Water for Arizona’s Next 100 Years

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University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center Director Sharon Megdal and Grady Gammage of ASU’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy discuss issues related to Arizona’s water future. These topics will be explored at a January 24th statewide water conference titled “Urbanization, Uncertainty and Water” at the UA in Tucson.

Ted Simons: Developing water resources was critical to Arizona's first 100 years of statehood. Continuing to meet Arizona's growing demand for water will be a major challenge as we enter the state's second century. Arizona's water future is a topic of a conference taking place next week at the University of Arizona. It's called Urbanization, Uncertainty, and Water: Planning for Arizona's Next 100 Years." Joining me now are co-organizers of the event, Dr. Sharon Megdal, director of the U of A water resources research center, and Grady Gammage Jr., a senior research fellow at ASU's Morrison Institute for public policy. Good to see you both again. Thanks for joining us. The title, explain what this conference is looking at.

Sharon Megdal: Well, some people may not realize that Arizona, despite its vast geography is highly urbanized and continues to be more urbanized. People are living in the centers, Phoenix, Tucson. We know we're going to continue to be an urbanized area. There's great uncertainty we're dealing with. So the idea was to try to focus on some of the big questions or challenges going forward. Such as how do we water the sun corridor, the subject of Grady's report. And other reports and efforts that are looking at how can we be smarter about our water management and so forth? And given our conference is in January, our state's birthday is February, we decided let's talk about the future for real.

Ted Simons: We talk about the sun corridor, we've had you on talking about this a number of times. Pretty down, Sierra Vista? Will we have enough water?

Grady Gammage Jr.: I tell you for purposes of this report we're focusing on only the three big counties, Maricopa, Pinal, and Pima. And I want people to get the report and look at it, because it does conclude that we have enough water to continue to sustain that population, but the real point I'm trying to get to is to get us to shift away from that question. To quit asking do, we have enough water. The right question is, what do we want to do with the water we have? Do we want to use it to support future growth? Do we want to sustain our existing lifestyle of grass and swimming pools? Do we want to use it for the natural environment? Do we want to use it to sustain agriculture? Do we want to use it for industry? We're coming up on a time when we have to begin facing choices about that.

Ted Simons: Yet I think it was your report that said current rates of consumption would top out at about 9.5 some-odd million folks. So, I think there is a little bit of a -- are people just getting a little hysterical?

Grady Gammage Jr.: I do conclude that somewhere in the 9 million range is probably a supportable population. And that's way higher than where we are right now. But there's some real trade-offs. To do that means no more farming. And there's some down sides to that. Some significant down sides we need to think about. It also means that when you get there, you've sort of hit the wall. That's kind of the end. And you need to stop. That's a very difficult thing to do. So I think we need to start thinking more carefully about these management choices going into the future.

Ted Simons: How do we think about those choices? When we don't really have a, well it doesn't seem we have too firm of a grasp on future demands. It seems as though future demands, there could be a lot of changing of the goalposts here.

Sharon Megdal: Well, in a way, yes. I like to frame the question or the answer to the question of, do we have enough water, the question often is, do we have the water where we want it, when we want it for the purpose we want it? And I think we're at a point here where we've grown into some of the known supplies, we're just about fully utilizing our central Arizona project waters. So it is about choices. It's about looking at our options, how do we meet the demands, what changes do we make now? It may be, yes, do you have a swimming pool or not, but maybe you can serve by taking a shorter shower or maybe you do rain water harvesting, or maybe you put a gray water system in where you're matching the quality of the water with the need. You use it outdoors. So there are lots of choices, lots of trade-offs. So that's what I like to pose is, how do we work to look at these options, weigh them, and make some choices, recognizing that we're working with an existing legal structure that really does affect our options in front of us today.

Ted Simons: The idea of, again, the future demands, not necessarily knowing what those demands could possibly be, but have a general idea of them. I find it fascinating because it seems as though when you talk about growth, it's out there. It's -- you really don't know what's going to happen, do you?

Gary Gammage Jr.: Well, we particularly now we don't know. Back when we were growing fast, we all believed that we continued growing fast. We're not growing anymore. I think most of us believe growth will start up again, that it won't be like it was in the 2005-06 range, but it will return. So there's all kinds of variables and unknowns. But for purposes of this report, we used some updated population projections that were done by the U of A, looking at that 9 million person range we might hit somewhere around 2030, 2035. I think that's a fairly accepted horizon to use a word that you like. Out there in that 2030-2035 frame where we really will not have the flexibility that we have today. So between now and then is kind of when we have to figure out what we're doing.

Sharon Megdal: You know, like economic forecasts, most forecasts are wrong. We do know demand is going up, we do know that growth will return to Arizona. We do know more people require more energy, more water requires more energy, more energy requires more water. We know these things. And so I think the water planners don't get overly hung up on, is this projection absolutely right? But we need to be prepared for when the future demand is there. And we have to start planning now.

Ted Simons: As someone who has had many programs on climate change and drought, how does a continuing drought factor into all of this?

Sharon Megdal: Well, the issues of drought and reduced flows on the Colorado river are a big issue. The need or the demand going up when it's dry or hot and so forth. These are all problems that go into the scenario planning that utilities are doing. So fundamentally the utilities who are the ones really responsible for making sure that water comes out of the faucet, and it's clean, they're doing instead of point planning this, is our future, they're doing scenario planning and they're trying to plan kind of for alternative future and look at those robust kinds of approaches. So one example is our water banking. We have a vast program where we've stored water underground because we know there will be shortages. We're trying not to be surprised and prepare as best we can.

Gary Gammage Jr.: One of the points I try to make with people from other parts of the country who don't understand Arizona, and there are lots of reports talking about Arizona is the most challenged place there is for climate change is, Arizona's different than a lot of the country because we know we have a highly variable water supply. Desert washes, flood, they dry out. They flood again, dry up again. We've built a system to take care of that sort of normal fluctuation. That is much more flexible than most urban areas in the United States. In terms of their water supply. The dilemma for us is the amplitude of that variability is going to get greater. So we have to increase our capacity because of climate change and other things. But we don't know how much.

Ted Simons: Are we doing enough right now, do you think because you don't know how much, but are we doing enough to store groundwater?

Gary Gammage Jr.: We're doing more than virtually anywhere else on the planet by way of storing groundwater, but it's because we've had enough extra water to do it. It's not because we made a concerted decision, this is how much we should store. The question is not unlike how much money should you save for the future. Are you going to lose your job? What's going to happen? Do you have enough money in savings to cover it? The answer is it all depends. What assumptions do you want to make? How much do you want to have in the bank?

Ted Simons: And that goes back to one of my earlier questions about moving the goalposts. It does all depend so you must have a pretty wide ranging set of scenarios.

Sharon Megdal: And people do. What's interesting, in Phoenix, in Tucson both, it may be for some of the other communities, they've seen demand going down for reasons that they can't explain. You know if you raise prices some, rates some, demand will usually go down. Or weather causes fluctuation in demand. But they've seen shifts in demand they can't explain. It's been in the downward direction, which is good as opposed to the upward direction. And so people are trying to understand what is causing the shifts in behavior? Is it because people are worried about climate change? It is because their children are getting better educated on in terms of water conservation? And bringing that home? We don't know everything. But we do know we have to plan for the future. Which is what the focus of our conference is about.

Ted Simons: Are we right now at this moment in a water crisis?

Gary Gammage Jr.: No.

Ted Simons: Do you foresee a water crisis in the near future?

Gary Gammage Jr.: No. I don't think so. I don't think -- near future means the next five years, I don't think so. No.

Ted Simons: What do you think?

Sharon Megdal: I agree with that. I think our challenge is longer term and that we have to recognize that we are water scarce area, water isn't always where the people want to be and so forth, and if they want the dictum to hold true that water will run uphill to money, that you can solve the problem with technology, transmission, and those things, that water is going to become more costly over time.

Ted Simons: With that said, are we -- with no crisis now, are we staying ahead of the curve? Are we ahead of the game here?

Sharon Megdal: I would say generally we are. But we have work to do and we should not have our heads in the sand regarding that.

Ted Simons: Especially when it starts flooding, that's going to be very dangerous. Are we ahead of the curve?

Gary Gammage Jr.: I think we are. But not by much. We're not as far ahead of the curve as we used to be. And we're not as far ahead of the curve as a lot of people in the water business want to believe we are.

Ted Simons: Why the disconnect?

Gary Gammage Jr.: That's one of the conclusions in my report. A couple reasons. One is, I think we have underestimated what I would call urban demand. We've tended to use that statistic that you and I have talked about before, GPCD as a proxy for how much urban Arizona uses. One of the conclusions of the report is. it's not really right. There are significant urban type uses beyond GPCD. One issue is we've done a lot of planning without making explicit assumptions about climate change. I don't think we can do that anymore. The report suggests 15% reduction in the water supply. I don't know if that's right, I chose that for particular reasons, but I think we have to start build some kind of assumption for that. And I think we have been a little too cavalier about our belief that we have plenty of water because we still use so much of it for agriculture. We just quit farming, we move it to cities. There is some real down sides to continuing to do that as we get closer to the margin of how much we have.

Ted Simons: We've got about a minute left. What are you hoping to get out of this workshop?

Sharon Megdal: Well, what I'm hoping is that we have a meaningful dialogue that involves a number of different perspectives. And I think what's really important here is that we hear the perspectives of agriculture. Municipalities, industry, land managers, environmental interests. Because we have to be, as I said earlier, smarter about our water management and water use going forward.

Ted Simons: All right. Very good. Good to have you both here. Thanks for joining us.

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