Water Ways

A new report puts hard facts in the hands of water policymakers

The Arizona dream has long been based on a notion that we'll have enough water for growth infinitum. And should our wells run dry from overpumping, we'll just turn to that old guarantor of a lush future called the Central Arizona Project. As for those who might question our reliance on an aqueduct fed by the already over-tapped Colorado River, why they're just glass-half-empty naysayers.

But years of drought, coupled with a warmer planet, may finally be achieving what the perennial hand-wringers could not, as reality trumps real estate in our obviously hotter, drier new world.

It's certainly front and center in "Moving Forward From Vulnerability to Adaptation: Climate Change, Drought, and Water Demand in the Urbanizing Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico." That's the verbose title of a sprawling report with one very concise point: We'd better start adapting to the changing climate before our vulnerability gets the best of us.

At the same time, the report reveals far more moving parts to water policy than most of us realize. Drivers range from socioeconomics and international politics to entrenched patterns of population growth. Failure to address these issues could steer us toward catastrophe, particularly in the already-parched Southwest.

In turn, understanding how to adapt here is key, since the Arizona-Mexico border region is considered a bellwether of climate change. Indeed, our arid landscape is expected to bear the brunt of global warming, with average temperatures expected to climb by as much as 7 degrees.

But if that increase is a given, the way we deal with it is not. That's where "Vulnerability to Adaptation" comes into play, by providing a broad outline that can be used by policymakers on both sides of the border. Fittingly, it was created as a cooperative effort by researchers from both the United States and Mexico. They include Anne Browning-Aiken and Robert Varady of Tucson's Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy, Margaret Wilder and Gregg Garfin at the UA, and academics from the Colegio de Sonora in Hermosillo, Son. Funding came from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Wilder and Varady were co-leads on the study, which took shape in close in cooperation with emergency planners, water managers and other officials in both countries. And the final product did not shrink from taking aim at those sacred cows we've long counted on to sustain us through dry, hot times. Calling the U.S.-Mexico borderlands "highly vulnerable" due to "rapid growth, industrialization, and climate characteristics," the report goes on to characterize the protection of future water supplies as the "region's highest priority challenge."

For three years, this team exposed the bare bones of that challenge, profiling four urban climate change "hot spots" including Tucson; Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Son; Hermosillo; and Puerto Peñasco, Son., better known as Rocky Point.

While climate change was the report's overriding issue, its authors took pains to avoid the ideological tussle surrounding that topic. "We have to be careful and circumspect in writing about these things, because we don't want to be seen as having a political position," Varady says. "We just tried to be fair.

"When we evaluate issues, whether it's desalination technology or water reuse or anything like that, we just try to look at all sides and come up with what we think is the correct assessment. In some cases, the assessments we come up with may not reflect the general optimism of the political forces in this region."

That's a delicate way of noting that some folks in charge have a vested interest in assuring us that growth and profligate water use can continue here forever.

But within the simple reality of water use exists many variations, exemplified by the cities profiled by Varady's team. For instance, Tucson is noted for its rapid growth, relatively high poverty rate, and reliance on the overallocated Colorado River. Each of those factors is parsed out, along with strategies for reducing the vulnerabilities they represent.

So while the report is meant to be a tool for policymakers, it doesn't dole out feel-good pabulum. Instead, it considers rather grim climate scenarios, "how they spin out, what the realities will be, and what the impacts will be on the water supply," says Wilder, an associate professor at the UA's Center for Latin American Studies and School of Geography and Development.

At the same time, each vulnerability is linked with methods for adapting. They can range from improving the water pipes throughout a city, and making better use of effluent, to simply sparking an ongoing, binational conversation.

"We were really interested in getting water managers from Tucson engaged with partners in Sonora, in building what we call peer-to-peer networks," Wilder says. "They love to do this because they speak the same language. They have the same issues, and to a certain extent, they have the same kinds of political pressure. What we're trying to do in the process is encourage climatic thinking and climatic planning."

That ventures far beyond just pondering weather patterns. "It's thinking long-term, and thinking across the border," Wilder says. "It's not just thinking about your particular area, but about how we can build more water capacity in the region, and use climate information."

In that regard, Tucson Water is ahead of the curve, she says. "They have a whole hydrology project dedicated to really factoring in climate change in a serious way. Tucson Water plays a strong role in this effort, by really showing what you can do."

Still, there are bound to be tensions. One of them involves the planned completion of a wastewater treatment plant in Nogales, Son. That's a big deal because the resulting effluent would reused in Sonora rather than being sent to a treatment plant north of the border, as it now is. Currently, the effluent on this side of the line is released into the Santa Cruz River, where it's credited with returning flows to the waterway, and helping re-establish critical riparian areas.

Other elements of our water future are even more nettlesome. Consider that Tucson's supposed lifeline—the CAP coursing down from the Colorado River—may not be so dependable after all.

"Studies show a very high likelihood that there is going to be reduction in stream flows going into the Colorado, and reductions in the snowpacks" that feed the river, Wilder says. "At the same time, with temperatures rising, there will be more evaporation. All of these things point to a reduction in the Colorado River."

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