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Director of Arizona Department of Water Resources looking at state's drought impacts

Lake Powell stores water from the Colorado River and straddles the Arizona-Utah border. It is currently storing less than half of its capacity.
Luke Runyon
Lake Powell stores water from the Colorado River and straddles the Arizona-Utah border. It is currently storing less than half of its capacity.

By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services

PHOENIX -- Tom Buschatzke says it wouldn't be wrong to see the freeze on new development in an area in and around Buckeye, Ariz. due to a shortage of groundwater there as the canary in the coal mine.

But the director of the state Department of Water Resources said that the early warning for Arizonans from the canary really first occurred three years ago in Pinal County: His agency already is refusing to issue the necessary permits for new developments that were planning to rely solely on groundwater.

More to the point, he said, much of the rest of this drought-stricken state is headed that way absent some new source of water.

In a wide-ranging interview with Capitol Media Services, Buschatzke said that communities are not immune just because they have an allocation of water from the Central Arizona Project.

That resource, too, is limited. And cities that can't show their CAP allocations ensure a 100-year supply of water face similar restrictions.

Nor he said can developers rely on the idea that there may be treated seawater available sometime in the future to start building today.

And Buschatzke said that his decision not to release until Monday the analysis of available groundwater in what is known as the Lower Hassaympa sub-basin near Buckeye was not an effort, as Gov. Katie Hobbs said Monday in her State of the State speech, to hide it from the public so that developers could keep building.

He did acknowledge that the request to delay the report did, in fact, come from the staff Doug Ducey, her predecessor. But Butschatzke said the former governor wanted to have it released at the same time as stakeholders came up with "potential solutions that would be put out into the public world at the same time.''

Hobbs, informed of the existence of the report, had a different idea.

"I think we can't tackle this issue if we don't know what we're facing,'' she said after her speech.

Anyway, Buschatzke said the timing is legally irrelevant: Public or not, Buschatzke said what's in the report means that his department isn't issuing any permits at all for new residential subdivisions for the 886 square mile area that has been under study.

What the release of the report has done, though, is create a new focus on the fact that the state faces a water shortage even as people keep moving here.

"We have this dual challenge, right?'' the governor said. "We have to balance our needs to address the housing crisis with our need to address water shortages.''

This "dual challenge'' is caused by a dual problem.

Lawmakers realized decades ago that the state was in a position where the amount of groundwater available would be oustripped by demand.

Arizona has long been entitled to a share of Colorado River water. But it took federal legislation to authorize construction of the Central Arizona Project with the idea of reducing the need to pump.

And in 1980, with the CAP in place, state lawmakers approved a historic law designed to cut groundwater pumping in metropolitan areas, with the idea of "safe yield'' by 2025, the point at which what is being taken out balances with recharge.

Only thing is, that Colorado River supply, allocated in what it turns out were unusually wet years, has recently failed to materialize. The result has been mandatory cutbacks, with more to come if Arizona, California and Nevada don't agree on a plan.

But what the report from Buckeye shows is that, for much of the state, groundwater is not a solution for the future as CAP water becomes more scarce.

"We've been trying to take the easy way out,'' Hobbs said. And that leaves the question of whether Arizona can continue to grow at the rate it has.

"I don't know the answer to that,'' she conceded.

"A lot of what we're facing in terms of Colorado River shortages is that more of the snowfall is being absorbed and there's less runoff,'' the governor continued. And that, she said is caused by climate change.

"It's not something that we can fix by using less water,'' Hobbs said. "It's very complicated.''

But could development actually be stopped?

"There's a lot in that question I don't have answers to,'' the governor said, saying that will become part of what the Water Policy Task Force she announced on Tuesday will wrestle with, "what we need to do to balance our need to continue to house people and our water shortages.''

Buschatzke said none of this should come as a surprise.

"Over the years, what I've said is that, given the fact that groundwater's a finite resource, that we've been allocating groundwater since the 1980 Groundwater Management Act for a variety of uses, that it was kind of a matter of time,'' he said.

And Buschtzke said Buckeye won't be the last such area affected.

"I can't exactly tell you who's next and when that will occur,'' he said. It will all be governed by the science.

"We're in the process, as we always are, of improving and updating our groundwater models,'' Buschatzke continued.

"And as we work through those we may see some of this starting to daylight elsewhere.''

So what are the options for continued growth?

One is to pump water from the Harquahala Valley even further west of Phoenix. A special law allows transfers from this basin into more water-starved areas of the state.

There is also some reclaimed water that hasn't already been allocated to things like providing cooling for the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station.

And the Colorado River Indian Tribes recently got federal permission to sign long-term leases for part of its 719,428 acre-feet a year of Colorado River Water. An acre foot, on average, supports a family of three for a year.

But even that has limits.

Buschatzke said the tribe is looking at leases of perhaps 25 to 30 years, too short by itself to become part of any 100-year assured supply for a community or developer.

"But you could take that CRIT water, you could put it under the ground, and you could divide the volume by the appropriate calculations to make it 100 years,'' he said. "You could pull it out over the 100 years.''

And what of desalination?

Buschatzke said the only thing that has happened so far is the Water Infrastructure Finance Authority has directed its staff to talk with IDE Technologies, an Israeli firm, about a possible plant on the Sea of Cortez to provide water for Arizona at some future date. But that, he said, is far from a sure thing.

"Right now I would not be able to put any potential desalinated water as an approval for anybody's assured water supply program, none,'' Buschatzke said.

"There hasn't been a plant sited, there hasn't been a plant under construction, it's not producing any water,'' he said. "You have to have water being produced.''

And that says nothing about it being actually available for 100 years.

"Desal can be part of the solution,'' Buschatzke said. "But none of the desal being discussed ... is going into anyone's assured water supply at this time.''