14 April 2011

What's the Matter with Arizona?

OK, so we're not exactly on the same topic as What's the Matter with Kansas?, but I think I've borrowed a good title for this series of posts.  I worked on water information and issues in Arizona for a couple of years, and I've read up on many of the topics and projects under which Arizona's treatment and governance of water has been based, and I worked for and with some of the most knowledgeable people in the state while I was there.  But, with all respect due my teachers and colleagues, none of that was nearly enough to help me understand the responses of the governor and legislature of Arizona when the reality of an extended drought finally set in a couple of years ago.  When forecasts eventually surfaced from multiple sources over a couple of years regarding impending shortages on the Colorado River, it was essentially added some signal to the chaotic noise.  It's an interesting phenomenon when more information added to an overloaded system actually helps organize all the other lines of thought.

On second thought, maybe it is on a topic somewhat similar to the book about Kansas: the twisted pseudologic of politics seems ubiquitous these days, and has been for a while now, but the science remains in order...

Arizona is now in the twelfth year, or something close to that, of an extended drought period.  Scientists have said repeatedly that it's not the first such drought, and won't be the last.  The one certainty is that the drought is ongoing, no matter how may years of it have passed already.  Over that time the state has seen water rationing, perpetually dry riverbeds, extensive groundwater mining, and massive forest wildfires.  The state has also seen marginally wet years, but one year of above-average rainfall in a sub-basin or above-average streamflow in the Colorado River does not break a long-term drought (California's perspective notwithstanding).  Faced with shortages of water on the River and its tributaries running through Arizona, but a surfeit of insulated politicians in Phoenix, Arizona's leadership and legislators chose one sure path open to them: retreat.

from the Arizona Water Map, UA WRRC
It's a long story, one that I started writing quite a while ago just after I moved to Arizona and continued later, that I pick up again now and look into the foreseeable future thanks to the federal government's policies on the Colorado River.  I'm going to try to cover it in bite-sized segments here, for your ease of reading; I know that I get long-winded at times.  I touched on a few aspects of Arizona's situation in my rant of December 2010 and in a follow-on piece to that.  I am currently reviewing the paper on which the press release by ASU, which prompted my criticism, was based.  That will come into the discussion soon enough.  It may be sufficient right here to declare that Arizona's plumbing, to turn the phrase, is nothing short of a complex system.  There is a great deal of understanding of this system at the academic level, but little of it has been translated effectively to policy at the level of state institutions and management agencies.  And yet, the responsibility for assurance of water supply and sustainability falls squarely on the shoulders of state officials, who so often resent and rebuff federal "meddling" in the workings of the Colorado River Basin at large, let alone the policies of individual member states and their regulatory free will.  The problem with free will among multiple institutions, and especially in relation to natural processes, is that it must be exercised in coordination, or unintended consequences and disastrous results may follow.  To wit, the precautionary principle underlies all of human motivation and action on global climate change, so why should it not apply for natural resource planning on the scale of individual states and river basins?

In late August of 2009, I had the pleasure to attend an Arizona Investment Council (AIC) Conference on "Meeting Arizona's Water Needs Today and Tomorrow" in Tucson.  It was on a morning earlier in the same week that Arizona Water Resources Research Center (WRRC) Director Sharon Megdal had an op-ed piece printed in the Arizona Republic, the state's largest newspaper.  Her piece was the talk of the conference, timed as it was and given the title: "Concise vision needed for water."  Dr. Megdal was present, as were many from the University of Arizona and the Tucson professional (i.e. government and engineering) water community.  Presentations and discussion panels were led by the Directors of the state Departments of Water Resources (ADWR) and Environmental Quality (ADEQ) and the Chairperson of the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC).  The Central Arizona Project (CAP) was well-represented, as was the academic and professional water community from the Phoenix area.  My attendance was supported directly by Dr. Megdal's projects and the larger Water Sustainability Program at the UA, to whom I owe a huge debt of gratitude for support throughout my work in Arizona.

Dr. Megdal's op-ed was a provocative and imaginative call to leaders to climb out the state's then-current mood of apathy and denial:
"I am often called upon to educate audiences on Arizona water management.  In my presentations, I include my 'Issues and Challenges' slide.  I've recently added a graphic of a water glass that might either be half-full or half-empty.  Contributing to the impression it is half-full are the many positive aspects to our water-management framework in Arizona, particularly our groundwater management in the Active Management Areas.
"Notable achievements half-filling the glass include our assured and adequate water supply program, our water-recharge and -banking programs, and our reliance on local groups to consider drought and watershed based water supply-and-quality matters.
"I am concerned, however, about our lack of a comprehensive vision, a deficiency that reflects both lack of a mandate for a statewide water plan and the limited resources to support coordinated water planning efforts.
"When I hear of water users from different parts of the state speak hopefully about Colorado River water as part of their future water supplies, I wonder if the groups know of each other.  Not only is the state's Colorado River water allotment almost fully allocated but the infrastructure required to deliver water that might be secured could be very costly.
"Predictions that the Southwest will become drier and warmer have raised many questions, particularly about Colorado River flow assumptions.  I think it would be wise to take a statewide look to seek possibilities for economies associated with infrastructure investment, as well as possible conflicts in plans.
"Looked at another way, the glass is half empty.  Contributing to the half-empty impression is my list of items requiring continuing attention: growth and the need for additional supplies; drought and climate variability; and water quality, to name a few.
"Faced with my longer list, one might be tempted to give way to despondency and despair. Yet that would be premature because capable water professionals and officials recognize these troublesome issues and are working diligently to address them.  The critical question is whether we are doing enough.  I think we can do more as a state to plan for our future and involve a broad spectrum of people.
"With growth temporarily slowed, now is the ideal time to assess where we are and what we need to be doing to prepare for the future, even in the face of many uncertainties and challenges.  It is high time we assemble the resources and work together on a statewide water plan."
Coming near the end of a long and dry summer, in the midst of another fizzled monsoon season, hopes were high for some centralized response from the new Governor's administration and the Legislature in Phoenix.  It was simply not to become the material response that we advocates were looking for.

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