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Arizona official cites state’s water policies as model for Colorado River

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Chart courtesy Arizona Municipal Water Users Association

A chart from the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association shows that water consumption in the state has grown by about 7 percent since 1957 even though the population has grown by 470 percent during that time. (Click on chart for larger version.)


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WASHINGTON – The director of the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association told a Senate subcommittee Tuesday that there is no “silver bullet” to the problem of rising demand for water from the Colorado River.

Kathleen Ferris pointed to Arizona’s years of successful water management policies that have kept water use at virtually the same level since 1957, despite an exploding population. But while conservation and reuse are essential, Ferris said other measures need to be taken, such as the augmentation of supplies.

“We have to expand our thinking,” Ferris told a subcommittee of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

She was one of several government, tribal and expert witnesses who appeared before the Subcommittee on Water and Power to discuss the Bureau of Reclamation’s December study on water supply and demand in the Colorado River Basin.

That study laid out challenges for the river, which provides drinking water to nearly 40 million people, generates 4,200 megawatts of hydropower, delivers water for farm irrigation and provides recreational opportunities that help drive tourism in the region.

The study said the river is facing demand from growing populations and is undergoing a drought that has put flows at their lowest levels in at least 100 years – and possibly the lowest in 1,200 years. It projected that in 50 years, demand could outstrip supply of river water by about 3.2 million acre-feet per year.

The bureau does not make specific recommendations, instead outlining the threats and “the range of solutions … that may be considered to resolve those imbalances,” said bureau Commissioner Michael Connor in his testimony.

Taylor Hawes, the director of the Colorado River Program at the Nature Conservancy, told the hearing that  states in the basin are heading into uncharted territory.

“The future will not look like the past,” she said.

Besides the environmental issues at stake, Hawes said the Colorado also needs to be preserved because of the recreation it provides and the jobs that come with that. Hawes said the Colorado River contributes $26 billion to the economy and supports about 234,000 jobs in the six basin states: Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

She also said famers need to be consulted about prospective solutions. Hawes said that the Colorado River Program works with farmers to ensure that any measures taken to protect the Colorado River do not infringe on property rights.

“All of those things need to be explored,” Hawes said, and solutions need to be “feasible and cost-effective.”

Witnesses said one part of the solution is conservation – an area that Arizona has been particularly successful at, Ferris said.

A large part of the state’s success is due to the Groundwater Management Act, which regulates the use and conservation of groundwater in Arizona’s most heavily populated areas.

“Since 1980, Arizona has pursued a comprehensive approach to water management,” Ferris said. “We implemented many programs to reduce consumption and increase efficiency.”

In addition to the conservation of water, Arizona has treated and reused water and required new residential subdivisions to prove they have a 100-year assured water supply.

Those efforts won kudos from committee members.

“I’ve always praised what has been done in Arizona,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. “A lot of forethought went into it.”

Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., filling in for the subcommittee chairman, also praised Arizona for its success in water conservation.

“It is a tough balancing act,” Flake said. “We’ve managed to do it pretty well in Arizona.”

Ferris said state governments – not the federal government – need to develop solutions.

“If we need federal or congressional help, then we can come forward and ask,” Ferris said. “I’m not sure we’re there yet.”