Prioritizing Water Security for Arizona’s Birds and People

A policy preview of the 2020 legislative session.

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As of January 1, 2020, the Lower Colorado River Basin entered a Tier Zero shortage at Lake Mead. Thanks to the negotiated agreements of the Drought Contingency Plan, because of the lake’s projected elevation below 1090 feet, Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico will receive less Colorado River water this year, marking the first time a mandatory reduction has been imposed. With these water reductions officially underway, Audubon is looking ahead to what is next, with our focus on prioritizing water security for all of us in Arizona, including our birds and wildlife.

Here are three water policy priorities for Audubon Arizona as we enter the 2020 Legislative Session:

  1. Increase funding for the Arizona Department of Water Resources: Since the recession in 2008 when its budget and staffing were slashed, the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) has been woefully underfunded. Audubon knows that for ADWR to do its job—measure groundwater levels, model groundwater basins, monitor surface water diversions, review permits, complete management plans that regulate usage and enforce conservation—it must have the proper resources to attract and retain water professionals.
  2. Promote sound groundwater management: You may have seen the headlines lately—Arizona’s aquifers are dropping. Outside of the Active Management Areas, there are no restrictions on groundwater pumping. Groundwater-dependent ecosystems are at risk when there are too many wells taking too much water out and not enough natural or artificial recharge putting water back into the system. We will defeat short-sided proposals that weaken existing groundwater protections, and we will promote efforts for local communities to find solutions to their groundwater depletion problems.
  3. Settle water rights for in-state rivers: Arizona must continue to move ahead on the General Stream Adjudications, a long running lawsuit to determine who has the right to use how much water from the Little Colorado River and the Gila River and their tributaries. Resolving these disputes will protect these rivers and streams because it is likely to limit the pumping that can be done near them. For example, some new wells placed near rivers have been found to be pumping “subflow” (underground river water) and therefore will need a surface water right to do so—right now, there are no requirements or restrictions on where wells can be placed. Legislators have been meeting in the interim between legislative sessions to hash out a plan to properly fund the courts and ADWR in order to move cases along. We made progress on this last year, and Audubon supports these continued efforts and will advocate for the necessary budget resources. 

In the midst of reductions in Colorado River water coming into Arizona, Arizona needs to adapt, and in a way that does not deplete local groundwater supplies or harm ecological resources downstream. We see groundwater declines across the state continuing, and this threatens water quality, can increase land subsidence, and dry up riparian areas with important habitat. This scenario is bad for people and birds. Finding solutions to support effective management of all water resources in Arizona is imperative. Audubon will be calling on you, our Western Rivers Action Network, to advance legislation that ensures a better water future for people and birds.