WRRC 2024 Conference Was a Success!

March 22, 2024
2024 conference panel

Journalists Perspectives Panel

Brian Valencia

The WRRC 2024 Annual Conference, Water Solutions Through Partnerships, which took place last week, highlighted examples of collaborations that are successfully addressing Arizona’s water issues. The event was well-attended, with 246 in-person attendees, and 406 others joining virtually on Zoom.

University scientists and students, government officials, journalists, industry representatives, and members of non-governmental organizations spoke about their work, focusing on the value of partnerships. The conference was dedicated to the late Thomas Meixner, who was a hydrologist, professor, and head of the UArizona Department of Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences (HAS). It began with shared remembrances, and his inclusive and collaborative approach to solving water-related challenges pervaded the entire event. Keynote speakers, including Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs and Stephen Roe Lewis, Governor of the Gila River Indian Community (GRIC), noted the value of working together on securing Arizona’s water future. Sessions and panels highlighted collaborations across multiple projects and programs, presented multiple perspectives on solutions to water issues, provided updates on water-related activities from state agencies, and featured strategies for financing the implementation of solutions, all within the context of partnerships.

At the start of the conference, Tom Meixner’s wife Kathleen evoked through a photo montage and the words of family members his character and devotion to family and community, while his colleague Christopher L. Castro, interim HAS department head, spoke about his unique gifts and the lives he touched through his work. The first conference session, on the Tri-University Recharge and Water Reliability Project, was introduced as the “embodiment of Tom’s approach to problem-solving” and showcases the collaborative work of many student and postdoctoral researchers toward solutions to complex, interconnected water problems. Students and faculty at NAU, ASU, and UArizona who are working on the Tri-University project collect and analyze data on a variety of questions involving hydroclimate, recharge, landscape, and the urban environment. Their individual projects will fit together like pieces of a puzzle identifying areas for rainwater capture and recharge in both rural and urban settings.

Other featured collaborations include the implementation of the UArizona President’s Commission on the Future of Agriculture and Food Production in a Drying Climate, the Water and Energy Sustainable Technology (WEST) Center, and the development of a decision tool for net-zero urban water systems. ASU, in partnership with the Watershed Management Group, the Phoenix community, and others, established the project “Storm Smart Schools” to teach school-aged children about green stormwater infrastructure and help them build projects at their schools. This collaboration not only collects around 443,000 gallons of rainwater annually, but it also increases greenspaces around school campuses that reduce heat in places where kids can enjoy the outdoors. All these collaborative programs emphasize the importance of stakeholder engagement, including listening to what stakeholders consider important.

The Salt River Project (SRP) is working on multiple projects for water augmentation and conservation that require collaboration with the Bureau of Reclamation. They are proposing to double the storage capacity of Bartlett Dam, a multi-year project with multiple research and modeling steps to be completed before applying for Congressional approval. A supplemental benefit of expanding Bartlett Dam is the opportunity it provides to improve native bottomland habitat at Horseshoe Dam. SRP also showcased its hands-on community approach to collaborations with commercial, institutional, and industrial customers with the goal of helping them reduce water use by about five billion gallons by 2035.

Day 1 ended with a panel of journalists who shared the challenges of covering the complex topic of water. Tony Davis (Arizona Daily Star), Deb Krol (Arizona Republic), and Alex Hager (KUNC) all emphasized their need for informed sources willing to talk on background as well as for attribution and their appreciation for the experts who have helped in this way. They expressed a common frustration with the growing reluctance of government officials to speak candidly and problems with Freedom of Information Act requests.

Governor Hobbs spoke on Day 2 about the importance of tackling the state’s water issues, including local groundwater management in rural areas and sharing the Colorado River among seven basin states. Efforts to move legislation on Rural Groundwater Areas, a customizable framework for working with the Department of Water Resources to address local problems, have met with resistance. However, “leaders have many shared values to tap into to find a solution that works,” she said. Hobbs also noted the recent agreement that will ensure Lake Mead and Lake Powell are stable for the next two years and the proposal by the Lower Basin states of a framework for a longer-term solution on the Colorado River. She expressed optimism that an agreement can be reached with the Upper Basin.

Governor Lewis also spoke on the proposal from the Lower Basin states in his luncheon keynote remarks. He raised the community’s objections to the proposed framework, which he characterized as contrary to the principle of equity. He stated that reductions would not be shared equitably, and mitigation of water reductions is not addressed in the proposal. Lewis stated that he will continue to engage in discussions and is working to resolve outstanding issues.

In her keynote, Kristen Johnson, ADWR Colorado River Programs Manager, gave a succinct but thorough update on the progress of negotiations on post-2026 operating rules for the Colorado River, which provided context for references by previous speakers. Reporting that negotiations continue, she emphasized that they are not renegotiating the Colorado River Compact. Johnson described the Lower Basin proposal as “a real paradigm shift.” Instead of looking at only Lake Mead, the proposed alternative would look at the whole system, including Upper Basin reservoirs. There would be 5 zones of reduction based on the percentage of total system capacity. The Lower Basin would take the most reductions. If the system falls into the Basin-wide Reduction Zone, the Upper Basin and Mexico would theoretically take some reductions. On the same day as the Lower Basin, the Upper Basin submitted its own proposal under which it would not take any reductions.

Day 2 contained much more than the Colorado River. In his keynote talk, Paul Brierley, CEO of the Arizona Department of Agriculture, called water quantity “the existential threat in Arizona.” He spoke of studies that demonstrate the importance and water efficiency of Arizona’s agriculture, including the production of alfalfa. Referring to the many partnerships that sustain and improve agricultural productivity, Brierly reiterated the conference theme of working with partners to achieve common goals. Examples in agriculture described during the conference include research on methods of reducing soil salinity, developing better measurements of evapotranspiration, improving irrigation efficiency, and predicting drought made possible through partnerships.

Urban water conservation programs need the cooperation of customers, and stakeholder engagement is a key component. Arizona Water Company implemented several conservation programs in the communities they serve. As an example, the success of one program was attributed to collaboration with leaders in the community; they knew what would inspire conservation. The City of Phoenix is saving water through a unique cooling tower retrofitting program that relies on voluntary participation, and SRP offers Waterfluence, a free tool to conserve water for commercial and public landscapes.

Strategies to augment traditional water supplies also had proponents at the conference. In addition to rainwater capture, Advanced Water Purification (AWP) is gaining traction. AWP is the treatment of wastewater to drinking water standards without an environmental buffer such as a reservoir or aquifer. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) gave an update on the AWP regulatory process. As an agency responsible for protecting public and ecosystem health and safety, ADEQ must have a permitting process in place before AWP can be implemented across the state. Over the past year, ADEQ has convened a technical advisory group of experts, held stakeholder meetings, and surveyed more than 1,000 people to develop their permitting requirements.

The implementation of all these water solutions and others requires funding, and several organizations exist to provide or facilitate funding, including the Water Infrastructure Finance Authority of Arizona, Arizona Cross-Watershed Network, the North American Development Bank, which operates in the US-Mexico border region, and the Interstate Stream Commission, Arizona Water Settlements Act Program in New Mexico. Speakers emphasized the value of making connections, partnering, and engaging stakeholders on projects.

The conference ended with a taste of what to expect next year when the WRRC plans to take cross-border cooperation as a theme. Cooperation was the hallmark of successful restoration efforts on the Colorado River Delta and assessments of shared aquifers on the US-Mexico border.

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