On the Water Front

A conservation win and groundwater loss: Arizona ends 2022 session with mixed water record

The Verde River, one of the last free-flowing rivers in the Southwest, remains unprotected after another year of in action to address rural groundwater pumping in Arizona.

After months of negotiations, the Arizona Legislature passed a major water spending plan last month with funding for new conservation efforts to address deteriorating water supplies. However, for the fourth year in a row, state leaders failed to pass legislation to address unlimited groundwater pumping, missing an opportunity to enable a water secure future for 1.5 million rural residents and the state as a whole.

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Colorado scores two more #WaterWins to help address worsening drought and capture federal funds

As Colorado’s drought worsens with the snowpack melting at a ridiculous rate, the state Legislature has stepped up by sending two key bills to the governor’s desk to increase funding for water conservation, river health and ecosystem restoration.

The new funding will help Colorado take advantage of even more federal infrastructure dollars approved last year in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which dedicates $8.3 billion to western water projects.

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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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Crop-switching in the megadrought: Can guayule help Arizona farmers use less water?

Guayule and ladybugs

This year, farmers in Pinal County, Arizona, will lose two-thirds of their irrigation water from the Colorado River because of a historic shortage declaration triggered by the driest period in more than 1,000 years. And within two years, they will be completely cut off from the Colorado River.

Some farmers are responding by fallowing fields. Others are selling their land to solar companies. And then there’s Will Thelander, a farmer who partnered with EDF, Bridgestone Americas and the University of Arizona to test a new crop that uses half as much water as the alfalfa he previously grew.

Crop-switching to a desert shrub called guayule used to produce rubber is one of just many strategies that will be needed in Arizona and other regions to adapt to water scarcity and maintain agricultural economies in a new era of aridification. However, it’s not nearly as simple as just planting different seeds in the ground.

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