Growing Returns

The Colorado River is getting closer to tanking. Can we free ourselves from the long arc of depletion?

My mom on a houseboat and my dad reveling in the “glory days” of Lake Powell, May 1981.

“They would come to the river to see a reflection of their own liberated minds, running free and easy…In the midst of what had once been regarded as the bleakest scarcity they would find abundance.” —Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire

Lake Powell, our nation’s second-largest reservoir, dropped 40 feet in just the last year to a new record low, triggering an unprecedented set of emergency actions. The changes underway at Powell provide a striking illustration of how a new era of aridification in the West is pushing a river management culture steeped in assumptions of the past to the brink. It’s been a few years since I’ve visited Lake Powell, so two weeks ago I went back to see how it’s changed with my own eyes.

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As local movements for groundwater protection rise, will state leaders finally respond?

Across Arizona, the consequences of unlimited groundwater pumping are becoming untenable for many communities. In response, Arizona state Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, has introduced legislation, for the third year in a row, to enable rural communities to manage their groundwater through a new opt-in program called Rural Management Areas (RMAs).

Although the bill again did not receive a committee hearing, this year is very different from the past. Over the last several months, more residents and local stakeholders are becoming engaged and organized around water security and water self-determination, getting mobilized in local settings like town halls, community meetings, and even residents’ living rooms and porches. It has become clear that the people of rural Arizona no longer accept being ignored on water issues at the state level. Here are a few recent examples:

  • Residents in Cochise County, fed up with state inaction to address unfettered groundwater pumping, have submitted signatures for a ballot measure to ask voters to approve a new Active Management Area (AMA) in the Willcox Basin in a local election in November. They are now gathering signatures for a second AMA in the Douglas Basin.
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Arizona water is at a crossroads. Will the Legislature respond?

The Arizona Legislature opened this week with the state facing significant water insecurity. Water has climbed to one of the top three concerns of Arizona voters, who are getting engaged in water issues and will be watching the Legislature closely this session as an election year looms large.

EDF Action and our Water for Arizona Coalition partners are focusing on the following five priorities for this year’s legislative session to respond to residents’ concerns and help ensure water security for Arizona.

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The Grand Canyon Protection Act would advance water security and environmental justice at critical time

Climate change and drought are bringing home the urgent need to protect the Grand Canyon and secure clean water supplies for all communities in the Colorado River Basin. With the compounding threat of uranium mining, the stakes are high in the Grand Canyon — a global treasure, economic driver for Arizona, and place of great cultural and spiritual importance to at least 12 sovereign indigenous nations.

If passed, the Grand Canyon Protection Act would make permanent the 20-year temporary ban (enacted in 2012) on new uranium and other hard rock mining on about 1 million acres of public land around Grand Canyon National Park. The bill was introduced earlier this year by Reps. Raúl Grijalva and Tom O’Halleran and Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly, all Arizona Democrats. It has passed out of the House but has not yet received a vote in the Senate.

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Climate change is destabilizing the Colorado River Basin. Where do we go from here?

In June, a portion of my neighborhood in Flagstaff, Arizona, was put on pre-evacuation notice due to a nearby wildfire. A few weeks later, storms dumped heavy rains over a burn scar from a 2019 fire that caused destructive floods through parts of town. So far, this summer has been our third-wettest monsoon season on record, a complete contrast from our two driest monsoon seasons on record in 2019 and 2020.

These extremes are just a few local examples of the havoc that climate change is causing around the world. Here in the West, we are now in uncharted territory with the first-ever shortage declaration on the Colorado River.

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How to advance water security for Arizona? These 3 bills are a good start.

With dozens of water bills introduced in the Arizona Legislature this session, EDF Action and the Water for Arizona Coalition are focusing on long-overdue steps needed to ensure water security for all, especially rural communities that face high water risk.

Rural Arizona is the only substantial region left across the seven Colorado River Basin states where an “open access” approach to groundwater management is still the norm. This anything-goes approach puts people and ecosystems in rural Arizona at a disproportionate risk of water insecurity and economic instability. Read More »

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Climate leadership is water leadership. This Arizona bill is neither.

Climate change is already having sweeping impacts across Arizona — from devastating wildfires to increases in heat-related illnesses and deaths to declines in safe and reliable water supplies. Unless global carbon emissions are reduced to net zero in the coming decades, these impacts will only multiply and increase in severity across the Southwest.

We must embrace all available tools to reduce carbon emissions to help stave off worsening climate change, which is why we oppose HB 2248, a bill that would undermine progress on Arizona’s proposed clean energy rules. Read More »

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Top 3 water priorities in the 2021 Arizona legislative session

Despite uncertainty about the Legislature’s operations amid the COVID surge, Arizona’s 2021 legislative session opened last week with the expectation that several bills will be introduced to advance water security and support a healthy environment.

State policies that promote water security for all people and ecosystems remain as important as ever as communities confront public health challenges, look to rebuild economies and face what is shaping up to be yet another record-shattering dry winter across the Southwest. Read More »

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Arizona leaders must finish what was started on groundwater 40 years ago

Forty years ago, then Democratic Gov. Bruce Babbitt signed Arizona’s landmark Groundwater Management Act, which created a system to manage groundwater in five regions of the state where overpumping was most severe and aquifer levels were declining rapidly.

“I called the leaders of the water establishment together on the day after Thanksgiving in 1979,” Babbitt recalled in an oral history. “I personally sat them down and met with them once or twice a week for nine months and just kind of shut the door and said, ‘We’re going to reform our way out of this problem, and we’re going to draft a meaningful water management system for the state of Arizona.’” Read More »

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This bill will protect scarce water supplies for rural Arizona, if the Legislature can pass it

Breakthrough reporting by the Arizona Republic widely exposed what is perhaps one of the state’s darkest water secrets: Groundwater pumping is essentially unregulated in nearly 80% of the state, putting the livelihoods and water supplies of up to 1.5 million residents at risk.

Groundwater is essential for life in the Southwest. It makes up about 40% of the water that Arizonans use each year. In many of the state’s rural areas, groundwater is the only available water supply.

Although Arizona regulates groundwater in and around Phoenix and Tucson, there are no limits on groundwater pumping in most of the state. As a result, more than a third of Arizona’s perennial rivers have been lost or altered; the city of Kingman’s main aquifer is projected to run out of water in 60 years or less; and residents in rural Arizona are already seeing their wells run dry.

Lack of oversight and transparency on groundwater pumping has left communities and rural citizens powerless to secure their water supplies.

Without action by the Arizona Legislature to address this crisis, rural communities will face ever-mounting groundwater challenges as populations grow, out-of-state mega farms move in and persistent drought continues. Fortunately, state leaders – both Republicans and Democrats – are now coming forward with legislation to tackle rural groundwater challenges. Read More »

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