Sustainability: City Water Interdependency

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Associate professor Ben Ruddell of Arizona State University’s Polytechnic School wrote a paper detailing the water interdependency of cities in the Phoenix Metro area and the need for Valley cities to work together as water supplies possibly run short. Ruddell will tell us more about his report.

TED SIMONS: Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon," a new report shows why valley cities need to cooperate to maintain water supplies. We'll learn about efforts to ensure proper emergency preparedness, and we'll check out some winners of Arizona forward's environmental excellence awards. Those stories next on "Arizona Horizon."

VIDEO: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the friends of eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

TED SIMONS: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio lost a bid today to disqualify the federal judge who is presiding over a racial-profiling case against the sheriff's department. Arpaio wanted judge Murray Snow disqualified because of an alleged conflict of interest. The 9th circuit court of appeals also today denied the sheriff's request to postpone his contempt of court hearings set for next week. And the superintendent of public instruction Diane Douglas did not attend a state board of education meeting today. Douglas says she didn't show because the board's president has turned the meeting into quote spectacles, and is, quote, unable to control his temper at any disagreement. Today's meeting included a unanimous vote to pursue any necessary legal action against Douglas to keep her from interfering with how board employees do their jobs.

TED SIMONS: Tonight's edition of Arizona sustainability looks at a new report on the need for Arizona communities to work together to protect water supplies, especially in times of drought and looming water shortages. Ben Ruddell, of ASU's polytechnic school, wrote the research paper. He joins us now. Welcome to "Arizona Horizon."

BEN RUDDELL: Thanks for having me, Ted.

TED SIMONS: What did your report look at?

BEN RUDDELL: We just finished mapping the water footprint for the United States. What this tells us is the direct and indirect water use for every person and business in the United States. So, your direct water use would be like when you take a shower in the morning. Indirect would be when you buy almonds from California, for example. And it's those indirect connections that are the really interesting and important ones. For example, because we now know what your exposure is to the California drought. But the big part of the story is actually the local connections, our strongest hidden connections in that water footprint are between one local city and community and another.

TED SIMONS: That's interesting. In other words, along with mapping the footprint, you're kind of mapping the virtual trade of all of these communities. Is that accurate?

BEN RUDDELL: That's right. It's called virtual water, and that is your outsourced water use. It's real water that someone used on your behalf somewhere else. So you paid them to do it. And that also creates an impact on those water supplies in a distant location.

TED SIMONS: You are talking about how people have to communicate and cooperate and the whole nine yards. The report, what did you find as far as that cooperation and what still needs to be done?

BEN RUDDELL: Right. So, every time we do business with each other, we're actually sharing and trading in this virtual water. We create connections when we do these transactions. Some of the most important transactions in terms of water are the ones that use the most water. Around here, in southwestern United States regions, those are your residential homes and the labor that you and I bring to the office with us. That's supported by our bedroom communities. Also food, so, if you like eating locally-produced food from Arizona, or Yuma lettuce or something, you are using water. These create strong connections. It turns out that those bedroom communities and those farming communities on the periphery of the Phoenix Metro send more of this virtual water into town, into those core communities, than the core communities send back out. So, there is a net dependency and there is a net shifting of the water resources.

TED SIMONS: Does that suggest that some of these communities -- are not necessarily a bad thing --

BEN RUDDELL: Not only are they not a bad thing, but if you live in Phoenix or Scottsdale or you run a business in these core communities, even though you are in an old, established community that has really abundant water rights, senior water rights, might be insulated from a drought, you are actually dependent on the newer fringe communities. And if they suffer impacts from a drought, from water supply shortage, you are going to feel it through your economic supply change. There is a vulnerability there.

TED SIMONS: And also, I guess when you talk about Yuma and California, when they get hit, you get hit.

BEN RUDDELL: That's right. It's a threat to sustainability.

TED SIMONS: If California winds up having to use more water, it sounds like it is a California problem, but what you're saying, it eventually becomes a me problem.

BEN RUDDELL: When you can't get your almonds or when your business, grocery business has a problem with the supply chain.

TED SIMONS: So, it sounds like cooperation is needed among municipalities, states, regions, whatever. When you talk about cooperation, what are we talking about?

BEN RUDDELL: Good question. So, I can't suggest a specific political solution. We do have a water rights system in Arizona. And that establishes a system of seniorities. Many of the wealthier and larger communities have more senior water rights. So, what needs to happen is for there to be a consideration of these connections to make sure that the fringe communities have the water that they need and that we don't forget about our dependencies on each other during drought. We do need to work together and that may involve sharing water or coming up with different types of policies.

TED SIMONS: Dynamic, a city has a need and yet a city also should try to prop up or at least support its neighbor, how does that formula work?

BEN RUDDELL: It is a tough question. What I can say is that in a time of drought, these questions are going to come to the forefront. And we want to be thinking about them now so that we have a strategy in place. Otherwise, these will become election issues and there is going to be a lot of contentious conversations between the core communities and the fringe communities.

TED SIMONS: It would sounds like diversifying the water change would be a pretty good idea. Is it a good idea, A? And, B., if it is, how do you do it?

BEN RUDDELL: The first thing starts with awareness. We need to be aware of the indirect connections and vulnerabilities, map them and how they affect our communities and businesses. That is the beginning of better policies and strategies that would allow us to diversify, perhaps to source the water to more different locations and insulate ourselves from drought.

TED SIMONS: As far as people coming to the report, curious about it, municipal leaders, they're curious about it, what do you want folks to take from this?

BEN RUDDELL: I think the spirit of cooperation and need to have conversations about our shared dependencies is the important take-home point. We should have those conversations now before it becomes a crisis or starts to impact our communities economically.

TED SIMONS: Do you sense there is not enough cooperation right now?

BEN RUDDELL: I don't know. I think that the community leaders I'm familiar with understand these issues, and I think that we just need to move that conversation a little further down the path.

TED SIMONS: One last thing, this is part of a study on urban ecology, Phoenix area -- talk to us about the overarching study.

BEN RUDDELL: Long term ecological research -- one of several in the nation. Other big urban study is in Baltimore. The focus of that research is to understand how social issues, policy, economics and all of the issues of sustainability work together to cause our socioeconomic ecosystem to function.

TED SIMONS: So there is a little butterfly effect because you think you are sitting pretty because you are getting all of the water you need. Some place relatively close by isn't, still going to affect you.

BEN RUDDELL: That's correct.

TED SIMONS: Good to have you here. Thank you for joining us.

BEN RUDDELL: Thank you very much.

Ben Ruddell: Associate professor of Arizona State University's Polytechnic School

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