Will we have enough? Recapping the UA Water Conference

On June 24, Sustainable Tucson Core Team members Susan Williams and Bob Cook attended the Water Resources Research Center’s (WRRC) 2008 conference, entitled “The Importance of the Colorado River for Arizona’s Future.” This article is their report of the conference, which first appeared in Tucson Green Magazine in August 2008

There is one notion that everyone agrees with in this hot, dry, desert part of the world, “We need water!” Where the differences and passions arise is questioning who is the “we” and how are the uncertainties of future water supply and uses being addressed?

While these often contentious issues underlie most meetings on water, the UA’s Water Resources Research Center recent annual water conference was mostly about telling stories.

More than three hundred academics, environmentalists, policy makers, tribal leaders, and citizens gathered at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix on June 24 to consider where our water will come from in 2048 and beyond.

WRRC Director, Sharon Megdal opened the conference by reminding the crowd that Arizona’s management of water resources is characterized by innovation, past and future.

Beginning with a time capsule from the early 20th century, we revisited early planning and assumptions about the Colorado River flows. The seven basin states were often pitted against each other competing for their interests in using the river to supplement groundwater supplies for the explosive development to come. Eventually, the federal government engineered sufficient consensus to construct the vast dam and reservoir projects.

It’s 1968 and Arizona water managers are already considering augmentation of the Colorado River water supply by diverting flows from the Columbia River to Arizona, desalination of ocean water, and weather modification. Surprised?

Marvin Cohen, an attorney who spent decades of his career representing the City of Tucson on water issues, describes past strategies to “reclaim” the west. The Central Arizona Project (CAP) was originally created to support agriculture. Based on the premise that farmers could never afford the true cost of water infrastructure, western agriculture was subsidized by selling surplus energy generated by hydropower. “Cheap” water made farming dry lands possible.

Another important strategy was to store water in surplus years for use during low flow years. This strategy worked until over-allocation of water supply required strategies for augmentation of the river to keep pace with population growth.

Fast forward eighty years to 2048. Thomas McCann, Resource Planning and Analysis Manager for CAP, describes a 600 megawatt nuclear power plant located on the Gulf of California that would fuel a large desalination plant and through the sale of excess power, subsidize widening the CAP to deliver more water — from the current 1.8 million acre feet to 2.2 maf. The expanded supplies to Tucson would allow another doubling of population in the Old Pueblo.

According to McCann’s vision, everyone is 100% on CAP water in 2048 with ground water used only to supplement summer peak demand. Desalination plants in Buckeye and Gila Bend reclaim brackish ground water to allow build out of the west valley, Maricopa and Rainbow Valley. All 6,000 species protected by the Multispecies Conservation District are recovered through restoration of habitat by 2048.

With all this innovation, 11.5 million people are living in Maricopa, Pinal, and Pima counties, about double the number now. The future looks bright according to Susan Bitter Smith. “2048 is a good year to be in Arizona.” The President of the CAP Board described how we squeezed as much water out of the system as possible by recharging with treated effluent, conservation, storing water during surplus years, desalination and weather modification (cloud seeding, etc.)

William Rhodes, Governor of the Gila River Indian Community, brings us back down to earth by describing how his people lived for centuries in balance with a living river, how there was a culture of respect and conservation to protect the abundant wildlife in and around the rivers’ natural ecosystems. Years of hardship ensued with the gradual disruption of that way of life. Now Rhodes is encouraged that plans are well underway to recover a viable agricultural economy with rights to Colorado River water restored to the Nation.

Ned Norris, Jr., Chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation, follows by describing plans to diversify the tribal economy by 2048 when not only expanded agricultural farms will operate on the reservation but also wind farms and solar industries. Remembering how the Hohokam lived for 2,000 years in the Tucson basin, he calls for prudence in how we use water.

Next comes a parade of county officials and water district managers to update data on water supply in their districts and local contingencies to protect it. Chuck Huckleberry, Pima County Administrator, points out that as we move into an uncertain water future, thirst will reduce the “yuk factor” of using effluent to recharge our system. “Think of it as temporary contamination,” he jests. Huckleberry envisions that by 2048 water harvesting will be widespread across Pima County.

More speakers take the stage in the eight-hour marathon of water experts and policy makers, each with a piece of an emerging puzzle of Arizona’s water future.

But, when Kathy Jacobs, Director of the Arizona Water Institute, begins by stating that climate change is real, that we need to develop tools for adaptation and methods to be more nimble in response to change – the crowd sits up in their chairs.

Jacobs heads up a think tank of university scientists and water managers who develop scenarios of water supply sustainability based on tree ring data and climate models. She points to extended tree ring studies (ranging from 762 A.D. to 2004 A.D.) that identify a 62-year period of low flows and drought around 1150 A.D. (during a period of history known as the “great Medieval drought”) when there was 83% less flow in the Colorado River.

Sorting out the “anthropogenic signal” from natural variability of climate and making predictions of future climate impacts on the Colorado River supply is challenging at best. Yet her presentation anchors the day’s presentations with a precautionary note: there have been periods of much less water not that long ago and that the last one hundred years was an above-average wet century.

By now it is 4 pm. At least half of the crowd streams out before hearing the last panel of environment and conservation speakers. Each speaker brings an element of reality to the previous predictions for 2048:

Lorrie Gray, Regional Director with the Bureau of Reclamation, predicts one or two endangered species will be recovered in 2048 and modest areas of habitat restored.

Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club points to the average decrease in inflow to Lake Meade since 2000 and predictions of sustained drought. She calls for a more precautionary approach to planning that will conserve ecosystem services and wildlife.

Mark Lellouch describes a major Sonoran Institute study of four 2050 Colorado Basin scenarios for engaging stakeholders to explore and debate the future they would prefer. The scenarios are drawn from different perspectives on the use of natural resources, the long-term links between ecosystem health and human well-being, and beliefs about the future. Varied outcomes and trade-offs are examined. The worse case is deepening drought and region-wide ecological and economic decline. The best case depends on which stakeholder values will dominate.

The takeaway conclusion from this year’s Annual Water Conference is that the lower basin states of the Colorado River – Nevada, California, and Arizona –– are approaching their natural limits. For many decades the fastest growing U. S. region is now subject to unprecedented constraints on continuing rapid urbanization of the largely desert environment.

How our future actually unfolds, particularly our water future, depends on many factors -– environmental, economic, and people. Adapting to change will require that all stakeholders are involved and their needs addressed with the best possible guidance and balance of science and human values. This conference provides many starting points to to explore the importance of the Colorado River to Arizona’s future. As this conversation widens and deepens, like the flowing rush of mountain snowmelt, all communities across our vast state can assert their values and help shape the future.

To read complete reports by speakers and panelists go to http://ag.arizona.edu/AZWATER/ and click on 2008 Annual Conference.

Susan Williams is a freelance writer and education consultant who believes that caring for people and caring for the Earth are interdependent. She founded Write for Change in 2003 to support non-profits working toward a more sustainable future for all of us.

Bob Cook, a long-time Tucsonan, is a sustainable systems planner serving several community efforts: Sustainable Tucson’s Core Team; the Joint City/County Water Planning Oversight Committee; and Pima County Planning and Zoning Commission

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