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Friday, February 19, 2016

Report-Back: Governor's Water Augmentation Council's first meeting

The first meeting of the new Governor's Water Augmentation Council (GWAC) focused on conservation. If you think that's encouraging, don't hold your breath.

A presentation on conservation included the breakdown of water use by sector in Arizona, agriculture being the major water-user by far--about 73%--so you can imagine that the emphasis was on possibilities for conservation in this sector.

However, although a couple ideas were discussed, such as lining ditches, and questions were asked about what the challenges to conservation were, there were really no solutions posed. It did not seem that this was for lack of time.

GWAC appointee Warren Tenney is one of those who likes to underscore the argument that Arizona is "far ahead in conservation" compared to other states due to the 1980 Groundwater Management Act (GMA). (Meeting audio 1:13:00). This a federally-imposed regulatory measure that, were it proposed today under similar circumstances, would surely be opposed by most of GWAC. In 1982 Jon Kyl, the namesake of the Kyl Center for Water Policy of which 11 of the 29 GWAC members are involved criticized the GMA in, "The 1980 Arizona Groundwater Management Act: From Inception to Current Constitutional Challenge" (University of Colorado Law Review, 03/1982, Volume 53, Issue 3).

While Arizona is in a better position especially compared to California in terms of groundwater, the exaltation of this conservation measure is interesting when the situation is much more complicated. Considering the extremely high rate of groundwater use prior to the GMA, the drop in agriculture, the increase in use of CAP water, and other factors, the figures on groundwater use are not necessarily the best way to quantify conservation. Water use also does not take into consideration contamination of ground or surface water, such as by mines.

According to "Insatiable Thirst and a Finite Supply: An Assessment of Municipal Water-Conservation Policy in Greater Phoenix, Arizona, 1980–2007" the GMA has not even accomplished the conservation it set out to. The GMA's initiative actually has not so much to do with conservation, but a lot to do with the mining industry protecting their own interests from the threat of agriculture's water use. Also, Arizona reluctantly adopted the legislation because funding for CAP was held hostage unless they did so (Connall, Desmond D. Jr. "History of the Arizona Groundwater Management Act, A." Arizona State Law Journal 1982.2 (1982): 313-344).

Touting the supposed accomplishments of the GMA is useful when it comes to justifying continued water use, but regulatory measures, even when entacted in the interest of industry, are generally opposed. Tenney claimed that the GMA has tackled all the low-hanging fruit, and at this point every other approach to conservation would be too expensive.

Sandy Fabritz-Whitney, who left the ADWR to work for mining giant Freeport McMoran shared a strange and troubling theory about what she called over-conservation (Meeting audio 1:33:00). She seemed to claim that over-conservation takes away elasticity which would be necessary to deal with times of drought. The argument seems to be that avoiding the conservation of every drop of water provides some cushion for when Arizona really needs that last drop of water. Tenney seconded Fabritz-Whitney's position, but wanted to reiterate that Arizona still has a commitment to conservation nonetheless.

This brings up a question that was mentioned by a couple members, but not resolved. What is the water to be conserved for? No one brought up the importance of keeping rivers flowing, as Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club pointed out in the public comment period. Is the water to be stored for future use? Is it to maintain the aquifers? Is it to be provided by another sector?

The next meeting will be May 13.

Read Ducey's Water Council Represents Water Exploitation for more on GWAC.