Commentary: Why Arizona needs urgent water law reform
The Verde River is one of the last remaining living and flowing rivers in Arizona, and Arizona’s only federally designated Wild and Scenic River.
The Verde flows through over 190 miles of state, private, federal, and tribal lands before joining the Salt River northeast of Mesa.
Along that journey, the river not only provides numerous places for recreation, swimming, fishing, kayaking and spiritual restoration, but also provides critical habitat for animals, birds, and fish.
The Verde is currently critically threatened by agricultural groundwater pumping, residential development, municipal water use, invasive plants, and the Big Chino Water Ranch project, which would draw groundwater to supply the City of Prescott.
The Salt River at one time flowed through Phoenix and supported stands of Cottonwood trees, beavers, otters and a lush riparian habitat. Imagine. It probably looked somewhat like the parts of the Verde River Watershed: lush, wet, beautiful, and full of life.
We have sucked dry most of the Salt and Gila Rivers, and portions of the Santa Cruz and the San Pedro Rivers. Even the mighty Colorado River now rarely flows to the sea, being diverted for other uses all along its course.
I believe the Verde can be saved, but we urgently need to modernize our water policy in the State of Arizona. Arizona’s Groundwater Management Act of 1980 was originally designed to end aquifer depletion and ensure a 100-year water supply for Arizona communities.
It has completely failed to protect flowing rivers and creeks. Also, we must recognize the interconnection of groundwater and surface water. In some places, if you reduce the water table by as little as one foot, a once flowing stream will disappear underground completely.
Our ancient water laws in Arizona, where use is governed by the “Law of Prior Appropriations,” must be updated to consider the benefit of flowing rivers and creeks.
Recently, Saudi Arabian companies have bought land in Arizona to plant alfalfa for export to their home county. One Saudi enterprise, Almarai, has purchased 15 square miles near Vicksburg, Arizona and is pumping millions of gallons of water every day to water their thirsty crops.
They are doing this because it makes economic sense and there is no law preventing it. There is no cost for groundwater that they pump and no consideration to the environmental consequences of their actions.
I have watched as my neighbors along Oak Creek recently graded and planted alfalfa on a vacant piece of land, using precious creek water to grow a few dollars-worth of alfalfa.
Another neighbor pumps water from the creek and lets it flow onto her vacant property simply to maintain an old irrigation right. This is lunacy.
Please note that in 2016 agriculture contributed less than 2 percent to our state GDP while accounting for 68 percent of Arizona’s water use.
Without serious and meaningful change to our state water laws we will leave a legacy of parched dry and dusty riverbeds to the future generations.
There will be no fish, no birds, no wildlife, no place to plunge into a cool stream on a hot day, and no towering Sycamore trees.
Climate change, warming temperatures and reduced precipitation intensify the urgency of updating our water law in the State of Arizona and appropriately valuing the water that we all depend upon.
Lynda Person is a fourth-generation Arizona native who worked for several years as an environmental geologist before starting a small real estate brokerage firm. She currently owns vacation rental properties in the Verde Valley and advocates for protection of the Verde River and water law reform in the State of Arizona.