Protecting Arizona’s groundwater

Arizona’s groundwater management act is about to turn 40 and there is much to celebrate. The act is a key reason the state’s most populated areas have enough water to sustain growth for years to come.

But groundwater is a finite resource and managing it is a constant challenge, said University of Arizona (UA) professor Sharon Megdal, one of the state’s foremost experts on groundwater.

“I am always working on Arizona groundwater issues,” said Megdal, a member of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District board that oversees management of water resources in central Arizona. “It’s critical that we do so because groundwater is invisible. Therefore, it is difficult for us to know its quantity, let alone its quality.”

The past few years have been particularly challenging. Colorado River supplies are stressed as a 19-year drought has taken its toll.

Managing groundwater supplies has suddenly become even more important, said Megdal, who alongside other researchers is working to protect and replenish groundwater that provides about 40 percent of Arizona’s water supplies.

Gov. Doug Ducey, state lawmakers, industry and others also are on the path to find long term solutions.

Here are some of the efforts underway.

University of Arizona groundwater innovators  

As a global leader in water resource research, the University of Arizona plays a major role in helping policymakers plan for and manage groundwater supplies in Arizona and the West.

In addition to research, the university trains students to be future policy leaders, from public and private water management positions to water law, said Jennifer Mcintosh, a professor in the Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences department.

Currently, researchers in the hydrology department are working on projects to analyze and improve groundwater reserves including:

  • Remote sensing of precipitation and groundwater resources
  • Assessment of the Santa Cruz and San Pedro aquifers that are shared by Arizona and Sonora, Mexico
  • Pinpoint sources of water sustaining wetlands and riparian areas    
  • Development of green areas to increase water retention and improve water quality

Legislation for groundwater protection in rural areas

While most of the work on groundwater resilience has been focused in the central and southern parts of the state, rural areas that rely almost solely on groundwater are coming under the spotlight.  

Last month, Gov. Ducey signed legislation, House Bill 2467, that creates two local stakeholder study committees in La Paz and Mohave counties to examine groundwater depletion and water data. Their mission is to develop tools for managing their groundwater future.

Statewide task force seeking long term solutions

To find long term solutions to groundwater and other water issues statewide, Ducey appointed the reconfigured 42-member Governor’s Water Augmentation, Innovation and Conservation Council.

Chaired by the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, Tom Bushatzke, the committee is made up of members from agriculture, industry, tribes, cities, water utilities, developers, state legislators, nonprofit groups, and the governor’s office.  

Industry focuses on responsible growth

As the state faces new water challenges, industry groups like the nonprofit Valley Partnership, are working alongside policy makers and keeping their members informed.

The nonprofit group, which represents the real estate industry, advocates responsible development and the protection of groundwater that is critical to future economic growth, said President and CEO Cheryl Lombard, who is a member of the governor’s council.

“Arizona water leadership, including key elected officials, have successfully addressed groundwater issues for decades,” Lombard said. “They continue to do so, and Valley Partnership is proud to be part of this vital example of government and public-private solutions. How we grow, where we grow, consensus-driven strategies are the cornerstone for our state and water.”

To see how Arizona has led the nation in water management, visit the history of water management.

Victoria Harker

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