Watering the Sun Corridor Water Policy Workshop

Back to Spring 2012 newsletter

by Jim Holway, Director, Western Lands and Communities, A Lincoln Institute of Land Policy - Sonoran Institute Joint Venture

What are our key water policy choices? What values underlie these choices? What are our priorities and our major challenges?

Eighty individuals gathered to discuss these questions in the Sonoran Institute sponsored pre-conference workshop on January 23rd, the day before the WRRC’s Annual Conference. A lively discussion ensued on the fundamental policy and value choices we will face about water in the Sun Corridor and on the driving forces that shape these choices.

Grady Gammage opened with his recent Morrison Institute Watering the Sun Corridor report and the Sonoran Institute’s Joe Marlow discussed driving forces of change. The afternoon focused on small group discussions to dive deeper into four areas of water use that we believed would illustrate key policy and value choices for our region: agriculture, household, urban amenities and public areas, and the natural environment.

Key messages I heard included strong support for continued agriculture; increased priority for natural environment water uses; and a need for increased dialogue and public engagement on water issues.

The workshop highlights below were compiled from key pad polling of the entire group and notes from discussions among diverse groups of six to eight people at eleven separate tables. Key pad polling questions interspersed throughout the afternoon were designed to solicit ad-hoc responses, illuminate key values, and provoke discussion. This instant polling and the table discussions of a self-selected audience certainly do not qualify as a systematic or random sample, they do however provide food for thought and identify interesting areas for further work and dialogue.

The participants were evenly split between Pima and Maricopa Counties with 12 percent from outside central Arizona. Participants represented a wide variety of sectors and included a majority with extensive experience participating in water policy meetings.

The first tasks at the eleven tables were to identify the priority water policy topics, to discuss what issues they were most concerned about, and to discuss whether the Watering the Sun Corridor report identified the most important water policy choices. We captured the approximately 50 different issues identified and combined these into 14 broad topics. In the final round of small group discussions, participants considered whether any additional topics needed to be included, at which point 3 additional topics were added.

These resulting 17 priority water policy issues and water uses were: Agriculture Use, Industry Use, Growth, Household Use, Public Use, Natural Environment Use, Water Pricing, New Supplies, Energy Production, Decision Making Process, Education, Equity, Conservation & Reuse, Climate, Water Quality, Prioritizing Local Needs, and Sustainability.

Using the key pad polling, participants voted for the five issues they considered top priorities to be addressed. Six of these 17 issues clearly came out on top: 1) Natural environment , 2) Water policy decision making , 3) Economics & water pricing, 4) Climate change & variability, 5) Ensuring water sustainability, 6) Water & growth. Notably, private landscape uses of water and urban amenity uses of water, two topics highlighted in the workshop, received the lowest number of top five issue votes.

Additional results included:

  • A majority of the participants recognized that some agricultural water would likely move to urban uses, but they put a priority on maintaining a viable production agriculture economy in central Arizona.
  • Water for the natural environment was identified as a top priority water issue both in the key pad polling and during the individual table discussions. This unusual result for Arizona water discussions was, I believe, not simply the result of who attended the workshop but does in fact represent an evolving shift in Arizona’s water discourse. Participants also indicated a significant willingness to pay to sustain natural areas.
  • A majority of participants supported reducing household water use and, perhaps surprisingly, elected to do so using “all” tools – including regulatory approaches.
  • When asked to prioritize eight different categories of water use, allocating water for new growth was by far the lowest priority. As would be expected, providing sufficient water to meet basic household needs was by far the top priority.
  • Participants overwhelmingly supported some basic assumptions behind the workshop. Granted, there is a selection bias in terms of who attended the workshop, but I was surprised by the high level of agreement registered in the concluding votes.
  • Future water scarcity will require difficult water allocation and management choices (52% strongly agreed, 35% agreed).
  • Increasing uncertainty about supply and demand will require that we develop mechanisms to address uncertainty (63% strongly agreed, 27% agreed).
  • Future water management will benefit greatly from broader civic engagement on the fundamental values and policy choices that underlie water management decisions (64% strongly agreed, 23% agreed).
  • In the concluding small group discussions, issues related to insufficient water management capacity and decision making were the most frequently discussed topic.

This workshop was an initial step in the Sonoran Institute’s efforts to advance a broad-based dialogue on water in the Sun Corridor. Our goal is to engage a larger community of organizations, individuals, and leaders; to consider the fundamental value and policy choices involved; and to move toward an agreed “vision” that can guide our future water policy choices. Further information on this workshop as well as the issue briefs, presentations, participant characteristics, key pad polling results and summaries of the discussions are contained on the Sonoran Institute website at: http://www.sonoraninstitute.org/watering-the-suncorridor-workshop.html .