Arizona’s Groundwater Replenishment Program Facing an Uncertain Future

PHOENIX — A key water management tool that sustains housing development in central Arizona does not have a rosy future, according to a new report from Arizona State University.

The report looks at the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District, which the Legislature established in 1993 to assure the replenishment of groundwater that’s tapped for development.

Developers and, by extension, home buyers, can pump and purchase groundwater and then pay into the program; the district then has to replenish the water that serves those homes. This is a way to meet the state’s water management goals and comply with the legally required 100-year water supply.

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But the report outlines several concerns about the specific rules that govern the replenishment district and casts doubt on the district’s ability to find water to meet expected obligations.

One concern is that the replenished water does not have to be returned to the same place where it originally was pumped. The district only has to put water back into the larger active management area, and the recharged water doesn’t necessarily migrate to where it’s needed.

“It’s an unsustainable practice,” said Kathy Ferris with ASU’s Kyl Center for Water Policy, the report’s co-author. “There are so many different aquifers and layers. There are seven subbasins. And water doesn’t just move around like it’s in a bathtub. Sometimes it doesn’t move at all, depending on where it’s recharged.”

There are five active management areas in central Arizona. The one in Phoenix, for example, covers 5,646 square miles.

Another concern is financial. As water in Arizona becomes more expensive, some homeowners enrolled in the replenishment district have looked for water that’s cheaper than the original source the developer identified for its required 100-year water supply. A different source may free homeowners from paying an annual charge for replenishment.

The problem, the report said, is that the district still must find and pay for water “to meet the member’s long-term replenishment obligation.”

Depending on how many homeowners use this cheaper-source strategy, it could mean consistent expenses but lower revenues for the replenishment district, which has fixed costs that do not fluctuate depending on how much water needs to be replenished that year.

Ferris cited a consultant’s report from 2017 that said if all of the Phoenix area lands enrolled in the replenishment district used this workaround, the result would be “financially catastrophic.” The consultant’s policy recommendations involved legal or regulatory changes that have not been enacted.

The ASU report also raises concerns over the amount of water the replenishment district is expected to need to meet its current and projected obligations, especially at a time of shortage conditions on the Colorado River, the state’s largest source of surface water.

The district’s board also runs the Central Arizona Project canal system. In a statement, the agency pointed out it “was charged with the statutory obligation to manage the CAGRD since its inception more than 25 years ago,” saying it “has fulfilled this duty effectively, demonstrating fiscal responsibility while securing a robust water supply portfolio that will be available through the mid-2030s.”

CAP also acknowledged in the statement that its part of the discussion over where growth will happen in urban areas especially Maricopa County.

“CAP welcomes the opportunity to be part of it, but given that the focus of this conversation would be beyond CAP’s CAGRD responsibilities, CAP may not be the appropriate entity to convene and lead this conversation.”

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The agency does not have the legal authority to reject new enrollees in the groundwater replenishment program. The Arizona Department of Water Resources does have some oversight because it approves a 10-year plan for the district and can later reverse an approval.

But the report said “such a decision will be politically difficult, will not stop the sale of previously enrolled but unconstructed lots, and will not address CAGRD’s continuing replenishment obligations for its current members.” It recommends authorizing the program to deny accepting new members if needed.

A spokeswoman at the water resources department declined to comment on the ASU report, saying it had not yet been reviewed.

The report comes on the heels of the state releasing its own water bombshell: a new model for the Pinal Active Management Area that shows an expected shortfall of more than 8 million acre-feet of water. An acre-foot is enough water to cover 1 acre of land with 1 foot of water, enough to supply a family of four for a year.

“I think that the Pinal situation demonstrates that as time has gone on, we’ve learned more and more about our groundwater resources,” Ferris said. “And our scientific ways of assessing how much groundwater is there have dramatically changed. Nobody’s talking about the fact that, well, even if there was enough groundwater, if it’s all used up, it gets all used up.

“Then what?”

Unquenchable Thirst: Groundwater Bill Could Shift California’s Water Management Approach

LOS ANGELES – The latest salvo is California’s long-running water wars, SB307, has the potential to emerge as one of the most important pieces of water regulation in recent years. Although its target was narrow — it was designed to undercut the capacity of Cadiz, Inc. to pump annually upwards of 16 billion gallons of groundwater in eastern San Bernardino County and sell it to ever-thirsty Southern California — the legislation may prove to be far-reaching in its consequences.

Governor Gavin Newsom signed the bill into law on July 31, requiring independent review from the State Lands Commission, Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Department of Water Resources to ensure that pumping from the groundwater basin doesn’t harm the natural or cultural resources at the site and in the surrounding watersheds. Focused on short-term impact, columnist at the Desert Sun, decried the bill as a job-killer and legislative overreach. The Los Angeles Times and the Sacramento Bee read the law as yet another Golden State rebuke of the Trump administration and made much of the legislation’s protection of imperiled Mojave Desert springs and species. The environmental impact of the law was a point that Sen. Dianne Feinstein confirmed: “If Cadiz were allowed to drain a vital desert aquifer,“ she declared, “everything that makes our desert special — from bighorn sheep and desert tortoises to Joshua trees and breathtaking wildflower blooms—would have been endangered.“

Bighorn sheep relax along the Barker Dam trail in Joshua Tree National Park. (Photo via Jasperdo/Creative Commons)

These are all important considerations to be sure. But the new law is actually more expansive in reality and reach. Although the enduring battle over the control and distribution of white gold dates back to the Spanish conquest of Alta California in the late 18th century, this particular piece of 21st century legislation offers an important twist in the state’s longstanding struggle to secure a sustainable supply of this most-essential resource.

In this case, the play has been for desert groundwater. That unusual wellspring is a bit of a shock, not least because ever since the Gold Rush it has been Sierran snowmelt that has dominated the state’s mirage-like fantasies of an unending stream of water that would blast open mineral riches, fill reservoirs, irrigate farms and lawns, drive industrial production, and wash windows, cars, and sidewalks. This natural tap would forever boom the state’s economy. But could the desert, specifically the Mojave Desert, one of the most arid regions on this blue planet, become a rich repository of water? That has seemed a contradiction in terms.

Adding to the confusion is that the main actors in this most-recent drama are not the usual suspects. This story isn’t about water grabs devised by big ag in the Central Valley. It isn’t about a scheming Metropolitan Water District (though it would surely benefit from the deal). Neither the City of Los Angeles nor the State of California, each of which in the past has diverted vast amounts of other region’s water for its own ends (and ticked off a lot of people in the process), are the creators of this particular narrative.

Taking center stage instead is a clutch of venture capitalists who have invested in the Cadiz Project, and whose investment has underwritten the purchase of 34,000 desert acres and associated water rights in San Bernardino County. Theirs is a supply-side operation, a tantalizing pool of water that has not yet been integrated into California’s highly complex water-market. Should it ever be so — and you can be certain that Cadiz will do everything in its power to make that happen, SB307 notwithstanding — then its privately owned groundwater will become a cash cow for Wall Street profiteers.

The latest salvo is California’s long-running water wars has the potential to emerge as one of the most important pieces of water regulation in recent years. (Getty Images)

Standing in their way is this new law, the promise of which is that it unflinchingly calls the question on water agencies and consumers: why are we still fixated on securing new supplies of hitherto unexploited water, by hook or by crook? Cadiz, after all, is one more shimmering proposal, in a long line of such illusions, that ever-dry Southern California can solve its water crises by pumping out the Owens River Valley, the Colorado River, or that trio of NorCal rivers, the Feather, Sacramento, or the San Joaquin. Absent this law, and the Mojave would be yet another victim of our unquenchable thirst.

The adoption of this law sheds light on a new approach to water management: the smartest, least expensive, and most efficient method of building a more water-resilient state is to tackle the demand side of the equation. That’s at the heart of an argument by Peter Gleick, president Emeritus of the Pacific Institute, in a 2018 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In it, he probes the new water-management paradigm that he dubs the “soft water path,“ a refocusing on the “multiple benefits water provides, improving water use efficiency, integrating new technology for decentralized water sources, modernizing management systems, committing to ecological restoration, and adopting more effective economic approaches.“ By rigorous conservation we can do more with less.

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That prospect isn’t new. It has been demonstrated in the implementation and constant improvement of low-flow technologies that are required features in building codes across California. It was strikingly manifest, amid a punishing four-year drought, in the rapid decrease in urban water use following Gov. Jerry Brown’s April 2015 declaration of mandatory emergency restrictions to cut consumption by 25%. It is evident as well in Orange County’s highly successful groundwater replenishment operation — to date, the world’s largest — that captures and treats stormwater and effluent to the EPA’s highest standard for potable water; the project currently serves more than 500,000 people a year (with an expansion underway to increase its capacity to an estimated 850,00 consumers by 2020).

This system is making a critical contribution to the county’s ambition to become water independent by 2050, an ambition that the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability believes Los Angeles County could replicate. In its 2018 report, the center highlighted “potential pathways to a transformation of the city’s historical reliance on imported water to an integrated, green infrastructure, water management approach that provides water quality, supply, flood control, habitat, open space and other benefits.”

Although galvanizing policymakers, politicians, and taxpayers to invest in these proven, real-world outcomes will not be easy, UCLA researchers believe “the recent extreme drought on water supplies throughout California has created a new urgency to increase the city’s ability to provide a secure, resilient water supply through local sources.“ SB307 might accelerate that transition by helping break our bad habit of relying on Cadiz-like pipe dreams, which the late historian Norris Hundley argues in “The Great Thirst“ was “born of an earlier era when abundance encouraged abuse.“ If it does so, then it will mark a significant turning point in the state’s contentious water history.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Elemental: Covering Sustainability is a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

As Southwest Water Managers Grapple with Climate Change, Can a ‘Grand Bargain’ Work?

BOULDER, Colo. – Water managers on the Colorado River are facing a unique moment. With a temporary fix to the river’s scarcity problem recently completed, talk is turning toward future agreements to better manage the water source for 40 million people across the Southwest.

Climate change, growing populations and fragile rural economies are top of mind. Some within the vast basin see a window of opportunity to argue for big, bold actions to find balance in the watershed. Others say the best path forward is to take small, incremental steps toward lofty goals, a method Colorado River managers say has worked well for them for decades.

That tension was on full display at a June gathering of water agency leaders, environmentalists, scientists and federal bureaucrats in Boulder, where they reflected on the recently signed Colorado River drought contingency plans and began to envision what might be included in a long-term solution.

(The conference at the University of Colorado’s Getches-Wilkinson Center was sponsored in part by the Walton Family Foundation, which also provides funding for KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.)

John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s water resources program, and Eric Kuhn, former general manager of the Colorado River District, used the opportunity to shop around a concept they call the “grand bargain,” which they say would address the basin’s fundamental imbalance between supply and demand.

In their new book “Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River,” Fleck and Kuhn say scientists always have warned against promising too much water to too many people but were sidelined by politicians looking to grow crops and cities. That led to inflated figures in the Colorado River Compact of 1922 that plague water managers today. The original sin was putting more water on paper than existed in the real world.

That problem has been made clear by a 20-year drought that pushed the river’s biggest reservoirs – Lakes Mead and Powell – to their lowest collective volume since Powell filled in 1980. Studies show that climate change already is sapping the Colorado’s flow, accelerating evaporation and shrinking the snowpack that feeds it.

Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the country, has been dropping for years, and if it dips too low, it could trigger a mandatory delivery cuts in the Lower Colorado River Basin. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

The 1922 compact, which is considered the cornerstone of the “Law of the River,” split the Colorado River Basin into two legal and geographic entities: Upper (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico) and Lower (California, Arizona and Nevada). The compact promised each basin 7.5 million acre feet of water each year, to be split among the states of each basin. A later agreement promised Mexico 1.5 million acre feet of water from the river, without specifying which basin was responsible for delivering it.

To get the compact signed, leaders in both basins agreed to measure the river’s flow at a place just downstream of where Glen Canyon Dam sits today and use it as a point of reference. If the amount of water measured at that point ever dipped below the contracted amount in subsequent years, the Lower Basin could call for its water, shutting off users in the Upper Basin if need be.

That hypothetical move is called a Compact Call, and if it happened, water managers worry it would set off a cascade of events across the Upper Basin, forcing cities, farmers and industry alike to cut some or all of their use. It would also likely throw all the Colorado River states into a prolonged fight before the Supreme Court.

Fleck and Kuhn say the grand bargain would rebalance some of the compact’s bad math. In it, the Lower Basin would agree to abandon that longstanding right to demand water from the Upper Basin if it runs short.

In exchange, the Upper Basin would agree to a cap on future water development. For more than a decade, the Upper Basin has used about 4.5 million acre-feet of water annually, well below its compact cap of 7.5 million. But a slate of projects in the Upper Basin represent an attempt to tap into that unused entitlement.

Capping the Upper Basin’s usage and removing the Lower Basin’s ability to call for water would make the whole system more resilient, Fleck said.

“Then both sides are giving up a cherished right and (agreeing to) a compromise that has the potential to then bring some stability and balance in the long run and remove a lot of the risk of really catastrophic conflict,” he said.

The threat of a compact call from the Lower Basin and the visions of big new reservoirs in the Upper Basin are driving all kinds of self-serving behavior, Fleck said.

But for the bargain to work, water managers throughout the basin need to convince themselves and their state’s leaders of one thing: There is no more additional water to be had in the Colorado River basin.

“Managing to the amount of water we actually have may sound intuitive and logical, but we’ve never actually done it on this river,” John Entsminger, general manger of Southern Nevada Water Authority, said at the Boulder conference.

Within the next year and a half, he and other water managers will sit down to figure out life beyond 2026. That’s the deadline to come up with a new set of guidelines to manage the Colorado River, last agreed to in 2007. Entsminger listed his top priorities in those negotiations, including a discussion of limiting new Upper Basin uses. Without addressing that, he said, it would be hard to get a comprehensive deal done.

“For us to be successful we’ve all got to lose,” Entsminger said. “The future of this river is less water and we’re all going to have to get by with less.”

But tinkering too much with the river’s legal underpinnings doesn’t sit well with Pat Tyrrell, former Wyoming state engineer and the state’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission.

“What you cannot do is cap at our existing level of development without saying to essentially the four Upper Basin states, ‘We’re going to let you die on the vine,’” Tyrrell said. “We have to have room to develop.

“You can’t go to Utah and say, ‘You can’t have any more kids.’”

Tyrrell suggested Lower Basin states “go to the ocean,” meaning making bigger investments in desalination to provide additional freshwater, before lecturing Upper Basin states that they need to cut back.

“If we try to open or amend the compact, I think the results will be horrible,” Tyrrell said.

That’s a familiar refrain from a state well below its current entitlement to Colorado River basin water, with plans to tap more.

But Eric Kuhn, one of the grand bargain’s proponents, said the Upper Basin has been using roughly the same amount of water for years, while population continued to grow.

“One of the myths that we have to break is that economic prosperity requires a higher consumptive use,” Kuhn said.

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Busting the myth of population growth or booming economies requiring greater volumes of water will be key to getting a deal done that adequately addresses climate change, Kuhn said, “so we can sell some of the ideas that will be necessary, to live with what we got, not what we thought we had 100 years ago on the river.”

The tension between the incremental, conservative approach of risk-averse water managers and the alarm-bell-ringing of climate scientists and environmentalists will certainly play into the renegotiation of the 2007 guidelines.

“Everyone knows climate change is a big deal, but the efforts and the steps that we’re taking are incremental steps that aren’t getting us where we need to get fast enough,” said Jen Pelz, wild rivers program director for the conservation group WildEarth Guardians.

The incremental approach works when you have many parties trying to come up with a solution and unwilling to give up too much in a compromise, she said. The revolutionary approach requires an acknowledgement that real danger exists.

“I think the Colorado River is in deep danger,” Pelz said.

Water managers conceive of the Colorado River as existing to deliver water to people, Pelz said. What’s often lost in lofty discussions about law and policy is that the river is integral to how ecosystems function in the Southwest.

“There’s a huge blind spot around what the environment needs,” Pelz said. “Who’s going to provide that vision for the environment? It’s not going to be the water managers. That’s not their constituency.”

Luke Runyon reports for KUNC, based in Greeley, Colorado. Bret Jaspers reports for KJZZ in Phoenix. KUNC assistant news director Erin O’Toole contributed to this report.

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.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

City Uses Reclaimed Water to Bring ‘Dead’ Arizona River Back to Life

TUCSON – Along a parched riverbed where only dust and wild grasses have held sway for the past 70 years, the Santa Cruz now flows.

As of June 24, under the watch of Tucson Water Department officials, a section of the river just west of downtown will receive a maximum of 2.8 million gallons a day of treated effluent to restore the riparian area and help replenish aquifers as part of the Santa Cruz River Heritage Project.

Last weekend, the water flow stretched almost 2.5 miles, far surpassing the city’s expectations. To reduce this excess, Fernando Molina, a spokesman with Tucson Water, said the city lowered the flow Monday, and the water has since receded to about 1 mile in length.

The goal is to keep the river flowing north just past Congress Street, about a half mile south of its current stopping point near Speedway Boulevard, he said.

Tucson officials say the water stretched almost to Speedway Boulevard before the city slowed the flow. (Photo by Dylan Simard/Cronkite News)

Tucson Water director Tim Thomure said the water was available because the city has over-prepared for expected growth and advances have been made in conservation technology and awareness.

“As of 2016, and it’s still true today, we were using the same amount of potable water in Tucson as we were in the mid-1980s, with 200,000 more people and a much more robust economy,” he said. “Because water conservation and efficiency was actually moving faster than new-growth demand for water.”

Most effluent enters Arizona rivers as a means of disposal, Thomure said, but the Heritage Project’s approach of using reclaimed water to restore an ecosystem is the first of its kind in the state.

He called the river the “birthplace of Tucson,” saying the project will honor the river’s rich history and connected culture.

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Humans have used the Santa Cruz since about 1,200 B.C., according to the city’s Heritage Project history page. First used by the Hohokam for drinking water, irrigation and fishing, the river was quickly depleted in the late 1800s when settlers began pumping groundwater.

Dan Stormont, with Sustainable Tucson, a volunteer group, called the project an exciting effort by the city but said it’s not a solution on its own.

“It’s just a Band-Aid, honestly,” he said. “It’s a way to restore the natural flow to a small section of the river and make it look the way it used to look – and that’s going to be a challenge, too, because of course it’s not just a river anymore, it’s also a flood control channel.”

Some concerns have been raised about the project, including an increased threat of floods during monsoon season, the potential toxicity of effluent and doubts over whether some of the predicted positive effects – such as increased tourism – will actually materialize.

Thomure acknowledged the decision to restore a section of the Santa Cruz was made quickly, and that only time will reveal whether these concerns are valid.

The city was required to study the reclaimed water’s quality and quantity, as well as how it would interact with existing groundwater stores, before the project was allowed to move forward, he said. The new water, Thomure said, is just as safe as – if not safer than – the natural river water.

Stormont noted concerns about the water’s safety but said it’s likely safer than some water that already enters the river.

“When you consider anytime it rains, we get a large rain, it’s washing all the hydrocarbons off the street, the heavy metals for brake pads, all of that stuff is running into the rivers and being infiltrated as well,” he said. “The effluent that’s being discharged is much cleaner than most of the runoff from the street.”

However, the effluent being pumped into the Santa Cruz River isn’t 100% purified, Thomure said, because city officials feared that “over-engineered” water would not promote the most natural ecological growth possible. He advised visitors to avoid swimming or drinking the river water.

Tucson resident Deandra Binder’s dog Rat (front) and Whitney Noel’s dog Zinnia (back) enjoy their new, cool place to play at the mouth of a recently awakened section of the Santa Cruz River. (Photo by Deandra Binder)

Whitney Noel and Deandra Binder of Tucson, who took their dogs for a walk along the riverbed at the mouth of the revived portion, said they’d like the city to make the waterfront more accessible to visitors.

“I think it’s going to bring tons of people out,” Noel said. “There’s no water down here. Even the spots out at Tanque Verde Falls, different areas that we go to … , just to get to water in the summertime.”

Thomure said if the project receives continued public support and proves to be sustainable, the city would be open to enacting similar projects farther down the river. This section, at least, is here to stay.

“We expect the water to be discharged to the river indefinitely,” Thomure said. “There will be times where we turn off the flow to maintain the system. There’ll also be times when we turn off the flow when monsoon rains are actually happening and we have natural flows, but this will be a flowing stream from here on out.”

Noel said she hopes the increased river flow instills a sense of pride in Tucson residents and visitors.

“I think a lot of people are going to take pride in it and hopefully keep it really clean,” Noel said. “I would totally volunteer to come down here and clean it up.”

Stormont said this project may be a stepping stone toward further habitat restoration efforts in Tucson.

“It’s not the answer to all our problems, but it is an exciting project that I think does give people some motivation to see what our rivers could look like if we are more careful in how we manage our water,” he said. “Hopefully it’s the first step towards restoring the flow of our rivers in Tucson.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.