Report: Arizona must deploy a diverse range of strategies to solve water crisis

Arizona’s water crisis is getting worse, and on Wednesday, environmental groups warned that there’s no “silver-bullet” solution that can fix it.

In a new report by the Water for Arizona Coalition, analysts urge the state to embrace a diverse range of water conservation and management strategies — and to start investing in them fast.

“It is imperative that the state make conscientious water investments to ensure long-term prosperity for Arizonans,” writes Rachel O’Connor, a climate resilient water systems manager with the Environmental Defense Fund, who partnered with the coalition on the report.

The state’s current water supply is dangerously tenuous. Forty percent of Arizonans’ water comes from the Colorado River, which is in the throes of an environmental catastrophe. Drought-stricken and critically over-allocated, the river could reach a “complete doomsday scenario” as soon as this summer, according to federal agencies and local water managers. This crisis is particularly bad in Arizona, whose Colorado River water rights are less senior than those of other states, including California. As a result, Arizona is often among the first states subjected to cuts when there isn’t enough water to go around.

Arizona, Nevada, and California may be nearing a deal to voluntarily cut their use of water from the river, but negotiations are ongoing.

In its report, the Water for Arizona Coalition notes that the state has received an influx of both state and federal funding to address its water crisis, and that it now has a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to make its water management more resilient and sustainable.

The report provides a cost-benefit analysis of seven water strategies, including the widespread adoption of drip irrigation for agriculture. Nearly three-quarters of Arizona’s fresh water supply is used for agriculture, and 88 percent of its farmers still rely on flood irrigation, which is notoriously wasteful. In a recent pilot program conducted by the Colorado River Indian Tribes and other partner organizations, farmers were able to cut their water usage by 30 to 50 percent when they shifted to drip irrigation.

However, the report’s authors warn that some farmers who adopt drip irrigation systems use the gallons of water they conserve to expand their operations — growing more alfalfa and other crops than they did before. “To achieve an actual reduction in water use, water savings cannot be used to increase irrigated acreage or support new municipal or industrial uses,” they write.

Among the other conservation strategies in the report is incentivizing urban residents to replace their lawns with native desert plants. Currently, 70 percent of residential water in Arizona is used for lawns and landscaping.

The coalition also analyzes three water “augmentation” projects, which would increase the state’s supply through engineering efforts. The authors note that aquifer recharge can also create and restore riparian habitats, and that several Arizona municipalities have already achieved great success with this strategy.

The report saves its analysis of two particularly radical policies for last: a binational seawater desalination system, which Arizona would build in cooperation with Mexico, and a pipeline that would siphon water from the Mississippi or Missouri rivers. The report notes that both proposals would be costly, and that the Mississippi/Missouri pipeline has already been “discarded as politically complicated, too expensive, and too time-intensive.”