The Great Water Shuffle

As the drought worsens, authorities try to secure rights to a dwindling water supply

To settlers of the Tucson basin many centuries ago, an extended drought may have meant a permanent move to a location with available water. Today, a lack of rainfall means officials are looking for ways to transport, store and use ever-more Colorado River water here.

"The drought hasn't had much impact in the short-term," observes Bob Baird, spokesman for the Central Arizona Project, which oversees the operation of the canal that carries water from the Colorado River to Tucson. Baird and others point to the imported water as the community's trump card.

"We appear to be in a long-term drought," notes Kathy Jacobs, executive director of the Arizona Water Institute. "The drought's impacts vary dramatically, since CAP water can buffer some of its short-term impacts, but its severity is rather impressive.

"The general consensus," Jacobs continues, "is as temperatures rise, we're likely to have more droughts along with the impacts they create."

According to the National Weather Service, over the past seven-plus years, about three-fourths of normal rainfall has been recorded at Tucson International Airport. In the last nine months, precipitation has seemingly been limited to a rare sinister dust/moisture concoction that benefits only car washes.

Mitch Basefsky, of Tucson Water, points out this extremely dry winter weather significantly affected the amount of water the utility supplied, estimating the amount was up to 20 percent higher than usual. But with the arrival of warm temperatures and typically bone-dry conditions, Basefsky indicates water use is back to normal levels and expected to go up to 165 million gallons a day during the summer.

In response to the continued lack of normal rainfall, Basefsky says Tucson Water is preparing a drought plan, which should be completed by the end of the year. In addition, the state of Arizona already has one in place.

The state's 2004 report, "Arizona Drought Preparedness Plan," calls mostly for ever-increasing conservation measures as the dry weather continues. But if extreme drought conditions are reached, the plan suggests: "Consider a moratorium on building permits if current demand cannot be met."

Basefsky also says steps are being taken in case an emergency is declared on the use of Colorado River water. While seven states have legal rights to water from the river, the secretary of the interior can declare an emergency limiting their use during a drought. Neither Baird nor Basefsky think that will happen for at least several more years, but its ramifications are being thought about now.

"If an emergency is declared," Baird says, "there is a formal structure in place to address it. Agriculture would be first affected, and municipalities last, so all (the reduction) would come from agriculture. Farmers could either go back to pumping groundwater, or let their fields lie fallow."

Basefsky says Tucson Water is also looking at how it can protect its entire CAP allocation of 144,000 acre-feet. Since emergency reductions of CAP water would be based on a percentage of amounts previously used, Basefsky says Tucson Water is working to increase how much canal water it utilizes.

With only about 45 percent of Tucson Water's CAP allocation now in use, supplementing groundwater pumping, Basefsky says construction plans have been accelerated to store the balance in Avra Valley recharge basins as soon as 2008, four years earlier than originally planned.

"If an emergency shortage is declared," Basefsky says, "there's a greater chance we may be looking at a 10- or 15-year shortage. So the sooner we get CAP water here and in use, the better off we are, whether we're in a drought or not."

In addition to increased conservation, along with capturing as much rainfall as possible before it wanders northward toward Pinal County, Jacobs thinks other drought options should be pursued.

"We need to maximize the activities of the Arizona Water Banking Authority here," she says, adding that will take money, since the costs of storing CAP water are cheaper in Maricopa and Pinal counties than they are in Pima County.

Jacobs also believes the idea of transferring water from farms along the Colorado River to Tucson should be explored. "You'd pay in advance for those rights," she says, "and then again during an actual drought year." When the drought occurred, the contracted farmer wouldn't plant his fields, and the purchased water would be shipped to Southern Arizona.

Jacobs questions whether individual utilities like Tucson Water are in a position to broker contractual arrangements like this. "A regional entity," she says, referring to the contentious proposal to create a multi-utility water organization in Tucson, "could pull it off."

Bonnie Colby, a UA professor of agricultural and resource economics, has been looking into this water transfer idea. "There's no unused water in the Southwest available (for Tucson), except from agriculture along the Colorado," she says.

Stressing voluntary negotiations with farmers near the river would have to be conducted, Colby says these transfers have been put in place elsewhere. Assuming agreements could be reached, Colby suggests production of alfalfa, wheat and cotton grown near the Colorado would be curtailed during a drought if the price for the farmer was right.

In the meantime, Baird observes of the Central Arizona Project: "Lakes Mead and Powell are our reservoirs. With no rain or snow, they'll still be at 56 percent capacity by the end of the year. So there's still enough water for five years."

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