Arizona’s top water leader is tired of the “bad press” coming from outside the state.

One media account claims Arizona is not only running out of water but no one should live or farm in the Grand Canyon State.

“It seems like everyone but us believes we’re running out of water,” says Sandy Fabritz-Whitney, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR).

“Arizona is actually in a very good water position (currently),” Fabritz-Whitney told farmer and rancher members of the Arizona Farm Bureau during the organization’s 92nd annual meeting held in Scottsdale, Ariz., in November.

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During the 30-minute presentation, the state’s water chief discussed Arizona’s current water status, plus predicted a future water shortfall. She outlined ways to minimize the shortfall over the next century.

Fabritz-Whitney, a 20-year ADWR veteran, started at the department as an intern. She took the director’s reins three years ago from retiring director Herb Guenther.

Arizona water – the present

Fabritz-Whitney doled out kudos to leaders who have helped implement changes in water management and water development. The decisions helped put the state on track to its overall current positive water status.

“We have more than 8 million acre feet of water stored in aquifers in Central Arizona,” Fabritz-Whitney said. “This is above and beyond the existing 91 million acre feet of groundwater stored in aquifers.”

These water gains are especially significant given Arizona’s large population and economic growth over the last 50 years.

Using PowerPoint slides, Fabritz-Whitney showed that Arizona’s population increased about 500 percent (6.5 million today) and gross domestic income increased about 1,500 percent from 1957-2010. Surprisingly, the amount of statewide water use during that time basically remained about the same - about 7.5 million acre feet annually.

“We do more (water) conservation in this state than any other state in the U.S.,” Fabritz-Whitney said.

She credits the Salt River Project, the Colorado River Compact and Law of the River, the Central Arizona Project, and other water conservation efforts within the state’s five active management areas for besting water use efficiency.

Good water conservation, the Director says, is practiced among the state’s water users including agriculture, industry, and municipalities.

In agriculture, Fabritz-Whitney says about 40 percent of statewide agricultural water is under a mandatory conservation program. About 50 percent of the agricultural water users in Yuma County implement voluntary state-of-the-art water conservation and efficiency standards.

According to ADWR, about 74 percent of the available water for Arizona is used by agriculture; 5.1 million acre feet of water in 2011.

About 60 percent of statewide industrial water use and nearly 90 percent of municipal water use are under mandatory conservation programs.

The state’s recharge, recovery, and water-banking programs have made significant strides to save water.

Arizona's water future

While Arizona may be in a relatively good water position now, Fabritz-Whitney says a water shortage is coming. She believes the shortage can be managed through extended water management and funding.

The director shared two studies which point to higher water demands versus the available future supply.

In 2010, the Water Resource Development Commission (WRDC), created by the Arizona Legislature, studied the state’s water needs for the next 25, 50, and 100 years.

The commission predicted statewide water demand will grow from about 8.1 million acre feet (MAF) of water in 2035 to 10.1 MAF in 2110; a supply shortfall of about 2 MAF over the next 100 years without further action.

The WRDC stresses that proactive and localized water management strategies are necessary to acquire additional water supplies and to develop the infrastructure to access new and existing unused water supplies.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) conducted a study on whether the Colorado River Basin will have enough water to meet the demands of the seven basin states - Wyoming, California, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada – for the next 50 years.

The USBR predicts Arizona will have an estimated 1.3 MAF supply shortfall on the river; about one-third of the total river basin shortfall in 50 years.

Shortage strategies

Unless the West is blessed with annual good rainfall and snow for years to come, the bottom line is Arizona must weather a water shortage. Fabritz-Whitney believes Arizona can help offset the deficiency through a broad portfolio of short-term strategies. Many options should be localized solutions versus a statewide “one-size-fits-all” approach.

One local short-term strategy is the reuse of reclaimed (effluent) water especially in the urban areas, an idea which Fabritz-Whitney supports. Many parts of the world with water shortages now reuse water for human use.

“If we look at a 1 million acre foot water imbalance in Arizona, we have the potential to reduce the imbalance by almost half through reclaimed water use since the majority of the population growth is in Central Arizona,” Fabritz-Whitney said.

Other options include locating sustainable water supplies, improved watershed management, and weather modification.

“Weather modification may sound crazy but it works in some parts of the country,” Fabritz-Whitney said. “We need to examine how weather modification could increase (water) yields out of our watersheds in a safe and effective manner.”

Long-term strategies include partnering with California and Mexico on ocean desalinization, including building a stronger relationship with Mexico on water issues.

“Mexico is Arizona’s most important trading partner,” Fabritz-Whitney said. “We can partner with Mexico, help them solve some of their water problems, and meet our needs which will go a long way to improve Arizona’s future.”

Funding to implement water changes is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. The Director says funding is integral to solve long-term water issues. Water groups should allow business, community, and government leaders to decide funding on water issues.

Fabritz-Whitney said, “It’s time to elevate the funding conversation to local, business, and legislative leaders.”

Lastly, the state’s water leader raised the sensitive issue of future water transfers as a possible solution. She says comprehensive conversations on transfers should occur. Transfers are legal under federal law but must be approved by ADWR.

“There are Yuma (area) farmers who want to transfer their water rights but it’s not prevalent across the entire Yuma basin,” Fabritz-Whitney said.

Part of the water transfer conversation should focus on the impact that water transfers could have on local economies.

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