Water leaders talk about how Arizona will sustain future growth

As Arizona faces climate change head on, water leaders are taking steps to ensure that development can continue, particularly in the most populous central part of the state. 

Three of the state’s leading water officials spoke about what is being done to sustain growth and other issues important to homebuilders and developers during a virtual “breakfast” meeting of the Valley Partnership, the voice of the real estate industry for the Phoenix region. 

Tom Buschatzke

“We are working on solutions that are needed to make sure your industry, other growth, and those who are already here have a secure water supply in the future,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Water Resources Department. 

But Buschatzke and other water leaders also made it clear that the road ahead will be riddled with challenges.

Joe Gysel

Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project (CAP) that brings Colorado River to the state’s growing megaregion, and Joe Gysel, president of EPCOR USA Inc., which provides water and wastewater services in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, also spoke at the event. 

Among the topics touched on: how Arizona’s Colorado River water supplies are holding up, forecasts for the next few years, and infrastructure projects to support the booming West Valley.

Water supplies should remain stable through 2023

Ted Cooke

Arizona’s Colorado River water supplies should remain stable for the next two years and likely beyond because of the historic seven-state Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) approved by Congress last year, said Buschatzke and Cooke, who led a statewide committee to negotiate Arizona’s part of the agreement. 

“This is more evidence that the Drought Contingency Plan that was approved by the Arizona Legislature and signed by Governor Ducey in early 2019 was a success,” Buschatzke said. 

The DCP lays out measures for water conservation in Lake Mead, which stores Arizona’s river supplies including agreements by water stakeholders like CAP, cities and tribes to leave water in the lake and share excess water with users faced with shrinking groundwater supplies like Pinal County. 

Because of the DCP, the lake has not dropped to dreaded lower levels. If water levels start to dip lower, the agreement requires the state to take larger reductions in its annual Colorado River allocation. 

To help prevent that from happening, a new higher tier level was created last year, Tier Zero, that requires users to leave a certain amount of water in the lake when the elevation dips below 1,090 feet. If lake levels continue to drop, more tier levels kick in and more drastic cutbacks to water supplies.

This year, Arizona was under Tier Zero. And even though that required the state’s river  allocation to be reduced by 192,000 acre-feet, that’s good news, explained Cooke. 

Water users already have been leaving an excess of that amount in the lake on an annual basis. 

“The next tier is a 512,000 acre-feet reduction, so we’re actually pleased to be in Tier Zero,” Cooke said. 

Tier Zero will continue in 2021, the federal Department of Reclamation announced. It is likely the lake will remain in Tier Zero in 2022 and 2023 though there is “real risk” of it moving into the next level down, Tier 1, which starts at 1,075 feet, Cooke said.

Infrastructure projects to keep up with West Valley growth

Gysel of EPCOR, the largest private water company in Arizona, detailed some of the $600 million in investments it is making in Arizona including projects to support the booming West Valley.

One project completed last year is the $29.4 million expansion of the White Tanks Regional Water Treatment Plant in Surprise. The facility’s water output went from 20 million gallons per day to 33 million. The plant’s design incorporates a cutting-edge CoMag ballasted water clarification system, the first of its kind in Arizona.

EPCOR also recently constructed Luke 303, a $95 million water reclamation and wastewater treatment facility along the Loop 303 freeway near Luke Air Force Base.

Keeping up with the state’s growth is the company’s biggest challenge, Gysel said.

“It takes careful planning for infrastructure and water resources to support growth and stay ahead of growth,” he said. 

Looking ahead 

As the three water leaders look ahead, they said there will be more emphasis on conservation, using modern technology to efficiently treat and store wastewater, and efforts to find other water supplies such as desalination of ocean water or Arizona’s brackish groundwater that has a high salt content. The state water department also is conducting groundwater modeling in the Phoenix region to assess supply. 

Water transfers from wetter parts of the state also are an option. Last year, the Gila River Indian Community entered into a $97.5-million, 25-year agreement that allows homebuilders to buy water from the tribe to replenish groundwater in the state’s growing megaregion. 

Meanwhile, water officials and stakeholders are beginning work on the next DCP that will be renewed in 2026 to protect the mighty Colorado River, the most important water resource in the Southwest. 

“First and foremost, we need to protect what we have,” Buschatzke said. “Probably 20 percent of our Colorado River allocation comes to Central Arizona.”

Victoria Harker

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