Arizona’s Water Troubles Show How Climate Change Is Reshaping The West

Courtesy The Washington Post, a look at how Arizona’s water troubles show how climate change is reshaping the West:

Jay Famiglietti moved to Arizona this year after a career using satellites to study how the worst drought in a millennium was sapping groundwater beneath the American West.

He has documented that the decline of groundwater in California’s Central Valley accelerated dramatically in recent years, and that states along the Colorado River were losing their aquifers far faster than the more visible shriveling of the nation’s largest reservoirs.

It was not a satellite but an airplane, however, that was on Famiglietti’s mind as he picked up his wife at the airport earlier this year: a charter flight of people arriving in Phoenix as part of a major expansion of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., one of Arizona’s premier economic development jewels. This symbol of Arizona’s future brought home the stakes of this moment.

In one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country, it’s a boom time — water-intensive microchip companies and data centers moving in; tens of thousands of houses spreading deep into the desert. But it is also a time of crisis: Climate change is drying up the American West and putting fundamental resources at ever greater risk.

“I’m incredibly concerned,” said Famiglietti, an Arizona State University professor who is leading a multiyear effort to assess the water supply the state has above and below ground. “I don’t think that people, and this is everyone, the general public, but right up to our water managers and elected officials, really understand now that groundwater is the key to our future.”

“There’s just not enough for all the things we want to do,” he said.

The decision by Arizona in the past week to limit residential construction in some parts of the fast-growing Phoenix suburbs is another major warning about how climate change is disrupting lifestyles and economies in the West. Throughout the region, glaciers have receded, wildfires have expanded, rivers and lakes have shrunk. It has been a wet winter, but the deeper trends brought on by the warming atmosphere persist.

“Our forests are burning up. Our rivers are diminished. There is sand blowing through places that used to be vegetated,” said Norm Gaume, a former water resources manager for Albuquerque who leads a grass-roots group that pushes for sustainable water in New Mexico. “The signs are all there.”

In Utah, the Great Salt Lake has lost more than 70 percent of its water, and recent reports warn that it could disappear within five years, along with billions of dollars of economic activity and thousands of jobs that rely on it.

The enormous spread of wildfires in California just prompted the state’s largest insurer, State Farm, to stop issuing new policies there, amid its “rapidly growing catastrophe exposure,” as the company put it.

States along the Colorado River just reached an unprecedented deal to leave a major portion of their water supply in the river in an attempt to keep Lake Powell and Lake Mead from falling so low that they can no longer produce hydropower. If that happened, electricity could become far costlier for millions of people. But the negotiated solution — more than $1 billion of taxpayer funds to pay farmers and others to forgo water — will mean fields lying fallow and potential job losses in some of the country’s major agricultural regions.

“It’s always a tricky balance,” Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) said in a recent interview. “How do we grapple with the reality of decreasing water supply but not adversely impact the economy, generally speaking — whether it’s from a growers perspective, farmworkers perspective, but also the nation’s food supply?”

Such questions are ever more pressing in Arizona.

On Thursday, Gov. Katie Hobbs (D) announced a pause on new subdivisions in the Phoenix suburbs that do not already have proven water supplies. That restriction will hit hardest in the towns and unincorporated areas on the periphery that have been some of the fastest-growing parts of the country. The policy is a response to an analysis by the Arizona Department of Water Resources showing insufficient groundwater beneath the Phoenix metro area to meet projected demand over the next century.

Groundwater can take thousands of years to replenish once it has been sucked out, so the problem is not easy to solve. Such shortages are likely to reshape, in coming decades, where people live and how much they pay to do so. State leaders must begin making tough decisions about Arizona’s long-term future, said Rhett Larson, a professor of water law at Arizona State University.

“Sometimes, you’ve got to give up some dreams to get to others,” Larson said. “Arizona is in that situation with its water.”

“We want to be the greatest semiconductor and microchip manufacturer in the world. We can do that. We have enough water, but our food prices are going to go up because we’re not going to grow as much food,” he said. “Those are the hard conversations that Arizona has to have right now.”

The Southwest has shown that it can adapt to shortages and use water more efficiently. Over the past two decades, Nevada has reduced by 30 percent the portion of the Colorado River’s water that it uses, even as the population has grown. Las Vegas lawns have been ripped out and replaced by cactus, gravel and artificial turf. Los Angeles, before the onslaught of rain and snow this winter, imposed restrictions on outdoor watering that conserved dwindling supplies.

His hot and dry corner of Utah, which includes the city of St. George, has been another boomtown stressed by a shortage of water. The county’s population is expected to more than double by 2050, while local leaders have been desperately hunting for new water sources to supply them. Habits are shifting. Developers are putting up more water-efficient homes. Citizens have embraced desert-friendly plants. A rebate program that pays $2 per square foot to convert away from grass has drawn huge interest, Renstrom said.

Growth “has put a huge strain on our system and how we deal with water,” Renstrom said. “There’s only a limited resource. Water is unique in that you really can’t bring in new water sources without massive capital projects.”

“When we talk about climate change and we talk about growth, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “I don’t have a crystal ball.”

This spring, the New Mexico legislature unanimously passed a bill laying the groundwork for more concerted, statewide planning for long-term water security. The legislation came after a state task force in February released detailed recommendations for individuals, government officials and local communities to better manage New Mexico’s dwindling water supply.

“You can’t work a problem unless you name it and talk about it,” Gaume said. “We have to get everybody out of their self-serving mind-set. There’s not enough water to do it all. There just isn’t. And it’s going to get worse.”

What seems likely is that water will become more costly and that trade-offs over its use will intensify. Agriculture consumes more water than cities, and the balance between these uses has become ever more important amid the shortages. Thirsty cities increasingly look to farmers willing to fallow their fields and redirect water to urban centers.

Climate pressures, said Stefanie Smallhouse, the president of the Arizona Farm Bureau, “has brought us to a critical point in our history, where we’re making decisions about what’s most important — housing developments or farm fields.”

It also means more money and focus on costly solutions — facilities that remove salt from seawater; pipelines bringing in water from wetter parts of the country.

Arizona’s prior governor, Doug Ducey (R), created a $1 billion fund for pursuing such projects. His former natural resources adviser, Chuck Podolak, now leads that effort at the Water Infrastructure Finance Authority of Arizona.

“Finding new water seems like a relatively doable task compared to holding back the oceans in Miami or trying to stop hurricanes from coming into Houston,” Podolak said.

“We, just like every other state, are wrestling with climate change,” he said.

This entry was posted on Sunday, June 4th, 2023 at 9:42 pm and is filed under Colorado River, United States.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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