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Allhands: New proposal could help metro Phoenix cities wean off groundwater

A new proposal from the Arizona Department of Water Resources would change the way a handful of communities in the outer reaches of the Valley would get water as they continue to grow.

Most of metro Phoenix is designated with an official Assured Water Supply — those words are capitalized. But, for fast-growing communities like Buckeye and Queen Creek, that’s not an option. At least not yet.

Instead, those cities and other parts of Pinal County have long relied on groundwater — even though they’ve been trying hard to get off of it. It’s no easy task.

Joanna Allhands is an opinion columnist at The Arizona Republic, and she joined The Show to talk about a different option for those communities. 

Full conversation

LAUREN GILGER: So start by setting this up for us. Like why is it so hard for places like Buckeye and Queen Creek to get off of groundwater? Even though we know we're using too much groundwater in too many parts of the state. And that's a problem, right.

JOANNA ALLHANDS: Right. Right. Well, and part of it is just because they're newer, right. They came in sort of after a lot of the water was being doled out that was more renewable, right. So, like Salt River Project water, water from the Salt and Verde Rivers, Central Arizona project water though. The water from the Colorado River. All of that's really pretty much been doled out, and there really aren't a ton of renewable supplies around, you know, things that can be sort of replenished over and over again. That's the difference between sort of this, and groundwater, which by and large is really just a finite supply underground that will once we've used it, we, we pretty much used it.

GILGER: OK. So you're arguing that these communities should be designated Assured Water Supplies going forward and that would solve some key problems, you're saying. Tell us what those are, how you think that would benefit things.

ALLHANDS: Yeah. Well, and probably to, to kind of even back up a little bit about what it means to be designated. Basically, that is saying that you have enough water, enough renewable water to serve all of the existing water users that are in your area, but also a certain measure of additional users, additional water use for 100 years. So that's a big thing right? To be able to say that. And when you have a designation, it applies to all water uses in your area.

So that's not necessarily the case of what we're seeing in Buckeye and Queen Creek right now. Those areas really, the only places that are having to replenish the groundwater or even prove that they have enough water to build before they build are subdivisions, which largely that's for sale, single-family housing. There's a lot of other stuff that doesn't have to prove that it has 100-year water supply. So that's a big thing right? To be able to do that. That could really help improve management markedly, not even just in those areas, but really just for the whole aquifer in general. It's, it's a that could really benefit all of us.

GILGER: OK. So some benefits at hand here, but I have to say like giving Assured Water Supply status right to communities where they continue growing, even though they don't have that assured water supply yet feels disingenuous, right? Like is there a middle ground? There seems to be something the Department of Water Resources would like to do here, that seems like it would be a little bit of a hedge on that.

ALLHANDS: Yeah. Well, and I think that's the thing is, in order to get a designation and, and you know, technically Buckeye and Queen Creek and you know, some of the other water providers that are kind of out on the outskirts of metro Phoenix that do not have a designation. Technically, they could follow the rules as they are and try to get designated. The problem is the Department of Water Resources requires that not only do they have the renewable water supplies in hand, but that they also have the infrastructure to be able to put that water to use, to be able to replenish what they're pumping all at once on day one.

That is a huge task. That is not something that really, you know, I mean, even the other water providers in metro Phoenix that are designated, you know, they had time to be able to put these things into place. Really, we're asking these communities, no, you got to have that all at once. And so now the discussion is, is there a way sort of to provide a bridge? I think that's kind of the, the word that has been used a lot. Some people have actually said it's almost kind of like a loan. We're saying you could continue to use groundwater, you get this designation, but you could continue to use groundwater as long as you are making this plan to use less of it over time. Could we do that, so where you don't necessarily have to have everything in hand on day one to get a designation. That's at least the concept. Now, whether we get there, if that's actually something that's workable, if it's something that is actually going to work for these communities, that is an entirely open question and not one we can answer right now.

GILGER: Not right now. Tell us just so I understand like when we're talking about getting off of groundwater moving to different types of water supplies, what are the options there? Like, can they tap into those other kind of long term options that most of the rest of us use, like Colorado River water?

ALLHANDS: Maybe. I think that that is the rub, right, is that there just really aren't a ton of renewable supplies out there. It is possible that they could potentially lease some Colorado River water. You know, there's lots of talk about there are some groundwater basins that have been designated as transportation basins, which basically means all the groundwater in that basin could eventually be pumped or at least a huge amount of the groundwater in that basin could eventually be pumped into these areas. That is a possibility. Having recycled water, reclaimed water, being able to, you know, treat wastewater and then use that to recharge the aquifer or potentially to clean it to an ultra pure standard where we're actually drinking it. You know, those are all potential options. Of course, none of these are going to be cheap because the stuff just isn't easy to find and it takes a lot of infrastructure.

GILGER: Yeah, that's really interesting though. OK. So some of the options that could be on the table for communities like this. So tell me lastly, Joanna, like how does all of this fit into the broader conversation about our state's water future? Like balancing growth and water conservation, which is going to have to kind of go hand in hand as we go forward, right.

ALLHANDS: I think that's really the big thing, is we really have just sort of reached this crossroads, right where, you know, even in metro Phoenix, the groundwater modeling has said, OK, pretty much all of the groundwater that we have has been at least set aside for some other use. It's basically all been spoken for. So what do you do then?

Especially in time like this where you know, the Colorado River does not produce the kind of water that it used to. Our Salt and Verde river supplies are pretty stable, but you know, that's not going to serve everyone. So how do we move forward How do we ensure that we continue to grow responsibly because we need to continue to grow, right? These have huge economic implications, not just for metro Phoenix for the whole state. So we need to continue to grow. But how do you do that in a way that is responsible that has the water in hand before we bring in all of this stuff, you know, so we're not getting 20 or 30 years down the road and going, oh, wait a second. We've got a real problem here. You know, that is the question. We're really at this crossroads where we have to get creative and say, how do we ensure that, you know, truly, the rising tide lifts all ships.

KJZZ’s The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ’s programming is the audio record.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.