Water Sustainability

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As Arizona faces a growing demand for water and looming water shortages, a panel of experts contemplates how to stretch and manage Arizona’s water supplies through conservation, water recycling and reuse, and changes to Arizona’s water laws and policies. Guests include: Sharon Megdal, Director of the UA Water Resources Research Center; water attorney Rita Maguire; and Tom McCann of the Central Arizona Project.
Related Links:
Arizona Department of Water Resources
UA Water Resources Research Center
Governor’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Water Sustainability
Central Arizona Project

Ted Simons: Good evening, and welcome to "Horizon," I'm Ted Simons. Tonight we take look at the long-term sustainability of Arizona's water supplies. The state has some of the strongest water conservation laws in the nation, but experts agree our current laws don't go far enough to protect Arizona's water and ensure we have enough to meet our future needs. The Governor's Blue Ribbon Water Sustainability Panel was formed. It includes about 40 stakeholders on Arizona's water future. The goal is to recycle, reuse and conserve. The panel is co-chaired by the director of the State Department of Water Resource, chair of the Arizona Corporation Commission, and Arizona Department of Environmental Quality director Ben Grumbles, who used to be in charge of national water program for the EPA.

Ben Grumbles: I love the saying that there is no wastewater, just wasted water and wasted opportunities. Honestly, I think the solution is multilayered, but it's basically the three Rs. Not reading, writing and arithmetic, but reducing, reusing and restoring. Reducing waste, reusing water, really recycling that gray water and storm water, and restoring watersheds. It takes a combination of tools, collaboration, public acceptance. The key to sustainability is working those three Rs and bringing the public along and making sure the public truly accepts the value of water and understands it.

Ted Simons: Here to talk about water sustainability is our own panel of experts, Sharon Megdal, director of the University of Arizona's Water Resources Research Center, and a member of the Blue Ribbon Water Sustainability Panel. Rita Maguire a water law attorney and former director of Arizona's Department of Water Resources. And Tom McCann, an assistant G.M. of operations, planning and engineering for the Central Arizona Project. Good evening, thanks for joining us. Sharon, where do we get our water?

Sharon Megdal: We get our water from a number of sources, primarily groundwater for about 40% statewide, surface water for the rest, either along the Colorado River, through the Central Arizona Project from the Colorado River into Central Arizona Project, from the Salt and Verde Rivers and other rivers, and a tiny bit is treated wastewater.

Ted Simons: What is being done to ensure that water stays there? A lot of people think we're running out of water in Arizona.

Rita Maguire: No, that's not correct at all. In fact, we're incredibly blessed. We have huge supplies of groundwater in the aquifers beneath us and substantial rights on the Colorado River and the Salt and Verde systems also provide quite a bit of water. Arizona is very fortunate among 4 the states in the Southwest.

Ted Simons: If people are saying that water rationing, these sorts of things, that's got to be in Arizona's future, you say not necessarily?

Tom McCann: Someday, but not soon. Even if it is soon it won't be felt by your average homeowner. We get 2.8 million acre feet of water off the Colorado River. Our reservoirs from the river are still more than half full. A lot of people point at that and say things are bad. We look at it that they are doing their job, we're in good shape, we're prepared for a shortage if it comes. Today if we had a shortage the primary impact would be to our underground storage, or recharge banking we do every year. It's not going to affect homes in Central Arizona at all at this point.

Ted Simons: The status of the water is strong.

Tom McCann: It is.

Ted Simons: Status of groundwater in Arizona: Strong?

Sharon Megdal: I think it depends on where you're talking about. In many cases we don't know how much there is. One of the things we need to work on is making sure we quantify resources in different parts of the state. In other parts it may be plentiful but the purpose of the Groundwater Management Act is to ensure that we don't overdraft it and don't overuse it, and that we're on a sustainable water supply for the future. So we're not out of the woods, in terms of having sustainable water practices yet. But our law is enforced, trying to get us there. In other areas of the state we still have work to do.

Ted Simons: Do you see that, as well, that different parts of the state have different concerns? To that end, the groundwater management law deals with certain aspects of the state. The impact of those laws, good for Arizona?

Rita Maguire: Good. It is important to talk about the places where there are very stringent regulations with respect to access to groundwater and those are in active management areas. 80% of the state's population lives in those active management areas. Having the Groundwater Management Act in place in those highly populated areas is a very smart thing to do. In rural Arizona we have two problems. One, limited regulation of groundwater. Two, we don't have a lot of data about the groundwater basins. We need to know more about the water supply, the quality of that water supply and building the infrastructure to deliver it.

Ted Simons: Are Wildcat wells still a concern in those areas?

Rita Maguire: Absolutely. They are prolific around the state. Yavapai County, one third of the water provided comes from exempt wells. That's code talk for being totally unregulated. They are located near the Verde River. They have a very real effect on the flows of the Verde River system.

Ted Simons: We go through cycles, I guess, 20- to 30-year wet cycle to dry cycle. We're obviously in a dry cycle right now. How much does weather forecasting come into play?

Tom McCann: Not so much weather forecasting, but certainly looking ahead to climate changes everybody wants to talk about. We're looking at a broader range of future alternatives. We're looking at what happens if what they say is true and the flow of the river declines, or what happens if it's not true. We need to be right either way, and I think we are. We have been storing water underground for many years, we're well prepares to recover that water in time of shortage, and we're looking at new supplies, too.

Ted Simons: The concept of bad weather, whether by nature or other aspects, Arizona ready for this?

Sharon Megdal: As a current point, we are. We have done great planning for shortages, we have an organization, there is a banking authority that's been storing billions of acre feet underground for an eventuality. As people think about our planning, we have plentiful supplies for the people here. But we're still going and it's at that increment, that edge of where are we going to get the supplies to meet growing demands? That's where our challenge really is.

Ted Simons: More on that in a second. Reusing and conserving is what Global Water is all about. It's a private water company that owns about 16 water treatment and distribution facilities across the state. Producer David Majure and Scot Olson, photographer, show us.

Trevor Hill: Growth and certainty of declining water supplies will eventually come to a crisis here. I'm trying to get ahead of that.

David Majure: Trevor Hill is president and CEO of global Water, a leader in reusing wastewater. In the town of Maricopa it recycles about a third of the groundwater people use in their homes each year. Wastewater is collected and treated to a very high quality. Then in purple pipes it's returned to common areas of the town for limited outside uses.

Trevor Hill: All of the grass, school grounds, boulevards and things that make the community nice to live in and green, they are all supplied with recycled water.

David Majure: About 700,000 gallons are recycled each year and some is pumped back into the ground.

Trevor Hill: The next step is to take it all the way to the home. So all your outside uses in your home, car washing and things of that nature, are all picked up by recycled water. Beyond that we can flush toilets and urinals with recycled water like in this building.

David Majure: Here in the industry, the technical answer is we're very close to drinking water standard for treated effluent.

Trevor Hill: The public perception is that we're a long, long way away. My theory has been if you do the planning early enough and get as many non-potable uses tied to recycled as possible, you don't have to make the bridge to drinking recycled water any time in our lifetime.

David Majure: Hill wants lawmakers to issue a mandate.

Trevor Hill: Put the infrastructure in at the beginning to distribute recycled water.

David Majure: Where practical, he thinks new development should be required to install those purple pipes needed to deliver wastewater that's been treated. It can cut potable water use as much as 50%.

Trevor Hill: Because we're not in an absolutely knock-down crisis today, there isn't the political will to make the tough decisions. A little bit more today for some thoughtful planning or three or four times as much when you're in crisis mode. And that day is probably within the decade, in my opinion.

Ted Simons: Sharon, what do you make of what we just saw? Do you agree with that?

Sharon Megdal: Well, in part. I think it's important that people recognize that treated wastewater, reclaimed water is a supply that's available to us, it's being produced every day and it should be used wisely. Trevor hill talks about how it can be used, and Ben Grumbles talks about that. It's our next obvious supply. We're fully allocated with our Salt River Project water. This is our future supply. But an important aspect that Trevor touched on is let's match the quality of the water with the need. Let's not use high-quality potable water for outdoor watering, but maybe slightly lesser quality. I would agree with that quite strongly actually.

Ted Simons: Do you want to add to that?

Rita Maguire: There's a fun thing about effluent, it's the one water supply that grows with the population. 10 years ago cities couldn't give away their effluent. They were looking for ways to use the water supply. Just recently the City of Flagstaff substantially increased the cost of effluent to their customers, and that's a real reflection of the value of effluent today and the fact that it is a highly sought after commodity.

Ted Simons: Can we talk about technological advances in reusing water? Is that a science that is improving all the time?

Rita Maguire: Absolutely. In fact a few years ago Southern California tried to implement a program called toilet to tap. People weren't quite ready to buy into that concept. There are communities in New Mexico and Southern Arizona that are currently drinking basically highly treated effluent and you can do that. You can bring it to drinking water standards.

Tom McCann: In Orange County they take their treated effluent, store it underground, and recharge it and pump the groundwater up and deliver that. It's only one step away from direct potable reuse.

Ted Simons: One step away but still needs to be conserved, is what I'm hearing from you.

Sharon Megdal: We need to conserve water whatever water source it is we're using. With the treated wastewater, right now we don't have a plan to utilize it. We have to consider the full range of options. Clearly there's technology there for very high-quality treated wastewater. It's going to be more costly and it's a question of what water you use to do what. And I think we're going to see outdoor watering increasingly not supplied by potable water. It could be rainwater harvesting, individual gray water systems, a system supplying treated wastewater.

Ted Simons: Where does agriculture and environment fit into plans? David Majure and Scot Olson visited with a farmer to find out about treated water.

David Majure: Ron Rayner's family has farmed this farm in Goodyear since 1946.

Ron Rayner: On this farm virtually all of the water is groundwater from pumps.

David Majure: This pump, one of five on the farm, can throw about 3,000 gallons a minute. It fills ditches with water to irrigate fields of sorghum and wheat, alfalfa and cotton.

Ron Rayner: The water quality is not that great, high salinity and that rather restricts the crops we can grow. I would recall standing here looking at this pump and the amount of water coming out of it. I just couldn't understand, how could there be that much water down there. And essentially, would it run out.

David Majure: It never has.

Ron Rayner: Been doing this since 1946.

David Majure: To make sure it never will, the state passed the 1980 Groundwater Management Act. It established active management areas in the state where groundwater is regulated. The goal is to achieve safe yield by 2025, making sure groundwater is not used faster than it's replenished.

Ron Rayner: Under the Act we're restricted on how much water we can use on each acre of the farm.

Daivd Majure: Farmers have had to find more efficient uses of water. They line irrigation ditches with concrete, use lasers to level fields for a better distribution of water. Officials estimate farms consume about 70% of the state's water supply. Arizona's water resources are limited. For cities to grow they need water, and quite often that means taking farms out of production. Once converted to municipal uses, farmlands typically cannot be replaced.

Ron Rayner: There's a risk in having agriculture be the default supply for water in the state. And that is when you deal with food security.

David Majure: Rayner says farms provide other benefits. They are cool pockets of open space in an ever-expanding concrete jungle.

Ron Rayner: People need to remember, what's occurring in this leaf every day, I guess before I picked it, it's taking in carbon dioxide and creating oxygen. We have a lot of pollutants trapped in this valley. Maybe we're doing a service we're not even charging for.

David Majure: But they also require a lot of water, and Arizona has only so much to go around.

Ron Rayner: There's certainly a limit. In rancher terms, the state has a carrying capacity. Carrying capacity of the state, who knows what it is. In basic part, it's going to be how much somebody is willing to pay to bring water here. And that's what it amounts to.

David Majure: It amounts to finding new sources of water or stretching our current supplies. Wastewater appears to have a lot of potential. The 91st Avenue wastewater treatment plant in Phoenix pipes 57 gallons of water a day to Palo Verde to the nuclear power plant for coolant. Some is diverted into irrigation canals. Rayner uses some of this treated wastewater to irrigate land he owns west of his Goodyear farm.

Ron Rayner: We are reusing, reusing and reusing.

Julie Stromberg: Another interesting thing in the state, there are many sort of accidental restorations. Municipal effluent, one of the few water sources increasing as urban populations grow, in many areas the treated wastewater, the effluent, is discharged into waterways where it creates or sustains a riparian ecosystem.

David Majure: ASU ecologist Julie Stromberg says 100 miles of 35 waterways are effluent dependent.

Julie Stromberg: These ecosystems provide a lot of valuable intangible services. Recreation, aesthetics, bird-watching. The overall framework for water in the state, environmental flows often do get overlooked.

David Majure: Stromberg and other scientists are investigating how much is needed to sustain these systems. This area was intentionally restored using mostly groundwater. Similar results can be achieved with treated wastewater.

Julie Stromberg: There is a need to have environmental flow needs incorporated into statewide policy and planning, so it's at the table when people are thinking about water for consumption, for agriculture use, industrial use. We need to have a chair there for the environment, environmental flows.

Ted Simons: Rita, as far as the ecology and environment, as far as those concerns are concerned, are they often left off the table?

Rita Maguire: Historically they were. In the last decade or two we've gone a long way to including environmental issues in our discussions about water. There's a laundry list of programs and funds for environmental enhancement. So they are now being considered. But in a sense, just trying to retrofit. When you talk about surface water, most of that is fully allocated in Arizona. When you try to build in a source for environmental demands, you're trying to reallocate supplies and commit them to this restoration project. It's a good thing, but takes a lot of effort and money to make those arrangements happen.

Ted Simons: And don't we have accidental riparian areas out there, as well?

Tom McCann: We have one we deal with quite a bit in Mexico which is largely accidental wetland, now a terrific habitat for endangered fish and birds. It was created because of an agreement to bypass some salty water back in the Yuma area. We can't really stop delivering that water. We've got to find a solution to preserve that wetland, in order to be able to do the things we'd like with managing our water resources in the Yuma area.

Sharon Megdal: I'd like to offer that I think, while we've come a long way in recognizing the value of environmental enhancement projects and the importance of these accidental recharge areas, there fundamentally are no protections for the environment in our state groundwater law. I've been doing some work with Julie Stromberg and others helping to advise us, looking at bringing the environment to the table as a water-using customer, having it be a slice of the water use pie. So we also talk about environmental needs. It's hard to quantify, but we have examples where we have two things happening that together make for environmental protection. And that is the Salt and Verde watershed. That Salt River Project is very interested in preserving that water shed to serve water to Central Phoenix and those areas. There is a lot of work to be done. There are other states doing more to protect the environment more than Arizona is. We have to put that on the table.

Ted Simons: We saw the example of photosynthesis and the idea that agriculture doesn't just take a lot of water, it adds flexibility to the water supply.

Rita Maguire: Agriculture is a very important part of the water budget in this state. You can pay a farmer not to grow his crops in a year when drought is taking away available surface water supplies. He or she will do just fine, at least on a temporary basis. Then you can re-divert the water for municipal and industrial purposes. Agriculture provides some flex in the system. I think that's an important quality and it helps keep the mix of water sources much more flexible and demands change and as climate change.

Ted Simons: I would hate to leave without mentioning desalinization. Is it feasible?

Tom McCann: Certainly, the question is cost. There are different types of desalinization. -- Brackish or poor quality groundwater desal, it's a lot cheaper that ocean water desal. We have an abundant supply in the Phoenix area, the Southwest Valley and other parts of the state. That water can be treated to potable standards for roughly the same cost as it takes for moving water from the Colorado River to Central Arizona.

Ted Simons: Before we get going, a really quick response from all three of you. If there is a biggest concern or challenge for sustainable of water in Arizona, what is it?

Sharon Megdal: I would say that it's not overusing our aquifers. Our groundwater supplies in some areas are abundant, other areas are not. And we are overusing them in many areas of the state. I think we have to be very careful not to.

Ted Simons: What do you think?

Rita Maguire: I think Sharon's right, but I also would make the point that there's a tension between rural Arizona and Central Arizona. We are very good about managing our water supplies in central Arizona, but as rural Arizona knows, it, too, needs a water supply. Phoenix is an attractive place to live because other places in Arizona have water.

Tom McCann: I'd say not being complacent, just not believing there will always be enough water to meet demands. We have to do more on reuse and conservation.

Ted Simons: Great discussion, thanks for joining us, we appreciate it.

Sharon Megdal:Director, UA Water Resources Research Center;Rita Maguire:Attorney;Tom McCann:Central Arizona Project;

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