Sustainability: Water and Growth

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Arizona Municipal Water Users Association Executive Director Kathleen Ferris will discuss why groundwater cannot sustain Arizona’s growth. She will talk about why the state needs to limit new wells, curb groundwater use for new residential subdivisions, and promote smart growth on land with access to renewable water supplies.

Ted Simons: In our continuing look at sustainability, we focus tonight on Arizona's groundwater supplies. Joining us to talk about groundwater preservation ideas is Kathleen Ferris, executive director of the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association. Good to have you here.

Kathleen Ferris: Thank you for inviting me.

Ted Simons: Groundwater can't sustain Arizona growth.

Kathleen Ferris: Absolutely not.

Ted Simons: Interesting. Talk to me more.

Kathleen Ferris: So in 1980 , landmark law, groundwater management act, we did it because we were mining our groundwater supplies at alarming rates. Groundwater is a finite supply. It is not renewable. What we have to do is use that as a savings account not on growth dependent on water day in and day out.

Ted Simons: I was going to ask about that. The 100-year assured water plan, supposed to make sure that you can build it but you have to find it and it has to be there for -- is that not working?

Kathleen Ferris: No, it is working fabulously. The problem is as we grow more, there will be more and more pressure to find new water supplies to sustain that growth. And the choice is not to go back on pumping groundwater, the choice is to find other renewable water supplies, build infrastructure and to drive growth to where the renewable water supplies are.

Ted Simons: What are we seeing as far as new wells right now? Is it going crazy out there?

Kathleen Ferris: Most of them are in California drilling -- most of the well drillers are in central California drilling wells. The reason it is not going crazy here is because we have the groundwater management act. New wells are highly regulated, but what we have -- the bigger problem is that we have people that have rights that predated the groundwater code or have new permits to withdraw groundwater, and they get to withdraw groundwater and they don't have to replenish it or any way transfer to renewable water supplies.

Ted Simons: Some home building in Chino valley concern for folks regarding the Verde river and reservoirs there. Talk to us about that.

Kathleen Ferris: That is a real difficult situation. The Prescott area needs imported water in order to not -- in order to achieve the goals of the groundwater code, which is safe-wield, no more water is pumped out than is replenished annually. They're allowed under state law to pump groundwater in a different basin and transport it -the problem is the groundwater is connected to the base flow of the Verde river, and the Verde river, as you know, supplies water to the Salt River Project and eventually to member cities, Arizona municipal water users cities.

Ted Simons: You talk about the fact some of this is grandfathered in. How deep in the weeds do you get with some of these things? Drilling here, you're worried about there.

Kathleen Ferris: Here is the thing. The groundwater code started where we were. And then -- and grandfathered in users and tried to move forward prospectively. We were overdrafting our groundwater supplies in the central Arizona area by 2.5 million acre feet when the groundwater code was passed. That is enough water to serve like -- well, tons of people. It is ridiculous amount of water. Acre foot will serve 2 1/2 households. Today our overdraft is 178,000 acre feet. That shows you how successful we have been. We have been phenomenally successful. But there are pressures. There are pressures because all of those residual pumpers are going to continue to pump and the department of water resources projects that we will be in overdraft by about 200,000 acre feet by 2025. That is enough water to serve 1,000 people.

Ted Simons: What is the answer for this? What -- in terms of management, in terms of finding new water sources?

Kathleen Ferris: The answers in my mind are this. First of all we have to put limits on where new wells can be drilled. We have to stop people from being able to drill wells that impact water supplies stored underground by other users. We have a law that allows you to store excess -- treated wastewater underground, and that is a great thing, but the law also allows the person who stored that underground to go somewhere else to pump it. So, there is this disconnect between where the water is stored and where it is pumped, and this will eventually exacerbate our groundwater problems. We have to close that disconnect. We have to push people to withdraw the water where they store it. We've also got to in advance of growth find renewable water supplies and build the infrastructure to bring it where it is needed.

Ted Simons: Describe renewable water supplies.

Kathleen Ferris: Renewable water supplies are surface water supplies, and treated wastewater. Believe it or not. Which is becoming a huge source of water.

Ted Simons: I know that this is necessary -- doesn't necessarily deal with what you are talking about. Sierra Vista -- everyone wants to keep the San Pedro river as it is. But you have a development down there and a judge kind of threw a monkey wrench into everything saying, yeah, groundwater is one thing, but you can't mess up the river, too. What was that all about?

Kathleen Ferris: Here is what it is about. There is something called the general stream of -- determine when you can pump groundwater and when that affects stream flow. It has never been resolved. The department of water resources issued a permit, certificate of insured water supply to this development to pump groundwater. The Federal Government and San Pedro area have a reserved right under federal law to surface water. The question is will that pumping affect that reserved right? The judge said we don't like what the department did. We feel like this reserved right needs to be protected, and we don't want to see land owners 20 years down the road not having any water.

Ted Simons: Right, right. Last question here, is there the political will to address this issue and to say no when people want to continue or add wells?

Kathleen Ferris: There has to be. Absolutely has to be. Our economic prosperity depends on the -- keeping the groundwater code in place. And managing our water supplies for the future. And we have done such a good job. We would be so foolish if we -- if we changed what we have. We have to enhance it, make it better.

Ted Simons: All right. Great information. Good stuff. Thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate it.

Kathleen Ferris: You're welcome. Thank you.

Kathleen Ferris:Executive Director, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association;

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