Water, the competition is on

Tom O’Halleran

Tom O’Halleran

In the June issue of The Villager the Verde River Basin Partnership’s article “Water: What happens here doesn’t stay here” discussed our region’s collective impact on water resources.

The reality is that the Verde River Basin (Verde Watershed) is a small part of the Colorado River Basin which is one of the largest watersheds or drainage areas in the nation.

The Colorado River heads primarily in a vast drainage area in the high country of western Colorado, the northwest corner of New Mexico, southwestern Wyoming, and eastern Utah. En route to the Gulf of California, it drains almost all if Arizona as well as smaller parts of Nevada and California and a small area of Mexico.

Since the late 1990’s flow to the Gulf of California has occurred only during high-precipitation years and flooding events; otherwise all the waters of the system are consumed prior to reaching the Gulf.

In 1922, the seven states that encompass the Colorado River Basin signed the Colorado River Compact (Compact). The Compact’s purpose is to: “provide for the equitable division and apportionment of the use of the waters of the Colorado River System.”

The Compact divides the system into an Upper Basin comprising the States of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming and a Lower Basin comprising the States of Arizona, California, and Nevada.

The Upper and Lower Basins were each allocated the exclusive beneficial consumptive use of 7.5 million acre-feet of water per annum or a combined use of 15 million acre- feet yearly.

This Compact was signed at a time of high precipitation and water flow in the Colorado Basin. In addition the Compact requires that 1.5 million acre-feet per year be supplied to Mexico, for a total demand on the Colorado River of 16.5 million acre-feet per year.

In the years since the Compact was ratified, through 2008, the average calculated “natural” flow at Lees Ferry is 14.4 million acre-feet. Thus the water resources of the Colorado River are seriously over-allocated.

The Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation in conjunction with the seven basin states has initiated the Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study which is to be released in November of 2012.

In a fact sheet issued by the Bureau of Reclamation they stated: “Water supply and demand imbalances already exist in some geographic areas in the Basin and are projected to increase in both magnitude and spatial extent in the future.

Storage capacity of approximately four times the average inflow has provided the ability to meet most demands even over periods of sustained drought, such as currently being experienced.

However, studies indicated that droughts of greater severity have occurred in the past and climate experts and scientists suggest that such droughts are likely to occur in the future.

Furthermore, studies have postulated that by mid-century the average yield of the Colorado River could be reduced by 10-20 percent due to climate change.

Meanwhile, the Basin States include some of the fastest growing urban and industrial areas in the United States.” In addition a paper in the National Academy publication Proceedings indicated: “Climate change also threatens to reduce runoff by 10 to 30 percent by 2050, depending on how much the planet warms.”

What does all this have to do with the water needs within the Verde River Basin?

The Central Yavapai HIghlands Water Resources Management Study suggests that we could have a projected shortfall in meeting our water resource needs of up to 45,000 acre-feet yearly by 2050.

This does not include any additional resources to guarantee continued surface water flows in the Verde River and its tributaries. Some of the solutions being analyzed by the Bureau of Reclamation and Yavapai County Water Advisory Committee include augmentation of our regions water supplies from the Colorado River, desalinization of saline groundwater or importation of water transported from other surface water sources outside our region, higher levels of conservation, enhanced reuse of effluent, reallocation use of surface waters that are currently legally committed for use, and harvesting runoff from developed areas. The answer could be a combination of most of the above.

Each of these potential solutions has challenges to overcome. For this article we will focus on importation of water from the Colorado River and desalinization.

The major issues for both options are availability, costs of infrastructure, long-term costs in maintenance and environmental concerns.

These options will also require long lead times for procurement of water rights, legal issues, loan agreements, development of infrastructure, obtaining necessary permits and public involvement and approval.

The biggest issues are competition and costs especially for a region that is remote from other reliable water sources while not having a population that can easily secure the necessary funding.

We now know that the entire Colorado Basin is and will continue to struggle in finding additional water supplies for future growth and economic stability.

That means that these solutions will be costly and require a coordinated response in our region, state involvement from bodies such as Arizona’s Water Resources Development Commission, and programs which might include all the states involved in the Colorado River Compact, or a national program.

Any solution must also consider the preservation of the groundwaters and surface waters of the Verde River Basin and similar river basins throughout our nation.

While this may seem logical to most, our history throughout our country and the Southwest is that we have not been good stewards in preserving surface water resources.

One of the best ways to accomplishment preservation is to recognize that the longer we wait the more costly our solutions become, thus we will have fewer options and our existing surface waters will be put at increasing risk.

As Theodore Roosevelt stated: “Speak softly and carry a big stick, you will go far.” We are in a very competitive environment and we do not carry the biggest stick. Recognition of the problem, regional collaboration and an involved public are needed now.

If we fail to recognize the issue today’s water-resource problems pose then they will become tomorrow’s water-resource crisis.

For more water-resource information go to the Verde River Basin Partnership’s website at vrbp.org.

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