First off, a caveat: There are myriad suggestions on how to manage water in the West, but there is not yet one “right” answer to keep it flowing for both citizens and crops.
In one of the many discussions on the subject, the University of Arizona’s Water Resources Research Center went virtual in this, the year of the virus, for its 2020 conference commemorating the 40th celebration of Arizona’s momentous Groundwater Management Act, a long-term planning structure to safeguard water certainty for residents.
“That Act created a management structure we’re still building on today, a culture of statewide water discussion and collaboration that will carry us into the future,” says WRRC Director Sharon Megdal, who is also a board member of the Central Arizona Project.
It’s a necessity that those discussions continue said conference keynote speaker, former Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt, who also served as Secretary of the Interior in the late 1990s.
Babbitt has gone on record in favor of transferring Colorado River water from existing rural users into growing metro areas in central Arizona, and, yes, a good percentage of that water belongs to the agricultural community.
“His proposal makes sense because the Colorado River cannot continue serving 40 million people, irrigating the same acreage and meeting our aspirations in a time of megadrought…unless we begin to retire irrigated acreage with a carefully managed strategy,” wrote Denise Fort, who once chaired the Western Water Policy Review Advisory Commission.
In an op ed piece for Writers on the Range, she noted: “For every rain-fed cornfield sprouting emerald-like in the Arizona desert, there are tens of thousands of acres of alfalfa fields guzzling up millions of gallons of water per year. This is agribusiness, not small farmers, responsible for 80% of the water use in the West.”
Water transfer controversial
And Babbitt’s contention to the more than 400 virtual conferees was that the already controversial issue of water transfer needed to be resolved before it became a knockdown, drag-out war.
“Not long ago, the Arizona Daily Star reported a discussion between the Department of Water Resources and the CAP -- a private discussion -- about the possibility of taking 150,000-acre-feet of Colorado River water and bringing it up through the canal into central Arizona,” he said.
“We have two sets of issues pretty clearly in conflict with some degree of legitimacy on the differing points of view,” he said. “Currently, there is no policy guidance reflecting the proper balance -- no policy at all -- so rural communities are concerned that there might not be any limits and the withdrawals could go on forever. We need some statutory requirements, some comprehensive state guidelines to look at alternatives because we currently have no policy to deal with a controversy that could quickly get out of hand.”
Babbitt suggested persuading the state legislature to create a process that would develop a consensus that could be turned into legislation, much the way the Groundwater Management Act was created 40 years ago.
“We’re going to have to create a statutory process to spin this discussion, a dialogue involving all involved parties, from agriculture to native communities to cities and political leaders, not to come up with just a pile of papers, but a draft of a water transfer process that, if not approved by the legislature, would become law anyway,” he said.
Babbitt’s idea of ‘retiring’ some 300,000 acres of irrigated agriculture to save 1 million acre-feet of the Colorado River is controversial and his ‘buy-and-dry’ concept has met with emotional responses. For example, one writer noted: “Drying up vital food-producing land is a blunt tool that will bring decline to rural communities who have developed around irrigated agriculture.”
One of the WRRC panelists, Jeff Silvertooth, Economic Development Director within the University of Arizona’s Division of Agriculture, commented: “Interesting concept and appealing to many who are not in the ag sector, farming the rural communities of Arizona, probably an issue driven by economics and direct water supply more than laws or regulations.”