The Struggle to Secure Water in the Southwest
“In the West, when you touch water, you touch everything.” – Rep. Wayne Aspinall, D-Colorado, chair, House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, 1959-1973
Rapid population growth and chronic droughts could augur dramatic changes for communities along the lower Colorado River. In Arizona, California and Nevada, a robust economy is spurring communities to find enough water to sustain the steady pace of growth. Established cities such as Las Vegas and Phoenix continue their expansion but there is also activity in smaller, rural areas on Arizona’s northwest fringe where developers envision hundreds of thousands of new homes in the coming decades.
The hitch, of course, is the availability of water. It is the basic building block upon which growth proceeds and its value is magnified in the desert environment. There was a time when the Southwest’s main artery, the Colorado River, provided enough water to grow crops, generate electricity and supply water to the homes in the three Lower Basin states. But new sources are being sought and as development proceeds, new questions arise: is there enough water in groundwater aquifers to sustain new housing projects? Should parameters be placed on the transport of groundwater across state lines? Will there be new demands placed on the river? What about the effects of long-term drought and climate change?
The situation has sparked discussion and debate among officials, particularly in areas where developments have touched upon the matters of economic necessities, local control and the state government’s role in groundwater management. At the same time, plans have unfolded regarding coordinated operation of Colorado River storage in light of the low conditions at Lake Mead and Lake Powell. But it is the management of groundwater that is perhaps the most pressing concern as blueprints have been set for thousands of new homes in the desert.
“We are now seeing the potential groundwater moving across state lines and despite some protestations by elected officials that it can’t be done, U.S. Supreme Court acknowledges that it can when there’s a reason for said Rita Maguire, a former director of the Arizona Department Water Resources (ADWR) and a water attorney who recently served as president of Think AZ, a non-partisan research institute in Phoenix.
At a March meeting in Las Vegas facilitated by Maguire in coordination with the Water Education Foundation, several representatives of states dependent on the Colorado River discussed the issues affecting the management of surface water and groundwater. While emphasizing the need to guard the water resources each state has rights to, the participants – Herb Guenther, director of ADWR; Sid Wilson, general manager of the Central Arizona Project CAP); Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California MWD); Jerry Zimmerman, executive director of the Colorado River Board California; Patricia Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA); Jayne Harkins, deputy regional director the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Region Office Reclamation) and Dennis Strong, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources (UDWR) – acknowledged that future water use in the Southwest will require greater regional cooperation and flexibility to accommodate the rate of growth.
“Unfortunately, politics, economics and natural resources do not always operate in harmony with each other one thing is understood: responsible growth in an arid region like the Southwest must be predicated on the long-term availability of water,” Maguire wrote in a white paper prepared for the meeting, Meeting Water Needs Across State Lines. However, limited regulation and enforcement authority over this vital resource may not be enough to curb development where water is in short supply.”
Arizona’s northwest region, its legacy wrapped in part as the “heart of the Old Route 66,” is quickly becoming part of the tumultuous pace of expansion. Plans have been made to bring considerable development to Mohave County, fueled by the economic power of Las Vegas – located just across the state line – and the construction of a $234 million bypass bridge around Hoover Dam that will reduce the commute time. When completed in 2010, the bridge will be the conduit for hundreds of thousands of people living in Arizona and working in Las Vegas. Long-term, it is expected this corner of Arizona will grow by 500,000 people during the next 25 years.
Developers have long eyed the ample space available to them in this part of Arizona and have set a course for an impressive scale of growth that could lead to a population center greater than the communities of Kingman, Lake Havasu and Bullhead City combined. “It is clearly a very active market,” Maguire said. “There is no end in sight to the growth bubble of the past 20 years.”
The growth has prompted questions about whether there is an adequate link between the approval of new subdivisions and the adequacy of underlying water supplies.
“Historically, land use and water planning have occurred separately from one another,” states a 2007 report, Bridging the Governance Gap: Strategies to Integrate Water and Land Use Planning, by the Public Policy Research Institute at the University of Montana. “Water resource managers juggle many competing demands within a watershed, and they tend to focus on facilitating economic development. In turn, local land use authorities have safely assumed that water would be available to satisfy continued growth.”
The report suggests that “realistic” water pricing be followed that reflects the true costs of finding and delivering water. “Some consumers are already facing steep increases in water prices to reflect the costs of building new delivery pipelines and other infrastructure,” the report says.
The phenomenon reflects an emerging reality in which past beliefs about the availability of Colorado River water and its allocation are being challenged and groundwater is viewed as the means to supply further growth. As cities seek even more water, water officials say it behooves them to confront the issues directly to begin the process of identifying solutions.
“The key is management of groundwater basins, not use,” Wilson said. “In Arizona, we are going to have to look at our groundwater supplies as not something that simply can be mined, but something that’s going to have to be managed to sustain use in perpetuity.”
Once groundwater resources are tapped out, officials fear the impetus will be for growing communities to seek additional supplies from the Colorado River. “When you look at the Mohave County piece and the limited groundwater there, when you run out of it, Lake Mead’s not very far away,” Harkins said. “The Colorado River is already over-allocated and that’s the next place to look … so that’s a concern for us.”
As complexities rise, the discussion turns to the means by which water is viewed ever more as a shared resource – a controversial prospect in a land where water rights are fiercely guarded and efforts to facilitate transfers are looked upon with great skepticism, if not outright hostility.
“We as regulators manage the water in trust for the people,” Guenther said. “The people have the right to use the water … but they don’t own the water. And so when we start talking about interstate transfers I think these discussions have to take place through state agencies.”
Shared groundwater basins have sparked a debate whether water should be viewed as a valuable, communal natural resource or a private property right subject to transfer. In Nevada, where Las Vegas gets nearly all its water from the Colorado River, water is a valuable commodity that has helped spur some of the fastest growth in the country. Whether that growth can continue in the face of limited water supplies is forcing officials to reexamine management tools in order to find mutually agreeable actions for long-term sustainability.
Upon announcement of the allocation, Mulroy called the finding “a conservative decision but a reasonable one … [that] reflects the goal of our state’s water law – to serve residents’ needs while protecting existing water users and the environment.” The pipeline project has stirred opposition from environmentalists and local ranchers who say pumping should not go forward absent a full understanding of the environmental consequences. “It is an expensive project, both to build initially and to maintain, and we believe there are serious questions about the availability of the water the SNWA needs to make this project feasible,” wrote the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada in its 2006 report, Las Vegas and the Groundwater Development Project: Where does it start? Where will it end?
SNWA’s far-reaching aims are emblematic of the agency’s continuing struggle to maintain a varied water supply portfolio. The situation is clouded by chronic drought in the Colorado River Basin and the uncertainty of climate change. As a result, Mulroy has tempered her outlook on how to plan for the future. “There is no permanency. It’s a ludicrous notion,” she said. “Instead we stack temporary supplies. We had a 50-year supply in 1999-2000 and by 2002, it was all gone.”
And while regional cooperation has helped foster the means to deal with the hydrologic fluctuations of the Upper and Lower Colorado River basins, no such apparatus exists to deal with the cross-boundary maneuverings of individual communities and the restrictions of available water supplies.
“Interest in pumping groundwater from undeveloped basins in the Colorado River watershed has increased with the region’s population,” Maguire wrote. “But unlike the federal regulation of the Colorado River, each state is responsible for the management of groundwater within its boundaries. The result is that each Basin state manages groundwater differently.”
As a result, the question has been raised as to whether a regional framework, like the rules governing the Colorado River, is necessary to manage the pursuit of groundwater resources. Nevada has strict groundwater controls across the state and Arizona’s control is strong in the populous areas of the state while steps are being taken to address improved management in rural areas. A definitive framework for cross-jurisdictional control has not been openly discussed in either state.
“I don’t believe management of critical groundwater supplies equates to current management strategies for Colorado River surface supply. Groundwater and surface water are not the same animal,” CAP’s Wilson said. “However, there is a similar need for greater communication and cooperation among the basin states concerning uses of groundwater where impacts cross state boundaries.”
“These emerging patterns of cross boundary growth suggest the need for a new era of water management and regulation,” Maguire wrote. “Is a regional framework, similar to the rules governing the Colorado River, necessary to manage the pursuit of the Southwest’s groundwater resources, particularly in the lower Colorado River basin? Currently, no such apparatus exists.”
This issue of Western Water examines how the Lower Basin states are managing their water resources while they grapple with rapid growth, lingering drought, the prospect of climate change and whether the needs exists for greater regional cooperation.
NOTE: A complete copy of this 16-page magazine is available from the Foundation for $3. Visit our Products Page and add the March/April 2007 issue of Western Water to your shopping cart, http://www.watereducation.org/store/default.asp?parentid=7
How might elected officials and water managers in the Colorado River Basin successfully approach the interstate transfer, use and management of surface water and groundwater in the future? That was the broad question Arizona water attorney Rita Maguire posed to me a few months ago while suggesting a possible partnership with the Foundation and her organization. Rita is the former Arizona Department of Water Resources director and was then President and CEO of Think AZ, a research institute dedicated to providing thorough and accurate information concerning key public policy issues in Arizona.
But Rita wanted to take a look at these water issues even beyond Arizona. With the Southwest growing at a rapid – some say alarming – rate, questions about cross boundary surface and groundwater use are being raised across the region – in state legislatures, in the real estate development community, among environmentalists and in lots of public forums. Questions especially about pumping groundwater from a basin underlining two states raises issues of “Whose water is it, anyway?”
Some of these water questions have arisen because of the search for affordable housing. For example, construction of the Hoover Dam bypass route on I-15 will reduce the drive time between Las Vegas and Kingman, Ariz. (now about a 100- mile commute). So a bedroom community may sprout up in one state with many residents employed in another state. How and where will communities like Kingman acquire a sustainable source of water?
To further explore this issue, she and I brought together some key water stakeholders to discuss questions Rita analyzed in her white paper. In the meantime, the Foundation’s Western Water writer, Gary Pitzer, was researching some of these issues. The discussion in Las Vegas helped Gary combine his research with Rita’s and add some comments from the stakeholders.
One of the main questions the group addressed was the idea of creating a regional framework, similar to the rules governing the Colorado River, to manage the area’s groundwater, particularly in the Lower Colorado River Basin. In 1922 seven Colorado River states (Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming) met in Santa Fe, New Mexico to negotiate a historic seven-state compact interstate dividing surface waters of the Colorado River between two basin groups of states. And despite a minority of complaints, the stakeholders (now grown to include the tribal and environmental communities) have found ways to work with the framework of this compact. This year the Colorado River Compact celebrates its 85th birthday.
This issue of Western Water asks whether a groundwater compact is needed to manage this shared resource today. In the water-stressed West, there will need to be a recognition of sharing water resources or a line will need to be drawn in the sand against future growth.
In the News
Smelt Woes Latest Crisis in Already Troubled Delta
State and federal pumping operations in the Delta took another hit May 25 when a federal judge ruled that inadequate protections exist to ensure the survival of the Delta smelt, which is threatened with extinction. The decision follows an April 18 Alameda County Superior Court ruling that ordered the Department of Water Resources (DWR) to shut down the Harvey O. Banks Pumping Plant within 60 days unless the proper authorization was given under the California Endangered Species Act (California ESA.)
The federal ruling is the result of a 2005 lawsuit that challenged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) finding that increased Delta pumping would not harm the smelt. The smelt, wrote District Judge Oliver Wanger, “is undisputedly in jeopardy as to its survival and recovery,” while the federal scientists’ opinion was “arbitrary, capricious and contrary to law.”
The fate of the smelt was highlighted in a May 15 briefing statement by the Delta Smelt Working Group, which reported “record low numbers” of juvenile smelt, an indication of the species’ prospects for survival. The Working Group, which consists of USFWS, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, DWR and the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG), says it is “possible but unlikely” further surveys of fish populations will reveal a less bleak picture.
“For an annual species such as Delta smelt, failure to recruit a new year-class is an urgent indicator that the species has become critically imperiled and an emergency response is warranted,” the Group said.
State officials have cited various reasons for the smelt’s decline, including pesticide runoff, invasive species and Delta pumping. Opinions vary on the impact of the pumping operations. In a March 13 letter to state and federal officials, fisheries biologists Peter Moyle with the University of California, Davis, and Christina Swanson with The Bay Institute identified pumping as being responsible for the plummeting population.
“Recent scientific research has demonstrated that loss of Delta smelt at the water export facilities, particularly during this critical winter/spring period, has been a major contributor to the species’ population decline,” the letter says.
The findings have prompted state Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee, to demand what actions state officials are taking to address the problem.
“I’m no biologist, but I find the latest smelt survey results frightening,” he wrote May 22 to DFG, DWR and the state Water Resources Control Board. “The results suggest that an important part of the Delta is literally dying. We may be standing on the precipice of extinction. With smelt populations this low, we can’t take any more chances.”
Unlike the federal Endangered Species Act, the California ESA requires that any “take” authorization must ensure that impacts are minimized and fully mitigated, required mitigation measures are capable of successful implementation and adequate funding exists to implement mitigation measures. No permit may be issued if the action will jeopardize the continued existence of a species.
DWR has appealed the Alameda County court order and is working on a “comprehensive” fisheries protection plan in conjunction with DFG and the federal government.
A June 15 hearing in Alameda County Superior Court was scheduled regarding DFG’s obligation to make the consistency determination.