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Arizona battles ground water shortage

Arizona is dry country -- known for saguaro cactus, expansive desert, and shimmering heat. But in Phoenix, Tucson, and the farms in between, the desert has been transformed. The land, in places, looks lush. Fields stretch bright green for miles. In the cities, growth extends out into suburbs and up into tall buildings. Swimming pools dot the neighborhoods. Golf courses abound. In Arizona's two principal cities and along their connecting farm belt there is nothing to remind those using water of one crucial fact: The state is being pumped dry.

A swelling population, continued agricultural expansion, and steady industrial growth are slowly depleting Arizona's ground water supply. The problem has been known for almost 50 years. Now, the situation is critical. "Ground water," says Gov. Bruce Babbitt, "is the single most important issue before this state."

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Underground water accounts for more than 60 percent of the state's supply. The remainder comes from rivers and water projects. But Arizonans are consuming some 2.5 million acre-feet more ground water annually than is replenished by nature.

The only control of ground water supplies is a loose, ineffective law approved in 1948. In 1976, the Arizona Supreme Court jarred the state when it imposed severe restrictions on transportation of ground water once it has been pumped.

The Legislature, as a result, faced the issue squarely for the first time. It established a Ground Water Management Study Commission in 1977.

Now, according to those close to a final round of secret negotiations, a workable solution to sharing Arizona's ground water may be reached within a month.

At the bargaining table are the three chief interests -- agriculture, mining, and the cities -- although they do not consume the water in equal thirds. Agriculture pumps 89 percent of the ground water being used today.

Representatives hammering out possible solutions are grappling with a fundamental question: Will controls on ground water use destroy growth?

Any curtailment of ground-water pumping leaves those involved shuddering at the thought.

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"We are trying to do something that no other state has ever tried to do -- rectify a water problem after it has already gotten bad," says Kathy Ferris, executive director of the Ground Water Commission. "The big question was, is, and always will be, 'Who should have the right to use the ground water?'"

The final recommendations, when they emerge from the lengthy meetings now being guided by Governor Babbitt, will likely include mandatory conservation.

Should conservation cripple farming, as some suggest, the possibility of compensating farming interests for their losses is being discussed, although reluctantly. One proposal involves purchasing 90,000 acres at a cost of $250 million, probably a very low estimate. The land would be retired from farm use.

"From a land-use planning point of view, that is scary," says Miss Ferris. But the plan is being debated.

"We either conserve or put agriculture out of business by purchasing farms," says Jack Debolske, executive director of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns. "The question is, 'How many farms and how much are we going to pay?' It would be a tremendous expense." Mr. Debolske says he does not think buying up farms is the answer, but has come to realize that the final answer will involve some hardship.

Farmers, not surprisingly, are determined to save their business. They urge "significant compromise" from all parties.

The Governor agrees with that. "Everybody will have to give," says Mr. Babbitt, "but out of all this will have to come mandatory conservation. It will be a very complex scheme."

The final report, which will be sent first to the full commission and then on to the Legislature, will include regulations governing new pumping, transportation of existing supplies, "grandfather rights" to water, and a new system to decide crucial cases.

"We've already got too many people on the water table," says Miss Ferris. "We're trying to cut that back and we've got all sorts of new people coming into the state, which compounds the problem. Conservation is an ethic that has to be adopted."


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