On the Water Front

Selected tag(s): drought

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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This farmland repurposing project is delivering 3 benefits. A park may be next.

Farmland repurposed for groundwater recharge with Huron in background Sarah Woolf, a member of a Fresno County farm family, is standing on the edge of a field that most recently grew hemp; garlic, tomatoes and onions before that; and cotton years ago. On one side is the dry Arroyo Pasajero Creek, bushes, and a wild, scraggly tree that looks like something from a Dr. Seuss book. On the other side in the far distance is the small farming town of Huron.

This former hemp field has been regraded to recharge groundwater from the creek during the next big storm in order to provide both water supply and flood control benefits. It’s an example of the kind of project that could be funded by the state’s new Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program, which launched this year with an initial $50 million. The program was created to help ease the transition for farmers to sustainable groundwater management while creating new benefits on previously irrigated land.

My colleagues and I recently visited the Arroyo Pasajero Creek and talked with Woolf and later Huron Mayor Rey León about the project and current drought. In addition to conserving water, here are three additional benefits of this land repurposing project — and one envisioned for the future — that they highlighted.

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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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