Drought experts Justin Sheffield and Eric Wood of Princeton, in their 2011 book Drought, identified more than ten civilizations, cultures and nations that probably collapsed, in part, because of drought. Ten Civilizations or Nations That Collapsed From Drought.
Arizona’s population continues to grow despite an “assured water supply” increasingly becoming less assured. Arizona may soon surpass the sustainability of our water supply for our current population, if it has not already surpassed it.
A recent study making the rounds in local media suggests Arizona’s dependence on the Colorado River for its water supply is increasingly at risk. Newsweek reports, Colorado River Basin Is Drying Up In ‘Potentially Catastrophic’ Impact Of Climate Change:
Potential future drops in the volume of water flowing in the Colorado River due to climate change could have catastrophic consequences, an expert has warned Newsweek.
Brad Udall, senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University, made the comments regarding a paper published in the journal Science.
The study highlighted that climate change appears to have led to the loss of snow in the Colorado River Basin, which in turn is thought to have caused the body of water to absorb more solar energy, meaning more water evaporates.
The Colorado River has been suffering a drought due to higher temperatures since 2000, and researchers warn if trends of its flow dwindling continue there is a risk of severe water shortages for the around 40 million people and 16 million jobs it supports.
The team set out to answer how vulnerable the river is to rising temperatures and a lack of rain. They estimated that as snow and ice melt, causing what is known as the albedo (how much light hits a surface and is reflected without being absorbed) to be lost, the river’s flow will diminish by 9.5 percent for each 1 degree celsius of warming. This drying process will likely outrun the increase in rain which global warming is expected to usher in, the scientists fear.
The team forecast the river’s future state by creating a computer model based on existing data with factors including the monthly water-balance, average levels of rain and temperature in the area, as well as water contained in the nearby snowpack. They also worked out the balance between the energy the area receives from the Sun versus the albedo of snowy areas.
Udall, who has previously worked with the authors of the paper but wasn’t involved in this project, told Newsweek: “The study strongly supports recently published research that says half of the flow loss in the Colorado River during the ongoing drought since 2000 has been due to higher temperatures.”
He said he was surprised at how “exceedingly” sensitive the river’s flow was to temperature, and said this “should be of great concern to everyone who depends on the river.”
The results “strongly suggest that future Colorado River flows will trend strongly downward as temperatures warm in the 21st century, potentially catastrophically,” he said, adding: “these findings apply to almost every area that is dependent on snowpack, which is basically the entire West.”
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Greg McCabe is a research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Colorado and supervisor for the authors, who did not work on the paper. He told Newsweek the study was limited because it is difficult to completely and accurately model hydrologic processes—those which relate to the movement, distribution and management of water—as there are “always uncertainties associated with model simulations.”
“However, this analysis has provided a more physically-based estimate of the magnitude of the effects of warming on Upper Colorado River flow than has been provide by previous studies,” he said.
Asked how the loss of river flow affects the local community and the U.S. more widely, he said: “The Colorado River basin extends across parts of seven states (Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming) and is one of the most important water resources in the western U.S. and Mexico.
“The Upper Colorado River Basin (UCRB)—that portion of the Colorado River basin upstream of the streamgage at Lees Ferry—accounts for about 90 percent of the streamflow of the entire Colorado River Basin. Since the UCRB is the primary source of water in the Colorado River Basin, changes in flow of the UCRB are extremely important for the western U.S.”
Tony Davis at the Arizona Daily Star adds, ‘Eye-popping’ study: Colorado River down 2 billion tons of water due to climate change (excerpt):
The river’s water losses will likely continue, if not accelerate, by a range of 14% to 31% over the next 30 years as temperatures keep warming, said the researchers, who are with the U.S. Geological Survey. Their study was published Thursday in the journal Science.
That’s much larger than the 9% decline that a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation study predicted in 2012 would be the most likely drop in Colorado River flows by 2050.
“Increasing risk of severe water shortages is expected” across the seven-state Colorado River Basin, the new study said. The river serves 40 million people and supports 16 million jobs, it said.
The study came out as Arizona, California and Nevada began the first year of a seven-year drought contingency plan that’s aimed at cutting water use in the river’s Lower Basin. This year’s cuts are relatively minor. But over time they could reach up to 1.2 million acre feet a year. That’s approaching 10% of the river’s average annual flow.
Water officials from all seven river basin states expect to start work on a longer-range plan this year for the over-allocated river.
“There’s not a drop of that water that no one has a claim on. If and when that supply is reduced by 10 to 20 to 30%, someone is going to have to stop using as much water,” said Milly, a senior research scientist. The co-author was physical scientist Krista Dunne.
And then there is the long-running dispute over groundwater management in Arizona. Former Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt, who shepherded the landmark Arizona Groundwater Management Act of 1980 through the legislature, now says a 1993 law has lead to a “train wreck.” Arizona’s water system for suburban growth heads toward ‘train wreck,’ Babbitt says:
A water management district created by a 1993 state law that allowed massive subdivisions to spread into the outer suburbs of Tucson and Phoenix is now heading for a “train wreck,” warns former Arizona Governor and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.
To compensate for the pumping, the law created a water district that homebuilders and homebuyers pay into to buy renewable water supplies and recharge them elsewhere. Called the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District, it was folded into the agency running the state’s biggest such supply, the $4 billion Central Arizona Project that brings drinking water to cities from the Colorado River.
The law technically complies with limits in the state’s landmark 1980 groundwater law, which Babbitt pushed through to try to end overpumping of aquifers.
But many experts are increasingly worried about long-term impacts of pumping for these developments. They’re also unsure where long-term supplies of renewable water will come from in light of continued threats from drought and climate change to the Colorado River.
The 1993 law enabled huge new subdivisions which now sit atop falling water tables. That’s triggered hydrologists’ concerns about the potential for subsidence, or collapsing of the ground from overpumping. Babbitt now says the 1993 law needs to be revamped.
[A] blistering report last fall from Arizona State University’s Kyl Center for Water Policy questioned the water district’s view that it has plenty of “potentially available” renewable water supplies to serve all development forecast by 2114.
That’s in part because the district’s potential supplies include CAP water, which many experts say is likely to be cut back over the coming decades . . . District officials “assumed there will be CAP water available to meet replenishment. That’s not true. There’s going to be less CAP water, not more,” Babbitt said.
At the start of the legislative session this year, the Phoenix New Times published What’s on Tap for Arizona Water in 2020? Five Issues to Watch (excerpts):
1. Groundwater, Groundwater, Groundwater
Last year, the Arizona Department of Water Resources updated its groundwater model and discovered that Pinal County did not have enough groundwater to meet the legal requirements for dozens of planned developments.
The shortage of about 8.1 million acre-feet will affect both agriculture and developers . . . “We’re watching to see what will happen in the Pinal Active Management Area,” said Warren Tenney, executive director of the nonprofit Arizona Municipal Water Users Association, referring to an area governed by the 1980 Groundwater Management Act.
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Meanwhile, in rural parts of the state that do not fall under the 1980 law, which spells out careful protections for groundwater in Active Management Areas, mega-farms often owned by foreign companies plunder aquifers. Whether or not regulations will curb that free-for-all — and if so, when — remains to be seen, although several bills have already been introduced to require more monitoring of groundwater pumping.
2. The First Colorado River Cutbacks
We’ve entered Tier Zero, when the elevation of the reservoir Lake Mead drops below 1,090 feet above sea level.
Lake Mead actually ended 2019 with its water above 1,090 feet above sea level, but the reservoir nonetheless entered Tier 0 because that designation depends on the projections of a 24-month study published in August, which predicted that at the end of 2019, Lake Mead would fall below 1,090 feet.
Under the Drought Contingency Plan, a seven-state plan spelling out tiers of cutbacks to each state depending on the capacity of Colorado River reservoirs, Arizona must leave 192,000 acre feet in Lake Mead this year.
That sounds like a lot, but it’s not that much more than the 160,000 acre-feet the state voluntarily left in Lake Mead last year[.] . . . With these cutbacks, prices will also go up, in order to cover fixed costs to operate and maintain the canal. This year, delivering an acre-foot of water will cost $3 more than it did last year.
Farmers in Pinal County are the first water-users in the state to feel the cuts. They are largely returning to groundwater, which requires significant investment to tap, while aiming to stave off stricter regulations.
3. Studying New Sources of Water
The time has not quite arrived for Arizona, whose population continues to grow at a fast pace, to need to desalinate ocean water or brackish groundwater, or to start using recycled water in their homes. Not yet.
But both of those options are on the table for the future, which means that policymakers and Arizona water influencers are talking about them now. After all, these changes take years to pull together, and experts and policymakers, or at least the savvy ones, think about Arizona’s water not just years but even decades in advance.
4. Colorado River: New Drama?
Last fall, the town of Queen Creek tried to buy Colorado River water from an investment company that owned property close to the river, in the Cibola Valley, generating fierce opposition from on-river communities. Residents there don’t want their water going to the cities of central Arizona — not under this proposal, nor under previous ones.
This year, the Arizona Department of Water Resources will send its recommendations on the proposed transfer to the federal government, the ultimate arbiter in a case that, if allowed to go through, could set a precedent for water transfers off the Colorado River.
“That’s the really big, brewing controversy: whether more water will be moved from the western Arizona communities and farms to serve water users in the CAP service territory,” Porter said.
5. The General Stream Adjudications
These adjudications to determine who holds the rights to water in a river system have dragged on for nearly half a century, and they’re so mind-bogglingly complex that even many people who would be directly affected by their outcomes haven’t filed for claims.
Arizona has two general stream adjudications: the Little Colorado River system and the Gila River system. The adjudications began in the mid-1970s, and this year, there’s talk in the Legislature of trying to speed them up.
Discussions have ranged from securing funding for a second Special Master and support staff (right now, there’s one part-time Special Master) to more funding for the Arizona Department of Water Resources, which provides critical technical support for the adjudications.
“It’s time to make the process happen faster,” Porter said.
So what has the Arizona legislature accomplished this session? Nothing.
Tim Steller of the Daily Star writes today, State leaders fail to confront groundwater emergency:
[P]owerful interests have stymied several landmark legislative efforts this session to start getting a handle on over-pumping and depletion [of groundwater].
The key committee chairs in the state House and Senate won’t even hold a vote on any of the bills. And neither the Senate president nor the House speaker, nor the governor seem to be twisting any arms to make progress on this, Arizona’s other water emergency.
Among several important bills Republicans and Democrats have introduced on the issue this session:
- HB 2896 would allow counties to establish rural management areas in basins showing signs of over-pumping.
- HB 2895 would make it easier for the Arizona Department of Water Resources to create new Irrigation Non-expansion Areas — places where only existing irrigation would be allowed.
- HB 2158 would require metering of all wells except those that pump less than 35 gallons per minute — requiring large irrigation operations to measure their groundwater withdrawals for the first time.
- HB 2159 would require rural counties to ensure there is an adequate, 100-year water supply before approving new subdivisions.
This isn’t a new issue. It’s been sneaking up on us for decades, since the signing of the 1980 Groundwater Management Act. That act regulated water in Arizona’s urban areas, as well as Pinal and Santa Cruz counties, as Active Management Areas, but it left most rural areas unregulated.
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Who’s stopping the bills? In the House, the chair of the Natural Resources, Energy and Water Committee is Rep. Gail Griffin of Sierra Vista and in the Senate the chair of the relevant committee is Sen. Sine Kerr.
As committee chairs, they have the power to hear bills and hold votes or simply choose not to hear them. They’ve chosen not to hold votes, though each chamber held “informational” hearings on specific water bills.
The main interest group pushing the relevant legislators is agriculture, a relatively small industry in Arizona that wields outsized power. Another interest likely holding back progress on groundwater is rural landowners who don’t want the value of their property as potential future farmland or subdivisions to be stunted by limits on irrigation or development.
(You should read Steller’s entire opinion.)
Laurie Roberts of the Arizona Republic adds, Rural Arizona is turning into a tumbleweed. So, naturally, lawmakers … do nothing:
One day, I’m guessing the residents of Arizona will wake up and wonder: when did we lose our state? When did rural Arizona dry up and blow away?
When we do, we should remember this month, when the Arizona Legislature once again ignored common sense and the pleas of the people who live in areas where the groundwater is being sucked dry beneath their feet.
And there is nothing they can do about it.
The Legislature could do something but won’t, thanks to a pair of rural lawmakers in the pocket of agricultural interests and the apparent indifference of legislative leaders who could override them.
Sadly, our state leaders can’t – or won’t – see any further into the future than their own re-election campaigns.
Water levels are plummeting
The Arizona Republic’s Ian James and Rob O’Dell have reported on the plummeting water tables in rural Arizona where mega farms owned by out-of-state businesses are sucking up the supply at astounding rates. Billions and billions of gallons pulled from wells drilled deeper and deeper into the parched earth to produce crops for export.
Because there is no limit on pumping in most of the state, they literally are draining away the future of parts of Arizona. Water experts have said the loss may already be irreversible.
Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, would like to do something about that.
She introduced a pair of bills that would allow state regulators and county officials to limit how much water can be pulled out of the ground in counties where pumping now is unregulated. She would like to hold farms accountable for how much water they are sucking up.
She can’t even get a hearing on her bill. So she held her own “informational hearing,” to try to raise the alarm on the devastation headed our way in the not-so-distant future, when the water is gone.
Local officials are begging for change
Kingman Mayor Jen Miles, along with others in La Paz and Mohave counties, this week practically begged the Legislature to do something to protect the aquifer that supplies water to her city.
“The dramatic increase in agricultural groundwater pumping in our Hualapai aquifer in the past 10 years has put the sustainability of our water supply at great risk,” Miles said during a legislative hearing. “We need the administrative tools provided in these two bills to protect our aquifer and ensure our citizens have access to water for generations to come. And it is critical to act now.”
Speaker after speaker talked of diminishing water tables and dry wells and a real fear that someday in the not too distant future, turning on the kitchen tap will be an exercise in futility.
“Many, many farms — some from out of country, some from out of state — came in and lawfully put those wells down and they’re pumping that aquifer dry,” Mohave County Water Authority lobbyist Patrick Cunningham said.
He may as well have held his breath.
The powerful Arizona Farm Bureau has apparently spoken.
2 lawmakers said no. It’s shameful
The Republic’s James reports that Rep. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, and Sen. Sine Kerr, R-Buckeye, who chair their chambers’ water committees, have refused to allow votes on Cobb’s bills or on any other aimed at imposing some rules in rural areas where groundwater is unregulated.
Griffin, who chairs the House Natural Resources, Energy and Water Committee, refused to even hear Cobb’s bills. House Bill 2896 would allow county supervisors to establish new “rural management areas” in areas where groundwater is at risk. HB 2895 would give state water regulators more power to bar future growth of irrigated lands where warranted.
Meanwhile, Kerr, who chairs the Senate Water and Agriculture Committee, refused to put a similar bill up for a vote, saying it “needs to be vetted.”
While she’s vetting, water accumulated over thousands of years is going going going and all too soon, it may be gone. For at least the last five years, state leaders have been warned that something must be done if rural Arizona is to avoid turning into one giant tumbleweed.
Cobb has been pushing for change since 2015.
Will anyone else do something?
The state Department of Water Resources in 2017 asked the Legislature for the ability to look at projected future pumping – not just current pumping – in considering whether to establish new “irrigation non-expansion areas” barring the expansion of irrigated farmlands.
“People are still running out of water and it just amazes me that there’s no consideration for the rural communities,” La Paz County Supervisor Holly Irwin said, during Cobb’s informational hearing. “They are the ones that are suffering right now. We need to have change done right now, not a year from now.”
James, The Republic’s water writer, reports that if the water bills were to pass, they would be “the most significant changes for rural areas since Arizona adopted its Groundwater Management Act in 1980.”
Yet the bills don’t even rate one stinking vote. Not even one.
Griffin, whose online biography lists her as a member of the Arizona Farm Bureau, didn’t respond to James’ questions about why she refused to hear the bills before last week’s deadline, rendering them dead unless leadership steps in.
Neither did Kerr, a dairy farmer who previously served on the Arizona Farm Bureau’s board of directors.
No conflicts of interest there!
They should be ashamed.
As for the rest of our leaders, they should, oh I don’t know, DO SOMETHING.
Nothing will be done until the water crisis becomes critical, if not catastrophic, but by then it will be too late. The economic impact to this state will be devastating. The last resident to leave should remember to turn out the lights.