Arizona Legislature takes steps to address water woes

The state Capitol building in Phoenix is pictured. (Photo by Visitor7, cc-by-sa-3.0,

The state Capitol building in Phoenix is pictured. (Photo by Visitor7, cc-by-sa-3.0,

PHOENIX – State lawmakers took the first steps Thursday to providing a secure and reliable source of water for Arizona.

And the director of the state Department of Water Resources said the most likely and affordable prospect could involve Arizonans drinking their own waste – and getting beyond the "ick factor.''

"While that sounds maybe yucky, it's already happening,'' Tom Buschatzke told members of the Senate Committee on Natural Resource, Energy and Water.

He said communities already are putting treated wastewater into the Colorado River. And that is being drawn out further downstream, albeit diluted by the regular flow of the river.

Sen. Lisa Otondo, D-Yuma, said the idea doesn't bother her.

"God doesn't make new water,'' she said.

"Obviously, we've been using the same thing that's been on the planet for a long time,'' Otondo said. "So reuse is not disgusting to me.''

All this comes as the committee approved a 50-page plan to revamp the existing Water Infrastructure Finance Authority and provide it with $1 billion of tax dollars over the next three years to find new water.

SB 1740 would require that 75% of the cash to be spent to acquire water from outside of the state. And that has led to a proposal to build a desalination plant to treat water from the Sea of Cortez.

Only thing is, Buschatzke said, construction costs are estimated at about $3 billion. And the cost of delivering water would approach $2,500 an acre foot, the amount of water that, depending on usage, is needed to serve from two to four single-family homes.

So think possible $1,200 annual water bills per house for treated seawater. And that could be what makes treatment of effluent to drinking water quality – more colorfully referred to as "toilet-to-tap'' – a viable option.

But what's missing from the legislation, according to some, is a focus on a less expensive – and potentially more immediate – solution: conservation.

"We all know that augmentation will not come for at least a decade,'' said Nick Ponder, representing a variety of interests from Mohave County and the Water for Arizona Coalition, which includes the Environmental Defense Fund, the Audubon Society and Western Rivers.

"Conservation is the most impactful benefit that we can get today,'' he said.

Sen. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, agreed.

"I know desalination plants and all of that are in the works,'' she said. And Steele said that's fine, and should be pursued as "critical pieces'' of solving the state's water woes.

"But these things are so much further into the future,'' she said. "And we're at Defcon 5 now.''

That was underlined by Buschatzke, who detailed not just prior cuts in Arizona's share of Colorado River water but noted the cuts ordered earlier this month by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation based on current levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell. He cited the possibility of even deeper cuts, and the lakes reaching "dead pool'' when no water will be available.

And there's another thing that some say is missing from this plan.

There already are regulations that govern water supply in "active management areas'' that cover the state's two major metropolitan areas as well as portions of Pinal and Yavapai County. But the rest of the state is pretty much the wild west, lacking not only regulation but even any sort of monitoring of how much water is being pumped from the ground.

"If we don't know how much is there, if we don't have the data, then how do we know how to protect it, how do we know how to protect our small farmers,'' asked Steele. She said the nation and the world is reliant on family farms.

"It breaks my heart when I see huge conglomerates, huge corporations, coming in and sucking our wells dry and all the wells of the neighbors in the area,'' she said. "And that's criminal; that should not be happening.''

So far, though, there has been lukewarm interest in some rural areas in having the same kinds of regulation that exist in the active management areas.

Sen. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton, D-Tucson said the state should look to even more creative solutions to the problem. One of these, she said, is technology that has been researched at the University of Arizona: installing solar panels over agricultural crops.

"It nets a triple win,'' she said.

First, Stahl Hamilton noted, solar panels are less effective at higher temperatures. She said the evaporation from farmland cools them and makes them produce more electricity.

She also said that the panels cut water usage to a third and doubles crop yields.

The measure has strong support from the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation. And a lot of that is self-preservation.

Agriculture uses about 70% of the state's water supply. And the organization's Chelsea McGuire said any plans to increase the water supply "takes that target off the back of agricultural water users.''

Sen. Sine Kerr, R-Buckeye, who chairs the committee, was sensitive to that issue.

"I think there's going to come a point, maybe very soon, (when we’ll have to decide) do we want green grass in our yards or do we want green vegetables on our plates,'' she said.

There are other issues that lawmakers say need to be addressed when the measure goes to the full Senate.

Otondo said there is a provision in state law that says communities of more than 150,000 have to have a public vote before they can apply for federal financial assistance for things like water and wastewater treatment plants. She said that's not fair when smaller communities do not have that hurdle.

But Kerr said changing that is "a policy question'' that would have to be addressed as part of the overall plan.

There also are concerns by Democrats, whose votes likely will be needed for final approval, that the reconstituted board of the Water Infrastructure Finance Authority would be made up solely of people appointed by the governor, the speaker of the House and the president of the Senate, all of whom are Republicans.

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