of cost increases.

After a day of laying out the complex, multidimensional nature of water security, the conference took a look at Arizona’s current policy tools. In the final session of the day, Megdal moderated a discussion with Thomas Bushatzke, Assistant Director of the Water Planning Division at Arizona Department of Water Resources, and Dennis Rule, Manager at Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District. The panel addressed the question, “Are we on the right track?”

These local leaders expressed their belief that past management has placed Arizona in a good position for the future. Buschatzke noted multiple achievements that demonstrate our ability to address water security challenges, including the Groundwater Management Act and subsequent “tune-ups” that were made in response to evolving conditions. Rule maintained that the Groundwater Replenishment District plays a critical role in providing water security for the Phoenix, Pinal and Tucson AMAs. The District, which helps entities meet legal water supply requirements under the Groundwater Management Act, is in the process of initiating a robust water acquisition program to fulfill its replenishment obligations to its member entities.

Questions from the audience pointed out where current policy falls short, and probed for ways to bring about desired change. Rule cautioned that structural challenges make change difficult, but open discussion and transparent process are fundamental to the way the District operates. Buschatzke turned the focus back to the public, arguing that change can happen when there is public consensus. “If stakeholders reach consensus and come to the department, they would support it,” he said.

Ending on the importance of the public’s role, the conference highlighted education and information exchange as vital to water security. Several of the speakers throughout the day pointed out that the search for solutions rests on a well-informed public. Given its complex, multidimensional nature, a conference on water security needs presentations from many perspectives, and this is what the WRRC’s annual conference delivered.