Conference Speakers Address “Closing the Gap Between Water Supply and Demand”

Spring 2014 Newsletter

by Lucero Radonic, WRRC Graduate Outreach Assistant

On April 8, 2014, over 350 people from 49 Arizona communities gathered at the University of Arizona Student Union Memorial Center for the Water Resources Research Center annual conference. Thirty-five speakers from the private and public sectors presented on the gap between water supply and demand, and how to close it. A poster session showcased research and initiatives relating to conference issues and provided an opportunity to celebrate the WRRC’s 50th anniversary.

The conversation began with a broad perspective focused on the Colorado River Basin (see Next Steps, p. 6) and then zoomed in to analyze the history, challenges, and opportunities at the Arizona level.  The conference focused on finding solutions. Through a full day of discussion, presenters and attendees explored many options for closing the gap, including increased efficiency of water desalination and weather modification.

As speakers repeatedly pointed out, Arizona is not currently facing a water crisis, but leadership and cooperation between water sectors is needed now in order to ensure we do not find ourselves in a crisis fifty years down the road. The gap between supply and demand is a real challenge that needs to be addressed by bringing all water users to the table. As Rodney B. Lewis from the Gila River Indian Community explained, in the last two decades the configuration of the negotiating table has expanded to include important yet previously overlooked water sectors like those represented by Native American Tribes. Similarly, as Taylor Hawes from the Nature Conservancy and Kelly Mott-Lacroix from the WRRC illustrated, the environment may be finding a place at the table when decisions are made about water allocations.

The historical trajectory of water policy and engineering in the state were a constant referent during the conference. This is because, as Michael Lacey remarked early in the day, “our history is our future.” Arizona has a long, if at times contentious, history of investing in and developing its water supply  to continue living and growing in a desert environment.  In less than a century the population of the Southwest increased by approximately 1500 percent, as Kay Brothers, a consultant to the Southern Nevada Water Authority, pointed out. As a graph shown by Lacey illustrated, the population increased seven-fold between 1950 and 2010 in Arizona alone: from roughly 749,587 to 6.4 million people. Water consumption increased accordingly, until the 1980s. Since then, the state has managed to maintain a steady water consumption rate. Population growth is projected to continue in the decades to come, to more than 13 million people by 2060.

Projections show that a growing imbalance between supply and demand will develop over the next 25 years and beyond in Arizona and the Colorado River Basin more broadly. Jennifer McCloskey, Deputy Regional Director for the Lower Colorado Region of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation explained that the long-term average flow of the Colorado River at Lees Ferry, from the turn of the 20th century to the present, averages 14.7 MAF per year. From 2000-2013 water flow in the Colorado has been at 79 percent of normal. During this period the river has had an average flow of 12 MAF. As Brothers pointed out, this is equivalent to river flows during the dry period in the 1580s, with the difference that at that time not nearly as many people depended on the river. In Arizona, specifically, current water demand is 7.1 MAF, and according to the Arizona Department of Water Resources statewide demand is estimated to reach 9.1 MAF by 2060.  According to Lacey, this means that Arizona will see an imbalance between 242,900 and 1,269,700 acre-feet of water.

How can we deal with this gap? As Michael Fullton with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality stated: “We know there is not going to be any single solution to filling this gap in water supply. Closing that supply and demand gap is going to require us to look at a full menu of options that both might increase supply and reduce demand.” Several people throughout the conference stated that while conservation may be the first solution people use, it cannot be the only solution. It was argued that conservation and reuse alone are not enough commenters reinforced the concept that augmentation should be last on the list of options, while others emphasized the need to start augmentation projects now, just as planners for the Central Arizona Project had to put the gears in motion decades before it was realized.

Speakers agreed that Arizona has been at the forefront of water conservation for the last two decades. Tom Davis, General Manager of the Yuma County Water Users’ Association, emphasized that agricultural water use efficiency is high in Arizona, where irrigators minimize water costs. Bradley Hill, Utilities Director for the City of Flagstaff, presented the case of Flagstaff as a robust water conservation and reuse program. Since the adoption of its first water conservation ordinance in 1988, the city has adopted other ordinances encouraging low-impact development, water reuse, and gray water and rainwater harvesting. As a result, water use in the city decreased by 40 percent in twenty-five years: from 186 gallons per capita per day in 1989, to 111 in 2013.

Kathleen Ferris with the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association pointed out that Arizona’s remarkable success in municipal conservation is evident by the fact that while the population has increased by 152 percent since 1980, water use has increased by only 82 percent. While focusing on developing solutions to conserve water and decrease demand, Ferris emphasized the need for water policy-makers and planners to engage in conversations about smart growth. She argued that “growth should occur when water supplies and infrastructure exist to serve that purpose. We need more infill, to grow organically from our existing water distribution systems. We should stop believing that every acre of land has a right to grow houses.”

These and other voices questioned how much more water savings can be achieved in the future. Speaking for the regulated community, Margaret Gallogly, Director at Fennemore Craig P.C., noted that developers are happy to adopt water efficiency standards if they are proved to be effective. Joe Gysel, President of Epcor Water, USA, highlighted impediments faced by private water companies when implementing conservation practices. Energy producers are looking ahead to technologies for using less water, said Bruce Hallin, Director, Water Rights and Contracts, Salt River Project, but energy will be needed more than ever in all aspects of water production and use.

Other options considered for closing the gap included water transfers and waste water reuse. Nathan Bracken, Legal Counsel for the Western States Water Council, presented on the reallocation of water from agriculture to municipal uses. This is a controversial option for people who are concerned that agriculture is being perceived as a reservoir for future growth. Bracken noted some actions a state can take to facilitate transfers that benefit everyone involved, including support of innovative arrangements to protect agricultural communities. Tim Thomure, Water Reuse Practice Lead at HDR Engineering, presented another controversial option: direct potable reuse, which he maintains will be a solution in some areas. He cautioned, however, that “maximizing direct potable reuse is not the goal; the goal is the right water for the right use.”

The role of Indian tribes in water policy discussions was an important point brought up during the conference. Lewis explained that over the last decade, Arizona has started to acknowledge that tribes are entitled to water and that there are ways in which water can be allocated that do not harm existing users. Supply and demand studies are inherently faulty when the tribes are not participants, Lewis observed. As was pointed out by George Arthur, immediate past President of the Colorado River Water Users Association, this was the case with the Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, released by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in 2012. Reclamation and the Ten Tribes Partnership have since agreed to conduct the “Colorado River Basin Tribal Water Study.” As was remarked by Arthur and Jason John, Director of the Navajo Nation Water Management Branch, this is a step in the right direction, but there is still a long path ahead to increase collaboration and cooperation between tribal, state, and federal governments in regards to water governance.

These perspectives were reinforced at a special “Audience Voices” session during lunch, when other tribal representatives raised issues for consideration in any broad and inclusive discussion of water supply and demand.

The call for inclusiveness and cooperation arose again and again through the day as the means to  define and implement solutions. As Sandy Fabritz-Whitney, immediate past Director of ADWR, noted, the words “cooperation”, “collaboration” and “coordination” were mentioned numerous times and by almost all presenters. Examples of cooperative processes were presented as models for action. An illustrative example provided by Rick C. Lavis, Executive Vice President of the Arizona Cotton Growers Association, was the 1980 Groundwater Management Code. This hallmark legislation was referred to as a model for working together and compromising when necessary in order to address the state’s unique and specific needs. John Kmiec, Utilities Director for the Town of Marana, used the Tucson region as another example of how working together has helped to solve regional issues, such as groundwater declines, wastewater use, and water distribution. Similarly, Mott-Lacroix reported from a series of focus groups she held around the state that cooperation was on the top of people’s list of strategies for solving community water challenges.

As Sharon B. Megdal, Director of the WRRC, said in her closing remarks, all the ideas that were presented at the conference will continue to circulate across Arizona’s water community, and hopefully will go beyond as the number of interested citizens expands. She added, “we need to engage more people. We don’t want to leave things unfinished, leaving it to future generations. We need to get people excited about water without getting them alarmed. We don’t have a crisis, but we need to excite people into action before we do have a crisis.”