‘Somebody’s going to have to use less’: Colorado River managers grapple with drought

PAGE – Years into a record-breaking drought across the Southwest, officials of the seven states along the Colorado River finally forged an agreement in 2007 on how to deal with future water shortages. Then they quietly hoped that wet weather would return.

It didn’t.

Those states now are back at the negotiating table to hammer out new deals to avoid a slow-moving crisis on the river system that supports 40 million people from Colorado to California.

You can see the extent of the problem in a place like Page, Arizona, on the southern edge of Lake Powell, the second-largest reservoir in the country behind Lake Mead.

Jennifer Pitt, who works on Colorado River policy for the National Audubon Society, stands on an overlook peering down at the lake and the immense concrete dam holding it in place.

“Now you can tell that there’s a river here underneath this reservoir because it has somewhat of a linear shape,” said Pitt, tracing the red rock canyon with her finger. “And it’s wending its way towards where we’re standing, here, overlooking the Glen Canyon Dam.”

The canyon behind the dam is stained with a stark white ring. For the past 20 years, Pitt said, demands for water have outstripped the supply, meaning Lake Powell and Lake Mead, behind Hoover Dam further downstream, continue to drop. Both are less than half full.

Without changes to how the two reservoirs are managed, Pitt said, levels could dip below the point where no water can be released, referred to as “dead pool.”

“If that happened, that would be a catastrophe for this region’s economy,” she said, “for all of the people who depend on the Colorado River and for all of the wildlife that depends on it as well.”

(The National Audubon Society receives funds from the Walton Family Foundation, which also provides funding for KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.)

It’s not about blame

That dystopian future of abandoned farms, dried-up streams and water-stressed cities is one that James Eklund of the Upper Colorado River Commission and other water managers are attempting to avoid.

“Take Lake Mead. More is being taken out than comes into it,” Eklund said. “Like your bank account, if you do that over a sustained period, you will run a deficit, and if you’re talking about water for 40 million people and economies that are massive – fifth-largest economy in the world, the Colorado River Basin represents – then that’s significant.”

Managers are attempting to boost reservoir levels with a suite of agreements under the umbrella of “drought contingency planning.” The premise is simple: Cut water use now, use that saved water to bump up Powell and Mead, and doing so will help to avoid bigger problems in the future, when supplies are likely to be even tighter.

Calcium deposits on the rock formations at Lake Mead, the largest reservoir on the Colorado River, show the impact of lingering drought on water levels. Hydrologists fear the reservoir will drop to the level at which no water can be released – a situation known as “dead pool.” (File photo by Alexis Kuhbander/Cronkite News)

Water officials in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming are working on a plan that covers the river’s Upper Basin and focuses on boosting snowpack with weather modification, better management of reservoirs and creating a water bank in Lake Powell.

The Lower Basin plan, being worked on by officials in Arizona, California and Nevada, is meant to create new incentives for farmers and cities to conserve water in Lake Mead and to agree to earlier, deeper cuts to water use so the reservoir can avoid dropping to dead pool levels.

Tuesday, water officials with all of the states, except Arizona, released draft agreements that spell out water cuts to boost levels at Mead and Powell according to azcentral.com. Arizona water officials plan to work through November to develop an agreement that state lawmakers would need to approve next spring.

“There is clearly enough evidence that if we were to have another 2000 to 2004 kind of a multiyear drought, the system is in very serious trouble,” said Eric Kuhn, the former general manager of the Colorado River District in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

When the current management guidelines were written in 2007, planners were optimistic, Kuhn said.

“Historically, we’ve always said, ‘Well, next year will be better,’” Kuhn said. “And that’s the easy way out.”

Now, after another of the driest and hottest water years on record, much of that optimism has evaporated.

Kuhn said Arizona has had the hardest time coming to an agreement because of intrastate battles over who will take cuts to water allocations and when they’ll take them. But states in the river’s Upper Basin have had issues, too.

One example is with the concept of demand management.

“It’s the difficult one,” Kuhn noted. “Somebody’s going to have to use less.”

Kuhn said there’s a fear that if those cuts aren’t doled out fairly, it could injure economies throughout the Southwest. Colorado River District officials and agricultural interests from Colorado’s Western Slope have said they’re on board with a demand management program only if farmers are given a choice about how much water they give up, and that they’re paid for forgoing water deliveries to their operations. But state officials have left the door open to mandatory cutbacks in a crisis.

Lake Mead sports a white “bathtub ring” more than 100 feet tall in this December 2015 photo, illustrating how far the water level has fallen after years of drought. (File photo by Alex Demas/Cronkite News)

Over the past three years, drought contingency negotiations have laid bare old tensions throughout the basin. Farmers and cities have blamed each other’s collective water uses for decades. And the same is true with water managers protective of their own interests in either the Upper or Lower basins.

“The thing we have to remember is (water use) in the basin is over 80 percent agriculture,” said Colby Pellegrino, who handles Colorado River issues for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the utility serving metro Las Vegas.

Current conservation programs, like the utility’s aggressive buyback of residential lawns, won’t be enough, Pellegrino said.

“We can take out all the lawns we want and still not solve the problems that climate change is going to throw at us,” Pellegrino said.

Climate change is just one pressure to get these deals done quickly. The U.S. Department of the Interior has given the Colorado Basin states an end-of-year deadline to get things done. If not, the assumption is the feds will step in to do it for them.

“That’s I think a fear of everybody on the river, especially in the Upper Basin,” said Jennifer Gimbel, a former Interior undersecretary, now with Colorado State University. “And the last thing we want is interference by the federal government in that role.”

The fate of the entire region hangs in the balance, said Gimbel.

At Glen Canyon Dam, Pitt, with the Audubon Society, said more than the fates of people and economies are tied up in river politics: An entire ecosystem is at stake.

“I think a lot of people who care about wildlife in this region are concerned,” Pitt said. “And it’s not just birds. Seventy percent of all wildlife in the arid West rely on rivers at some point in their life cycle. So it has outsize importance for anyone who appreciates nature in this part of the country.”

This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

Central Arizona farmers face tough choices planning for water cuts

PHOENIX – Farmers between Phoenix and Tucson, in Pinal County, are in a tough spot as Arizona continues critical negotiations over expected cuts in Colorado River water allocations.

Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the Colorado River system, is likely to be “in shortage” in 2020. A shortage declaration from the Bureau of Reclamation would trigger mandatory cutbacks for some large water users in Arizona.

But the risk goes deeper than that. Reclamation projections say Mead is uncomfortably close to even lower levels – to the point where no water can be released, a situation known as “dead pool.” In an effort to keep the system relatively healthy, the seven states in the Lower and Upper basins of the Colorado River are finalizing a plan to prop up Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two largest reservoirs in the country. On top of that, Arizona is working on an internal deal to figure out precisely who gets a water cut, and how.

Serious questions

At a recent public meeting of the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan Steering Committee, a group of eighth-graders attended as part of their own study of water. One of their questions was, “Should some stakeholders or cities get their water shut off, or should everybody be put on a water limit?”

In response, Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, said planners “know what the answer is” to the question of who gets cut first.

“But sometimes we don’t like what the answer is,” he continued. “That’s why we’re all meeting here, is to see if there’s a way to agree to still – respecting how the priorities work – make agreements among ourselves that the outcome might be different than just kind of the default outcome of what the priorities dictate.”

The default outcome is tolerable for some groups and intolerable for others.

Shane Leonard, general manager of the Roosevelt Water Conservation District in Maricopa County, is a member of the state’s Drought Contingency Plan Steering Committee. (Photo by Bret Jaspers/KJZZ)

Pinal County reality

In the “intolerable” column is Kelly Anderson of Pinal County. A third-generation farmer, he grew up in a house on property he now owns on the outskirts of Maricopa, south of Phoenix. He grows decorative wheat millet for Hobby Lobby and other crafts stores, as well as regular wheat. He also leases fields to alfalfa farmers.

Anderson, a former mayor of Maricopa, sits on the board of the Maricopa Stanfield Irrigation & Drainage District. Along with other irrigation districts and water users, the MSIDD is slated to lose all its Colorado River water during a Tier One shortage under the proposed Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan.

“The good times with the CAP water is over,” he said. “We’re going back to the way it was in the ’70s.”

Anderson knew he would have to fully return to groundwater by 2030, but Pinal County farmers had planned for there to be some river water until then. Long-term drought and overallocation have led to Lake Mead falling faster than the basin states expected, which is why a new plan is needed.

But the drought-contingency plan threatens to make the cutoff for Pinal County farmers much more sudden, which is why they’re fighting to keep some river water as a bridge to a future of pumping groundwater.

“It would give us a longer period of time to work on wells, to budget, to do capital improvements, some bonding to help with those types of projects,” he said. “With the drought, it just brought things to the forefront much, much quicker.”

The backstory

There is a reason why farmers in Pinal County are near the back of the line when it comes to doling out river water. In the early 2000s, they swapped more secure rights for a lower priority as part of the Arizona Water Settlement Agreement. This water was subject to availability and would be phased out by 2030. It helped cities and the federal government settle Native American water claims.

In return, the farmers got more than $162 million in debt relief and cheaper water prices.

Attorney Paul Orme has represented Pinal County irrigation districts for years. He said when the Arizona Water Settlement deal and a 2007 drought plan known as the Interim Guidelines were drawn up, circumstances were different.

“We didn’t have anything on the horizon like what we’re facing now,” he said. “I think most folks who are objective in this process say, you know, this should be a share-the-pain kind of situation and we’re taking the big hit of the pain up front.”

He argued that the Drought Contingency Plan ultimately is meant to protect higher priority water by preserving Lake Mead’s long-term health. Pinal County farmers will not have guaranteed access to CAP water after 2030.

Shane Leonard is general manager of the Roosevelt Water Conservation District, which serves agricultural and residential customers in Maricopa County. He said there are legitimate concerns over the economic impact to the state if Pinal County farmers were to lose their river water through a shortage declaration. But he also said politics is at play.

“There are going to be some key folks down at the Legislature that want to know that we at least tried to mitigate some of Pinal County’s issues,” said Leonard, who along with Orme is one of almost 40 members of the drought plan’s steering committee.

Ultimately, it is lawmakers and the governor who give the state the authority to sign on the dotted line with California, Nevada and the Upper Basin states. While acknowledging his clients’ legislative support, Orme said it’s only as strong as the case for fairness they can make.

Partnership between barley farmers and beer makers saves water

CAMP VERDE – Zach Hauser, like many farmers in the Verde Valley, takes pride in his land and the crops he grows.

Normally this time of year, rows of corn, alfalfa, carrots and watermelon would cover his acreage. But today, two sections of his property look like a farmer’s worst nightmare: fallow land strewn with dead vegetation and weeds.

That’s by design.

Hauser swapped out some of his usual thirsty crops – which require flood irrigation from the Verde River during scorching summers – for barley, which uses less water.

Zach Hauser, 27, is a third generation farmer who has converted acres of corn on his farm to barley, which uses 37 percent less water than corn. (Photo by Jordan Evans/Cronkite News)

“Normally on that ground, we’d be planting corn,” Hauser said. “We wouldn’t be planting until the first of May, and we’d use water all summer. With the barley, we’re planting it in late January, early February, and we’re done watering it by the end of May.”

Hauser made the change as part of a collaboration among local farmers, investors and the Nature Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit. The group worked with Hauser and Hauser Farms and nearby Speck Farms to swap 144 acres of summer corn for winter barley, and they’re now seeing the fruits of that labor.

Sinagua Malt – a malt house built specifically to encourage Verde Valley farmers to plant barley – turns that grain into a key ingredient of craft beer, which it sells to stores and restaurants around the state, including O.H.S.O., the Wren House and Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. in metro Phoenix. A malt house takes the unprocessed grain and turns it into malt, which is then used to make beer.

“Just knowing that something is grown locally – that it basically goes from farm to plate for food, or that it goes from farm to mug for beer – really makes a difference to consumers,” said Chip Norton, president and principal shareholder of Arizona’s first malt house.

Making of malt

Local farmers rely on the Verde, which the nonprofit American Rivers listed as one of the 10 most endangered rivers in America in 2006, according to National Geographic. The Nature Conservancy considers it still at risk.

The collaboration saved 47 million gallons of river water last June, said Kimberly Schonek, the Verde River program director for the Nature Conservancy in Arizona. June is when the river is at its lowest and saving water matters most.

It wasn’t as easy as simply asking the farmers to swap crops; after all, barley usually doesn’t make as much money as corn. To make the effort viable financially, they built Sinagua Malt.

Yann Raymond checks bags of malt barley that’s processed and ready for brewers. (Photo by Jordan Evans/Cronkite News)

Sinagua – Spanish for “without water” – is a public benefit company, which means it puts more value on public good than profit.

“The big number to us is the amount of water that’s staying in the (Verde River) in the summer months,” Norton said.

He started Sinagua Malt with the Nature Conservancy in 2016 after he did a similar enterprise with Many Rivers Brewing Co. in Colorado.

Norton said efforts to help protect the environment make a difference with consumers.

For example, Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. in Gilbert, which Norton said is Sinagua Malt’s biggest customer, markets its products with an emphasis on “naturalism and conservation” on its website’s homepage.

Verde River plays key role

Arizona has been in a drought for 21 years, said Nancy Selover, the Arizona state climatologist. Because of climate change and increasing population across the Southwest, the Colorado River – which supplies water to 40 million Americans – dries up before reaching the Sea of Cortez.

The partners in this project want to protect the Verde River, which begins near Paulden, Arizona, from the same fate. The Salt and Verde rivers are primary water sources for metro Phoenix. To compensate for dwindling surface water, cities pump groundwater or draw from the Central Arizona Project, which also supplies Colorado River water to Tucson.

Hauser sees multiple benefits

Hauser joined the Nature Conservancy project not only to make money and save water, but also to help protect his land from development. His family has been farming in Camp Verde since the late 1960s and now owns the land, much of which it had leased until the late 2000s.

“I always thought that it was ours when I was a little kid,” Hauser said. “You don’t understand what a lease means or owning means, so I always … felt like we owned it. And after I got older – and there was threat of development to the ground – that we eventually bought it.”

In the mid-2000s, developers were buying Camp Verde property for housing developments, and the Hausers feared they’d lose the large parcels they were leasing, Hauser said. The Nature Conservancy intervened, helping the Hausers buy those parcels and place easements on the property.

Those easements make it illegal to develop the land, whether by his family or any future owners, Hauser said.

“We weren’t worried about my grandfather or my father or myself wanting to sell it to develop it,” he said, “but you can’t see into the future, and you don’t know how your kids or grandkids or great-great-great grandkids are going to turn out. Hopefully, they wouldn’t want to sell it to a developer, but now it is impossible.”

The business of barley

This first year, Hauser’s farm and Speck Farm didn’t see the returns they would have had if they’d grown corn, but the Nature Conservancy paid the difference. In the future, said Schonek, the conservancy’s Verde River program director, the malt will return the same profit corn fetches.

“Without having a malt house, the only thing you can do with barley is sell it for cattle feed, which is not economically viable for farmers,” Schonek said.

The Nature Conservancy has invested nearly half a million dollars to convert acreage into barley to compensate the farms and Sinagua Malt, she said, adding, “It’s not outside the range of what we are spending on other conservation projects.”

“Achieving the public benefit is what drives (Sinagua Malt),” Schonek said, “but it’s still a corporation that has to make money and will have shareholder dividends in the future.”

All the conservancy’s dividends will go back into Sinagua Malt to achieve the organization’s five-year goal of converting 600 acres to barley, saving 200 million gallons of water each year in June.

Hauser said he’d be happy to convert more acreage if the malt house expands.

“We’ll probably be converting more of our ground to drip irrigation instead of flood irrigation,” Hauser said, “which will save more water than we’re already saving now. So, we’re just trying to lead the front now and save as much water as possible, but still make an honest living.”

Sinagua malt barley can cost 20 percent more than competitors’ products, but the sustainability angle seems to have struck a chord with local brewers. Norton said the malt house brought in about $50,000 in its first year, all of which will go to expand it.

– Video by Jordan Evans

After 11 years, legal battles over proposed open-pit copper mine continue

WASHINGTON – A proposal for a massive open-pit copper mine in the Santa Rita Mountains an hour south of Tucson, Arizona, will be back in court this month as opponents challenge permits for the project, the latest twist in an 11-year battle over the Rosemont Mine.

The fight pits supporters – who say the mine has been studied to death and will bring much-needed jobs to the region – against opponents, who see a flawed review process on a mine in “the absolute worst place” for environmental and public health threats.

The proposed open-pit copper mine would be about 6,500 by 6,000 feet – more than a mile wide in each direction – with a final depth up to 2,900 feet, according to the Forest Service’s final environmental impact statement on the Rosemont project. Of the 1.96 billion tons that would be excavated from the site, about 700 million tons would be ore and the remaining 1.2 billion tons would be waste rock.

Arizona is the largest producer of copper in the United States.

The legal challenges come as Hudbay Minerals awaits approval of what could be the final step in getting approval for the mine, the Army Corps of Engineers’ issuance of a Section 404 permit. That permit is named for a section of the Clean Water Act regulating the discharge of fill material into waterways.

“The regulatory process that we have is, from the outside, very time-consuming,” said Mike Petersen, public affairs officer for the South Pacific Division of the Corps, but it’s necessary to make a decision that balances “reasonable development of commerce” with water quality.

“There’s a lot of information and a lot of considerations we have to take into account,” Petersen said. “We want to make the most informed decision that we can stand behind.”

But while that decision is pending, at least three lawsuits are proceeding that attack earlier environmental permits issued for the mine.

Those suits – one by the Center for Biological Diversity, one by a group called Save the Scenic Santa Ritas and one by the Pascua Yaqui, the Tohono O’odham and the Hopi tribes – are expected to be in court this fall. They charge that earlier reviews by the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service did not adequately consider the mine’s likely impact on environmental and cultural resources.

Stu Gillespie, a staff attorney with Earthjustice, which is representing the tribes in their suit against the Forest Service, said the service’s recommendation did not go far enough.

“One of our main arguments is that final environmental impact statement and the record of decision by the forest supervisor is that he failed to adequately analyze alternatives,” Gillespie said.

In an emailed statement, Hudbay said the “project has been going through a thorough evaluation” and that the Forest Service set “specific mitigation and monitoring requirements” to ensure the impacts of the mine are measured.

“Any questions asked about the Final EIS impact analysis are a moot point at this time as they have been managed and responded to by the agencies responsible,” said a Hudbay spokeswoman. “The Rosemont Project has gone through this review under the … highest level of review required by the federal government.”

The Department of the Interior, Office of Surface Mining, Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service would not comment on the status of the mine. Tribal officials also did not respond to requests for comment.

The mine would be in operation from 24 to 30 years, generating an estimated $136.7 million in state and local taxes while creating a projected 434 direct jobs and 1,260 indirect jobs per year in Pima County alone, the Forest Service report said.

“It would just be a shame if projects as consequential as this were to take on some sort of partisan coloring,” said Garrick Taylor, the senior vice president for government and communications at the Arizona Chamber of Commerce.

He noted that 17 government agencies have a hand in approval of the permit.

“We believe it’s still a worthwhile project and will do tremendous good for the region and the state,” Taylor said. “Copper mining is incredibly important to the legacy of the state.”

But critics say no amount of economic benefit can outweigh the potential environmental damage of the mine.

“It is the absolute worst place you could pick to put an open-pit copper mine in terms of all the impacts to endangered species, threats to Tucson’s water supply and all these other issues,” said Randy Serraglio, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, said that while Hudbay talks about the economic benefits of the mine, “it ignores its negative environmental impacts that will cause irreparable damage to wildlife habitats, water quality, and land.”

“The health, well-being, and cultural needs of Southern Arizona’s residents should always come before the profits of a mining company,” Grijalva said in an emailed statement.

Fred Palmer, a senior fellow at the Heartland Institute, said he believes that the pros of the mine outweigh its cons on this site, which is federal land sitting on a “terrific” copper deposit.

“It’s inherently within the public interest that this deposit be developed, notwithstanding the protestations from the tribes, who I deeply respect and the environmental community,” he said.

The Lavender copper mine, which operated in Bisbee, Arizona is an open pit mine, like the proposed Rosemont mine. Credit: Matthew Kowal, Flickr Creative Commons

But Gayle Hartmann, president of Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, said the value of the Coronado National Forest, where the mine would be located, is too great to risk.

“This is a beautiful place that has natural attributes … including streams, wildlife, beautiful oak trees, places to camp, a scenic route along the eastern side of the Santa Rita Mountains that people in southern Arizona have enjoyed for centuries,” Hartmann said.

“That value is much, much greater than anything that could come from an open-pit mine,” she said.

Arizona maintains thousands of water catchments to ensure healthy wildlife populations

PHOENIX – As the desert swelter weighs down on him, Jed Nitso walks over to a small, man-made trough filled with green water that’s swarming with bees. A yardstick measurement confirms what he already knew: The water level is low.

With the twist of a lever, hundreds of gallons of water gush out of Nitso’s truck, flow down a 96-foot sheet of metal and fill a series of underground tanks. Twenty minutes later, the above-ground reservoir is full.

Nitso, a wildlife habitat heavy equipment operator for the Arizona Game & Fish Department, spent about half an hour checking on and refilling the catchment near Lake Pleasant. Some days, he helps repair roads or Game & Fish facilities. On others, he hauls equipment to project sites.

But when the state suffers from long stretches without rain, Nitso spends much of his time transporting truckloads of water to some of the most remote places in Arizona – the 3,000 Game & Fish-maintained water catchments that help keep Arizona’s wildlife alive.

The department has been building, expanding and maintaining these catchments since the 1940s, now spending thousands each year to ensure healthy wildlife populations – part of the department’s mission – even in the toughest Arizona’s conditions.

“It’s not an easy job,” Nitso said.

Jed Nitso, a heavy equipment operator with Arizona Game & Fish Department, empties a truckload of water into a catchment near Lake Pleasant. Game & Fish-maintained water catchments help keep Arizona’s wildlife alive.(Photo by Nick Serpa/Cronkite News)

Catchments run dry

They go by several names: trick tanks, guzzlers, drinkers. The term Game & Fish officials use most frequently is catchment. Their purpose is simple – collect rainwater and deliver it to a trough so wild animals can drink.

People who spend a lot of time in Arizona’s wilderness may have stumbled across one. They typically consist of a few key elements: a trough to allow the animals to drink, a gutterlike ramp to collect rainwater and underground tanks to store the water. Some smaller catchments hold about 2,500 gallons of water. Others can hold nearly 10,000.

The catchments were designed to be self-sufficient, and they operate without any mechanical parts or electricity, using physics to ensure consistent water delivery. In theory, rain keeps the storage tanks full, so other than occasional maintenance, the catchments would rarely need to be touched by human hands.

But with Arizona in the grip of a decades-long drought, catchments run dry.

That means Nitso and other Game & Fish employees have to haul thousands of gallons of water into deserts, through forests and up mountainsides.

Game & Fish works with some nonprofits, such as the Arizona Elk Society, to maintain the catchments. The department only owns about a third of that number – various federal agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management, own the rest.

Joseph Currie manages the catchments for the state, and he used to build and haul water to them for years before moving into the administrative side of wildlife management.

His budget for the current fiscal year is about $690,000, which he has to stretch to cover everything from the cost of the water to truck maintenance. Funding comes from a variety of sources, including grants, firearm tax revenue and some proceeds from hunting permits.

Currie said it’s nearly impossible to predict how much water Game & Fish will need to haul each year, or how much it will cost.
“It all depends on the rains,” he said.

In the first six months this year, before monsoon storms swept the state, Arizona Game & Fish transported more than 650,000 gallons of water to catchments, he said. The cost ranges from hundreds to thousands per delivery, depending on the destination, amount and water source.

The Arizona Game & Fish Department accepts donations via text message to help fund the initiative. It also allows volunteers to “Adopt-a-Catchment,” helping to monitor water levels and complete light maintenance.

“It’s kind of funny,” Currie said. “We’re trying to get out of the water-hauling business by building these (catchments) bigger and more efficient, but with years like this, it’s inevitable. You’re going to be hauling a lot of water.”

(Graphic by Nick Serpa/Cronkite News)

Big job for employees

Maintaining the catchments is a challenging job that requires a certain kind of worker, Currie said. “There’s people that live for this,” he said. “There’s other people that have no clue that it even happens.”

Jed Nitso of Payson is the kind that lives for this kind of work.

Since he was a kid, Nitso said, he’d always wanted to work for a wildlife agency. He’s passionate about hunting, wildlife and spending time in nature, and he has worked with Game & Fish for more than 14 years.

Nitso travels across the state, from the Arizona Strip north of the Grand Canyon to the border with Mexico. Some catchments can be difficult to find because they don’t have coordinates listed or their locations were never properly recorded.

Wildlife management workers and rangers will stop by the catchments a few times a year and measure their water levels. Game & Fish also monitors rainfall to get a sense of which catchments might run dry.

Currie and Nitso recently hauled water to a catchment about 5 miles west of Lake Pleasant, off a network of bumpy dirt roads. But Currie emphasized that not all water deliveries are as easy to access as that one.

“This road might as well be on I-17, for me,” Currie said. “There are catchments that are on God-awful roads,” Currie said.

Some catchments can be accessed only by driving north into Utah and returning to Arizona, often a two-day journey. Many catchments aren’t near any sort of road.

Others are in locations so remote – such as bighorn sheep habitat – that water can only be delivered by helicopter. That’s done slowly, 150 gallons at a time, and it costs thousands of dollars an hour.

Despite the challenges, Nitso said he enjoys the job.

“On a weekly basis, I get to go into a lot of places where other people just go when they’re hunting,” Nitso said. “If I were to just say, ‘I’m going to go here on my own time,’ it might be one trip a year.”

When it’s hot, Game & Fish will often book Nitso a motel room or maybe he’ll sleep in an RV trailer or bunkhouse. But when the weather cools down, Nitso will set up a cot or tent and spend the night under the stars.

He said he looks forward to the inevitable encounters with wildlife, especially in northern Arizona.

“You never know when you’re going to come around the corner, and there’s going to be something standing in the road,” he said.

Human intervention

Arizona’s network of catchments has played a crucial role in maintaining healthy, stable populations of local wildlife for decades, Currie said.
Before large numbers of people had settled in Arizona, wildlife populations would fluctuate wildly with the rainfall, and in drier years, certain populations would experience huge die-offs. This realization was a big part of what led to the construction of catchments in the 1940s, Currie said.

The initial goal was to stabilize quail and dove populations, which were popular game at the time. The initial batch of concrete catchments were built primarily near Phoenix and were relatively small, only holding about 700 gallons of water.

But it didn’t take long, Currie said, for bigger species to discover the troves of water.

“They soon found after building a bunch of those that once the deer found them and the coyotes and everything else found them, they were drinking out of them, too.”

The small size of the first catchments, in addition to dry weather and frequent visits by larger animals, led to the need for water hauling. In the 1960s, workers built bigger catchments that could hold 6,000 gallons. Some of today’s catchments can hold close to 10,000 gallons and are built out of modern materials, such as fiberglass.

Catchments still are being built, but it’s not just to shore up water deficits because of dry weather: Some wildlife has been cut off from natural water sources by human incursion into their habitat.

Some wildlife has been cut off from natural water sources by human incursion into their habitat.

This happened in the 1970s with the Central Arizona Project Canal, which planners knew would cut through wildlife habitats. The project’s budget included money for catchments adjacent to it.

The canal also poses a risk to animals that may fall in and get stuck, either by accident or when trying to access water, Currie said. That’s a big reason why Game & Fish maintains catchments on both sides of the waterway, which brings Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson.

Highways are another barrier for wildlife seeking food and water.

“When they straighten out a highway or widen it, it tends to become more of a barrier,” Currie said. “It’s like playing Frogger, if you’re the deer. … You’ve got to try and keep from getting run over, so a lot of animals opt to not cross those roads.”

The catchments also reduce the chance of human encounters with wild animals. With a dependable water source, animals don’t need to venture into neighborhoods to survive.

“Sometimes when humans are blaming wildlife for ruining their flower pots or whatever, it’s because they moved into the animals’ backyard,” Currie said. “The animal is just trying to survive.”

There have been some unintended consequences of building the catchments; notably, attracting unexpected visitors.

The catchments were designed to be “wildlife exclusive,” Currie said, but they often attract domestic cattle and other large animals that ranchers let roam. These animals, particularly the cows, tend to camp out at catchments and quickly deplete the water, as well as risk damaging the structure.

To prevent this, Game & Fish often fences off catchments using steel fences designed to let in the animals the catchments are meant to attract – most wildlife can either pass through the fence or hop over it – while shutting out unwanted animals.

The department also strikes deals with ranchers to create secondary troughs that shoot off from the main catchment, so livestock can stay hydrated without affecting the water source for wild animals.

Even humans will use the catchments in dire circumstances because they are often the only reliable water source for miles.

Currie said illegal immigrants often use the catchments when crossing into Arizona from Mexico. “They have maps to our catchments leading all the way into town,” he said.

At times, he said, his crews have pulled up at catchments and found traces of recent human activity, including bags and plastic jugs.

“It’s saved people’s lives before,” Currie said. “It’s not the most fantastic water, but if it’s that or death, you might as well take the chance.”

Long-term impact

The catchments haven’t been entirely without controversy. Some researchers have questioned their impact on wildlife, arguing that a lack of quantifiable data makes measuring this difficult.

One 2007 report attempted to test whether draining water catchments would have an effect on bighorn sheep in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Range, but researchers found “the removal of water sources” had no noticeable impact on mortality rates during their experiment.

The report notes that the scope of the study was limited, and there’s a need for additional research.

“Until long-term studies are completed … the question of whether or not (catchments) should be constructed or maintained will continue to be controversial and largely a political matter,” the report said.

Despite the questions, Nitso said he’s witnessed the catchments’ impact firsthand on multiple occasions.

Several weeks ago, he was hauling water to a catchment near Quartzsite and encountered wild sheep drinking from it. By the time he got there, the catchment was almost dry. Nitso said he hauled nearly 5,000 gallons of water to the catchment that day.

“I felt pretty good knowing that those sheep will have plenty of water to drink for the next several weeks,” he said.

Another time, Nitso said he encountered nearly 100 elk drinking from a catchment near Tusayan. Rainwater couldn’t keep that catchment full, so Game & Fish connected it to a nearby wastewater treatment plant.

Ultimately, Currie said he thinks the catchments have had an impact.

“The whole world can come here and enjoy desert wildlife because we do this,” Currie said. “To me, that’s really meaningful.”

Energy ballot initiatives will be big in the November election

In two western states, the November election will give voters a chance to vote on oil and fracking and renewable energy. The initiatives in Colorado and Arizona have been contentious already and millions have been spent.


Colorado voters could see two competing oil and gas ballot measures in November.

On one side, environmental group Colorado Rising, seeks to require a 2,500-foot setback between oil wells and any occupied structure, including gathering points like playgrounds and waterways like rivers. These setbacks have been an issue for years, and come as more oil drilling and fracking happens close to cities. (In Culver City, California, for example. PBS SoCal’s David Nazar has reported on the conflict of such exploration in that city in LA County.)

On the other side is the Colorado Farm Bureau, which wants property owners to be compensated if their water, mineral or property is taken or devalued.

Protesting Signature Efforts: Another Front In Oil And Gas Ballot Battle

“The only thing that would be affected by this are the most egregious acts of government,” said Colorado Farm Bureau Executive Director Chad Vorthmann. “Where they specifically targeted one individual one producer or one type of industry and said we’re going to take your property. Or we’re going to devalue it.”

The Colorado Farm Bureau has already delivered 209,000 signatures to the Colorado Secretary of State, which it said is a new record. Protect Colorado, which is funded heavily by oil and gas interests, pumped millions into the signature gathering effort.

The Farm Bureau was required to gather signatures from all 34 Colorado state senate districts for its constitutional amendment. The Secretary of State’s office has until September 5 to verify the signatures.

Meanwhile, Colorado Rising turned in more than 170,000 signatures on deadline day, Aug. 6, and is taking a different tack. It’s attempting to get a statutory amendment passed by voters.

“There are so many reasons we need to protect the health and safety of Coloradans,” said Suzanne Spiegel with Colorado Rising. “Right now the state isn’t doing that. People are getting sick, there are explosions that are killing people, our water is being contaminated. And it’s on us to step up and protect our communities protect our neighborhoods.”

This will be the second time that setback proponents have sought to put a measure in front of voters. A third attempt in 2014 resulted in a brokered compromise between Democratic Rep. Jared Polis and Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper.

The compromise created an oil and gas task force which made several recommendations regarding the location of large oil and gas facilities, and gave local governments more say in how oil and gas is developed. Some suggestions were adopted by state regulators.

According to a state of Colorado analysis, nearly 55 percent of land across the state would be unavailable for oil and gas development if voters approve Initiative 97.

According to a state analysis of Initiative 97, nearly 55 percent of land across the state would be unavailable for oil and gas development if voters approve it.

In Weld County, where the majority of oil and gas is developed, nearly 80 percent of land would be off limits.

Ultimately, former Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission head Dave Neslin said lawsuits seeking billions of dollars in damages could be in play..

“I think it will give rise to takings claims against the state on the part of the mineral owners in Colorado,” said Neslin, an attorney with Davis, Graham & Stubbs. “I think it would be a billion dollar mistake.”


In Arizona, Cronkite News and KJZZ have reported on a very heated initiative campaign that would change the state constitution to set new goals for renewable energy use. One proposal, sponsored by Clean Energy for Healthy Arizona would require that 50 percent of Arizona’s electrical energy must come from renewable sources, mostly solar and wind, by 2030.

Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona is primarily funded by California billionaire Tom Steyer, who has become a target in the campaign. A political action committee, Reliable Energy Policy, has targeted Steyer.

Steyer has been mentioned as a possible 2020 presidential candidate and recently told CSPAN that he has not ruled it out. He is the third biggest donor nationally in the 2018 campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The Arizona Public Service Electric Company (APS) opposes the renewable energy referendum and argues that the passage of the proposal could lead to the shut down of the Palo Verde Nuclear plant, the largest power producer in the country. It serves 4 million people across the Southwest.

The widespread availability of wind and solar power could impact the market for nuclear power, argue opponents of the referendum.

They say that nuclear power would be hit hardest among sources of power in Arizona, because Palo Verde – the nation’s largest power producer – could not operate at levels low enough to satisfy the initiative’s requirements.

Rodd McLeod, a spokesman for the Clean Energy Initiative, took issue with APS’ assertion that the requirements of the initiative would force them to close the plant. He was skeptical of the argument that Palo Verde would no longer be economically viable, since utilities from other states own part of the plant.

Arizona is already one of the top producers of renewable energy.

Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona has turned in nearly half a million signatures, but opponents of the ballot measure have filed a lawsuit, claiming that more than 200,000 of the signatures are invalid because they belong to people who are not registered to vote in Arizona, while others lack key information like first and last names.

Cronkite News’ Jéssica Alvarado Gámez and KJZZ’s Will Stone contributed reporting for this article.

Study: Droughts are growing hotter under climate change

Arizona is in its 21st year of drought, and climate change is bringing longer, more intense heat waves. Now, scientists at University of California, Irvine, have found that many areas experiencing dry conditions are heating up faster than the rest of the country.

The study was published in the journal Science Advances.

Anyone with a swamp cooler or mister knows that evaporating water cools the air. Changing water from liquid to vapor takes energy, and heat is lost from the air as energy is absorbed. Conversely, dry areas really feel the heat. Take, for example, research regarding the southwestern U.S.:

“We’ve observed a shift of approximately 0.6 degrees Celsius (1.0 Fahrenheit) between the first and the second half of the 20th century. But if you only include months classified as dry, you see that there’s almost double the shift in temperature,” said lead author Felicia Chiang, a graduate student researcher in civil and environmental engineering at UC Irvine.

“If you only include months classified as dry, you see that there’s almost double the shift in temperature.”

Combining observations from the early and late 20th century with model results from the late 20th and late 21st century, the team expanded its research to incorporate the entire U.S.

Both observational data and climate models showed the same pattern in the southern U.S.: greater temperature shifts under dry conditions than under average climate change conditions, whether in arid Arizona or rainy Louisiana (both are included in what the study considers “southern states”).

“We believe that they’re likely shaped by concurrent changes in the moisture in the atmosphere,” Chiang said.

The combination of stressors will likely comprise the environmental and social impacts of drought and heatwaves, driving more frequent wildfires, worsening air quality and stressing crops and livestock.

The findings also underline the potential impacts of land-use changes, and their effects on local moisture availability.

The authors recommend that societies and their institutions study these effects and work to improve the resiliency of affected systems.

Decades-long court battle over water rights impedes economic investment in rural Arizona

CAMP VERDE – The “growth” industry has fueled Arizona’s economy – growth in houses, offices, and places to have fun. Consistent growth is possible, in part, because of prudent water management in the more populated areas of the state. But outside the population hubs, some water rights still are tied up in court, making it hard for developers to plan.

At the exotic animal park Out of Africa, visitors can marvel at a menagerie that includes a rhino, a king cobra and a bevy of wild cats. The marquee attraction at the park is the Tiger Splash, where staff play with tigers around a swimming pool, trying to coax them into the water.

The park gets 150,000 to 200,000 visitors each year, co-owner Bill Jump said. It would like a lot more.

Out of Africa wants to add a hotel, a conference center and, possibly, a water park. For the water park in particular, investors would want assurances the site has a defined water source and buy-in from the community. But at the moment, Jump said, a long-term water plan for something so substantial as a water park isn’t likely.

“Right now, we’re at the risk of a long-term solution being the courts,” he said. “Coming in and making a maybe irrational decision as to how they’re going to allocate water for the whole state.”

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.

Outside of the AMAs, however, water rights often are tied up in the court system. As a result, tens of thousands of users don’t have complete certainty of their rights to a portion of certain key rivers, including the Gila and Little Colorado. A judge in Maricopa County Superior Court is overseeing a lawsuit called the Gila River General Adjudication. Through the adjudication process, the judge will decide on claims to water from several Arizona rivers – or water pumped from wells close to the rivers.

Tens of thousands of users don’t have complete certainty of their rights to a portion of certain key rivers.

The case has dragged on since in the 1970s.

“We think we’re at the point where the adjudication is beginning to impact the ability of these communities to grow in the way they aspire to, and also to sustainably manage water,” said Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University.

Porter recently surveyed a few dozen developers and corporate-site selectors for the report The Price of Uncertainty, which found concerns about water are growing. She also found that uncertainty about water often immediately disqualifies a site from consideration for investment.

“They don’t bother with places where there’s uncertainty about water rights,” she said.

Steve Ayres, economic development director for Camp Verde, said a better solution than a court decree would be for the various claimants to make their own deal, creating a system where water rights can be bought, sold or leased.

“So when the adjudication court comes here, those parties won’t be objecting to one another’s use. They’ll actually have a deal worked out,” he said. “The court would be foolish not to accept a resolution that is acceptable to both parties.”

And there are some glimmers of this kind of solution. Out of Africa, for instance, is paying another company to use less water through a local water-credit program called the Verde River Exchange. That way, the park can offset the 815,000 gallons it uses in Tiger Splash and an otter habitat.

ASU’s Porter thinks local programs like the exchange are promising, but she notes there are more than 50,000 water-rights claims in the Gila River watershed, which includes the Verde and San Pedro rivers.

“To actually make a settlement work, you have to get enough parties to agree to the settlement. That means compromise on all sides.”

She added a settlement could require state legislation, and there already are other water issues that need the Legislature’s attention.

Ayres suspects some water users don’t want the adjudication completed because they’ll be told to stop pumping water to which they’re not entitled. So if a settlement doesn’t happen, water users will have to wait – as they have for decades.

“Is it ever going to get adjudicated? I don’t know,” Ayers said. “I’m 63. I doubt seriously it’ll happen in my lifetime.”

Improvements to water system long time coming for Arizona tribe

WASHINGTON – For two years, Congress has gone back-and-forth about clearing the way for improvements to the water system at the White Mountain Apache’s water system three hours northeast of Phoenix. The White Mountain Apache is one of 21 tribes in Arizona. Their reservation at Fort Apache encompasses 2627 square miles.

Many Native American tribes in Arizona have systematic lack of access to tap water.

This week, Congress approved a measure that clears the way for a dam, resevoir and water system.

Congress agreed in 2010 to fund a dam and water treatment project for the White Mountain Apache, but it took more than two years for lawmakers to approve a bill that would allow flexibility in how the tribe spends the money.

The White Mountain Apache Water Rights Quantification Act makes clear that federal funds approved years ago to settle a water-rights lawsuit filed against the government can be used for design as well as the construction of a water system for the tribe.

“This bill is simply a straightforward, technical amendment which is necessary to clarify an authorization authority … for the tribe to use the settlement fund for water-related economic development projects,” said Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Sedona, on the House floor Monday.

He called approval of the bill “long overdue” and a “critical project.”

Officials with the White Mountain Apache Tribe have called the water project essential to the survival of the tribe, whose wells are failing and water is unsafe.

In hearings in 2016 and again in 2017, White Mountain Apache Vice Chairman Kasey Velasquez said he hoped to “live long (enough) to see a child or adult … open a faucet on a kitchen sink to fill a glass of water – something they cannot do today.”

The proposed system will consist of a dam and reservoir, a water treatment plant and 55 miles of pipeline to serve the community, according to a memorandum from the House Natural Resources Committee.

“In 2018, it is a shame to see so many communities that still lack access to clean, reliable drinking water. Yet, for countless families in tribal and rural communities, that is the reality.”

Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Sedona

But the project ran into trouble when the Interior Department balked at a tribal proposal to use part of the budget for cost overruns for design and planning on the project. A 2016 bill, introduced by Arizona Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, would have clarified that the overrun money could be used – but it stalled in the House after passing the Senate.

The bill was reintroduced in 2017 and this time it passed both the Senate and House – but was amended in the House to include language exempting tribal governments from oversight by the National Labor Relations Board. That led Senate Democrats to block a vote on the bill in April.

Last week, Flake introduced a new bill, without the NLRB language, that the Senate passed without debate. The House followed suit Monday.

“This bill irons out a lot of problems with the settlement, and it clears the way for hopefully a very productive project,” Rep. Tom McClintock, R- California, said before Monday’s House vote.

The final bill also includes a second section clarifying that the Pueblos of Santa Clara and Ohkay Ohwingeh in New Mexico can enter into 99-year leases with the Interior Department on all tribal lands, not just trust lands.

O’Halleran said that he was pleased to see “broad, bipartisan support” for the bill that solves a pressing issue for the affected residents of rural and tribal communities.

“In 2018, it is a shame to see so many communities that still lack access to clean, reliable drinking water. Yet, for countless families in tribal and rural communities, that is the reality,” O’Halleran’s statement said. “Today, the House of Representatives took action to ensure folks living in the White Mountains can use available resources to get their water systems up and running.”

From injured turtles to sustainable clothing: finding inspiration in unexpected places

LOS ANGELES — Like many accomplished football players, Glenn Love Jr. never worried much about life after the game. When he started playing professionally, however, the uncertainty set in.

That changed after a visit to the Turtle Rescue conservation program at the OdySea Aquarium in Scottsdale.

“They were like missing some limbs and I was like, ‘What happened? Why are they missing limbs’? ” said Love, a former Chandler Hamilton High School standout who plays linebacker for the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League.

Love learned the turtles had been injured by plastic debris, including plastic water bottles in the ocean. The aquarium had to remove their limbs in order to save the turtles from dying.

Around that same time, in May of 2017, Love launched IInner Vision Apparel company, a sustainable clothing line. He wanted a business that could also make a social impact. Inspired in part by the turtles, the apparel is made from 95 percent recycled material, and shirts specifically are constructed from five to 10 plastic bottles, recycled cotton and eco-friendly water-based ink.

Plastic that is not recycled often ends up in a landfill or ocean. According to a study by the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, plastic takes about 450 years to decompose into the earth. If it lands in the ocean, it can potentially add to an island of trash debris in the Pacific that has grown up to 600,000 square miles, according to a study in the Nature the International Journal of Science, which is twice the size of the Texas.

Glenn Love Jr. plays linebacker in the Canadian Football League. He was a standout at Hamilton High. (Photo courtesy Glenn Love Jr.)

In addition to the harmful effects of plastic, the fashion industry has a significant impact on the environment, experts say. Whether it is the practices used overseas to grow cotton or the transportation used, the apparel industry leaves a substantial carbon footprint. That motivated Love to focus on recycled cotton.

“The carbon footprint is seen in transportation and where it’s grown and how it’s grown. Most fibers are being grown with pesticides,” said Nicole Darnall, a professor of management and public policy at Arizona State’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. “They are chemically grown. And most synthetics fibers are derived from petroleum.”

Before Love had a passion for sustainable fashion, he was a football standout at Hamilton High. He lettered in four sports at the varsity level and holds the school record for most interceptions in a season (10). He also secured a 5A MVP title and a state championship.

After graduating from Hamilton, he played four seasons at UCLA where he was converted from defensive back to linebacker. He is playing his seventh season in the Canadian Football League.

Once Love started his professional career, he said he felt it was his duty to show that athletes can make a positive impact on society.

“I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just me that (my future) was affecting but it was affecting other people, too, in a positive way,” Love said.

A visit to an aquarium gave him direction.

“Seeing those things swim sideways because it had one arm, that’s because of us not because of them. They didn’t do anything wrong,” Love said. “It is because of us. Millions of sea creatures and sea life dies because of us. That really changed things.”

Love was looking for a manufacturer to produce his clothing line around the same time he visited the aquarium and found Brett Matheson, the owner of Yoganastix, a company in Arizona that produces clothing material from recycled plastic bottles.

Glenn Love. Jr. works out in clothing made from IInner Vision Apparel, the sustainable clothing company he owns. (Phot courtesy Glenn Love Jr.)

“He (Matheson) really showed me some materials … polyester, cotton, the blends and all that kind of stuff. Last one he showed me was like recycled bottles so I am like, ‘what’? ” Love said.

In that moment Love knew what he was going to do.

“When you see those turtles and me seeing this material, it was meant to be,” he said.

Although it is a good start to becoming more sustainable, it does have unintended consequences, said George Basile, a senior sustainability scientist at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. Microfiber pollution, which is the shedding of microplastics from synthetic fabrics used to make clothing, can occur.

“It’s not a bad step. You’re building a business on the idea of cycling, and cycles and surfaces and recycling. … That may position you better for using other materials that need to be recycled that are OK that leak into nature,” Basile said. “I think overall it’s a good step toward where you want to go but it’s incomplete. We want business that are interested in heading toward completeness but also are not trapped by having to be perfect.”

More than a year has passed since Love launched IInner Vision Apparel. The company has expanded from being online only to being included in Kalloni’s Closet Boutique in Gilbert.

“Immediately, he reminds me so much of myself just from his personality. Just like out how he operates,” owner Keller Ziegler said. “This is absolutely going to work out.”

The lack of a business background and fashion acumen created a few setbacks for Love, who has struggled to adjust to unexpected obstacles.

Glenn Love Jr. wears items from his clothing line. Recycled plastic bottles are used to make his shirts. (Photo courtesy Glenn Love Jr.)

“Now I’ve got to learn how to deal with people overseas, that when I was going to bed they were getting up,” he said. “So I was getting up at 3 in the morning. You cannot speak the same language and you might say one thing to someone from here and they might interpret it as something else.”

This has not deterred Love, who hopes to one day have his own brick and mortar storefront for IInner Vision, as well as be a distributor for other apparel companies looking to use sustainable materials for their clothing. He is looking to develop a business relationship with fitness brand SoulCycle and to expand into Canada.

“Maybe have a store where its all eco-friendly brands. Might be local. Might be from Zimbabwe,” Love said. “It doesn’t matter.”

“I want to have eco-friendly clothes so everyone can see that we can compete with the rest of the world with making good quality clothes.”