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Arizona’s long-term water future: Is the state ready to make hard decisions?

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PHOENIX – Residents of the Sun Corridor stretching through the Valley and Tucson turn on faucets, water lawns and fill swimming pools without any doubt that the state’s most precious resource will always be there.

More than century of planning has brought Arizona to this point, starting with the Salt River Project and decades of arduous negotiations that led to a supply of Colorado River water. So have the landmark Groundwater Management Act of 1980 and a system of banking some of the state’s Colorado River allotment in aquifers.

While all of it gives Arizona flexibility in the near term, many conversations these days focus on the long term as two decades of drought grips the Southwest and the Colorado River’s watershed.

In January, an Arizona Department of Water Resources report pointed to the potential for a long-term imbalance between available water and demands over the next century. It said that Arizona will need to develop additional water supplies over the next 25 to 100 years to keep pace with growth.

Former Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon said last year that to avoid a future water crisis Arizona should partner with Mexico now to establish desalination plants that would bring water north.

If the Colorado River’s flow continues to suffer, the U.S. Department of the Interior could declare a shortage as early as 2017. Under the agreement that established the CAP, Arizona’s rights to the Colorado would take a hit before California loses a drop, triggering conservation steps that include reducing delivery to irrigated farms that use the majority of Arizona’s water supply.

But is Arizona ready for the conversations and hard decisions needed to address a long-term water shortage?

A 2011 report by Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy said policymakers have avoided the topic because of the fear that it could create negative perceptions that could hinder growth. It said that water officials sidestep such conversations by simply noting that they are prepared for crises.

Pamela Pickard, president of the Central Arizona Project’s board of directors, said water is a contentious public policy issue and not one that people will compromise on lightly, in part because proposed long-term solutions involve costs that policymakers must weigh.

“They always say, ‘Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting,’” she said, citing a phrase attributed to Mark Twain.

Former U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, whose quarter century in Washington included shepherding landmark legislation on water rights, said the key at this point is having conversations involving all affected groups, including farmers and the general public.

“Arizona is the No. 1 state when it comes to water issues,” Kyl said. “We need a long-term water dialogue in Arizona so people don’t feel like water will be taken away from them.”

Kyl is teaming with U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., to spend the next year promoting conversations about Arizona’s water future and exploring ways to supplement its water supply.

“Now it’s time, where we are really at a point where we need to look again at a new generation of leaders to do what people in the past have done,” Flake said. “This matters politically.”

Dan Hunting, a senior policy analyst at ASU’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, said a shortage shouldn’t come as a surprise to water officials in the state.

“What’s characteristic about Arizona’s water supply is that it’s predictably unpredictable,” he added. “It was always a matter of when, not if, we experience a shortage.”

Hunting said the farming community, as such a large user of water, needs to be more involved in the conversation.

“They feel like everyone is pointing to them and are not enticed to join the conversation,” he said.

House Speaker Andy Tobin, R-Paulden, said conservation needs to be part of conversations about Arizona’s water future. He noted that schools and community centers have added programs to help children and adults understand the importance of using water wisely, while the use of reclaimed water has increased at golf courses and parks around the state.

“Any number of things could make a difference,” he said.

Tobin said Arizona can build on that by involving more people in discussions about the state’s water future.

“We need to have more conversations right now,” he said.

Doug Dunham, special assistant to the Arizona Department of Water Resources’ director, said education and conservation have taken the state a long way but aren’t the long-term solution.

“We’ve taken all the big bites out of that apple,” he said

Dunham said officials should be working with Mexico and California on ways to import desalinated seawater.

“The most drought-proof solution is ocean desalination because sooner or later we have to tackle the big issues,” he said.

CAP spokesman Bob Barrett agreed that the most drought-proof solution is to build an ocean desalination plant in or near Arizona, noting that such an agreement may require more than 20 years of discussions.

“The technology is there, but it’s expensive,” Barrett said. “I say to the Legislature: You’re going to have to pony up and pay for the costs of treating water. There is no alternative.”

The Morrison Institute’s Hunting said politicians can come to grips with the price of a desalination plant if they know the facts.

“What we need right now is a deeper understanding by policymakers about what our situation is,” he said. “I want someone who will look at the complex solutions, not the short easy ones.”

Pickard, the CAP board president, said this election year will test which politicians are ready to make Arizona’s water future a priority.

“When Arizonans can unquestionably turn on the tap and get water without question, we’re doing our job,” she said. “We don’t want our customers to have to think about whether there will be water or not.”