Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

March 24, 2010


Host: Ted Simons

Drought


  • We’ve had a lot of rain lately. Does that mean the drought is over? Rita Maguire, a water law attorney and former Director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, will offer her perspective.
Guests:
  • Rita Maguire - Water law attorney and former Director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources
Category: Law

View Transcript
Ted Simons: I recently spoke with Rita Maguire, water law attorney and former director of the state department of water resources. Rita thank you so much for joining us on HORIZON.

Rita Maguire: Thank you, Ted.

Ted Simons: The status of the drought, where are we right now and how are we going to be able to tell when it's over?

Rita Maguire: You know you can't tell until it's really over. In other words, you have to look back in time and look over a period of time as to whether or not on average you are below normal, at normal or above normal. Cycles for rainfall and snowfall. Right now, we'll say we're still in a drought. Obviously a very wet year. A few years from now, we may look back and say, we're out of the drought. But don't know until after the fact.

Ted Simons: As far as the region's water supply is concerned, does it look as though it's getting any better at all?

Rita Maguire: It is better. Arizona's really gifted. We have two surface water systems that we rely on. The Colorado River water supply and at Salton Verde supply. Typically they operate on alternating weather patterns. This years a perfect example, we have an El Nino year. That means the weather partners are moving through the south western part of the United States, through southern Arizona and into New Mexico and the result is we're getting a ton of water on the Salt and Verde watersheds and all of the Salt River reservoirs are at capacity and releasing water through the spill ways to avoid overtopping the dams. But conversely, the Colorado River watershed is still below normal and, in fact, the Lake Mead and Lake Powell only 50% full.

Ted Simons: I was going to ask about that because they're the key as far as CAP water is concerned. What happens if the drought continues and gets worse and then all of a sudden, those lakes get really close to drying up?

Rita Maguire: Two years ago, the seven states that share the Colorado River entered into a interim shortage criteria. What those criteria’s say is that if Lake Mead or Lake Powell's elevations reach certain levels then we literally cut back diversions and the seven states share the water supply and they're divided in upper and lower basin states. Arizona, California and Nevada are in the lower basin. And in the lower basin, we have our shortage criterion that says when Lake Mead gets to a certain point, the secretary of interior cuts back on the deliveries of Colorado River water. Arizona has the lowest priority water rights in the lower basin. We're the first through the central Arizona project; we’re the first to be cut back in a shortage.

Ted Simons: So we’re the first to be cut back and seem to have a relatively healthy balance in terms of where we get water overall, correct?

Rita Maguire: That's true. For a long time, we complained as a state it wasn't fair we had the lowest priority water and the risk of drought conditions but sometimes there's a silver lining and 30 years ago, the state legislature passed the groundwater management act. That piece of legislation forced cities, forced farmers in certain parts of the state, the most highly developed and highest water demand areas of the state, forced them to use surface water to save the groundwater, with the idea use the surface water when it's available. It's renewable but in a drought condition when it’s not available, we can turn on the pumps and recover ground water we have stored in anticipation of a drought.

Ted Simons: How is that working out? The relationship between smaller towns, and cities, and water companies. I know unmonitored wells, these wildcat wells that are drilled in certain parts tap into water that's expected in other areas of the state, that used to be such a problem. Is that still a concern?

Rita Maguire: It is, we have what are known as wildcat or exempt wells-- they can pump up to 30-gallons per minute. That translates to roughly 56-acre feet a year. Sounds like a foreign language. That translates into a family of five can live on a single acre foot of water for a year. And an exempt well can supply 56 families. I would argue that the exempt level is too high. They tend to be wells located in rural parts of the state where you can't get municipal infrastructure to deliver water supply. So it makes sense to have the ability as a private property owner out in the rural part of the state to be able to drill an exempt well but as more and more of these wells cluster around the Verde River, for example, it has the potential of impacting the flows of the Verde River and impacting its ability to deliver water downstream to the metropolitan Phoenix area.

Ted Simons: And I'm sure those fights would get stronger if the drought increases or continues and water everywhere becomes that much more of a scarce resource.

Rita Maguire: Absolutely, people are protective of their water rights and their water supplies.

Ted Simons: Speaking of water supplies in general, we hear about desalination and sometimes it sounds science fiction like. And other folks say we can do it right now. I know there's cost concerns, there’s got to be some technological concerns, and maybe even environmental concerns. Is desalination, is that a viable alternative?

Rita Maguire: It is. You know, a few years ago, we'd say it's something to be talked about in the future. But actually, today, literally as we speak, the lower basin states I mentioned earlier, California, Nevada and Arizona, as well as the Mexican government and the government of the United States, the federal government, are sitting down at the table talking about the potential for building desalination plants not only along the southern California coast but the coast of Mexico in a way to generate additional supplies water and the availability of Colorado river water here in the United States by building potentially a desalination plant in Mexico but also to protect environmental areas that have enjoyed excess water supplies when there available and we see a day when Colorado river water can't sustain those wetland habitats.

Ted Simons: Did the fact that the Colorado river can't sustain much at all in Mexico, how much of a concern is that with the dynamic between Mexico and the United States.

Rita Maguire: It's been a source of tension for many years. The first treaty between Mexico and the United States dates back to 1944 and for all of the years since then, the United States has met its obligation to deliver 1.5 million feet of water. And for many years, we didn't use all of the water we were entitled to use in the United States. So excess water into Mexico. Now we're using all of that water, so they're only getting the original 1.5 million. The excess water sustained what was called the Santa Clara, the wonderful wetland habitat in the gulf of California and that's shrinking with the reduction of excess water deliveries and the MEXICALI region of Mexico is the largest growing agricultural region in Northern Mexico it’s a source of many new jobs there and strength of their economy and they have relied on water being delivered in that area through leaky canal systems in the United States. So we're going back on the northern side of the border lining canals and trying to be more efficient with our water use and the Mexicans on the other side say, wait a minute, we want that water. We rely on it to use in our irrigation projects in northern Mexico.

Ted Simons: So with all this in mind, everything from droughts to CPA – concerns, to desalinization and working with Mexico and these things. As someone who is an expert on water resources, what concerns you the most, as far as Arizona and water supply?

Rita Maguire: Well, I think one is the need to cooperate with one another. We have learned very quickly that you can no longer say what's mine is mine and you go figure out your water problems. Water is definitely a shared resource and we look at water on a regional basis. Having said that, we as a state, have been probably the best at doing our homework in terms of passing the groundwater management act, building the infrastructure necessary to ensure we have a long-term water supply, but we're also outgrowing our water supply as has southern California and southern Nevada, so we have to work together to be as efficient and effective as possible in managing the water supplies but the population keeps growing so this is a never-ending battle to be able it meet the demands of a growing population, meet new demands from the environmental areas as well as native American populations and find the money to build the infrastructure and find the new technology to ensure we have the high-quality affordable water supply we've always enjoyed here.

Ted Simons: Great having you on the show. Thanks for joining us, we appreciate it.

Rita Maguire: Thank you.

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