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Arizona Struggles to Balance Demand for Water

Two case studies exemplify the extreme economic and legal pressures surrounding water supply in the state of Arizona.
August 22, 2018, 12pm PDT | James Brasuell | @CasualBrasuell
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Dry Lake in Arizona

"Serious water shortages on the Colorado River could be less than two years away, according to new federal estimates," according to an article by Matt Weiser.

"Yet after 19 years of drought, just 500 farmers in one Arizona county may decide the fate of the entire Southwest: By holding tight to their own temporary water supply, they could stall a conservation plan designed to save the entire region from water shortages."

The article focuses on Pinal County, the 54th-largest farming county in the country and the third largest in the state, where about 540 farms use irrigation delivered via the Arizona Water project, a 336-mile canal built by the U.S. Bureau of Water Reclamation in 1993 to divert water from the Colorado River.

"Under a proposed drought contingency plan (DCP) aimed at saving Arizona residents from severe water shortages, Pinal County farmers could lose access to all their Colorado River water," reports Weiser.

Although the local irrigation districts and farmers are fighting the decision, Weiser says preventing the DCP will only prolong the inevitable—the farmers will run out of water in 12 years because of the temporary water deal the irrigation districts signed in 2004. It turns out, the Pinal County farmers are the most "junior" users of the Colorado River.

The Pinal County case isn't the only Arizona water news to catch our attention this month. A separate article by Bret Jaspers shifts the action to Maricopa County, where a water rights dispute known as the Gila River General Adjudication has dragged on since the 1970s. "Through the adjudication process, [a Maricopa County Superior Court]  judge will decide on claims to water from several Arizona rivers – or water pumped from wells close to the rivers."

The reason for the dispute reveals another key aspect of water rights in Arizona, which is that only a few areas have long-term deals for water. In 1980, Arizona designated five Active Management Areas – Prescott, Phoenix, Pinal, Tucson and Santa Cruz – that are heavily reliant on the mining of groundwater. Each AMA pursues a goal of stabilizing water tables under the Arizona Groundwater Code," writes Jasper. Without an AMA, there's little certainty about where water will be delivered. That arrangement is constantly pressure by the state's ongoing growth.

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Published on Wednesday, August 15, 2018 in Water Deeply
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