Guest column: Oregon could learn a lot from Arizona

The Bend Bulletin published my latest guest column today, “Oregon could learn a lot from Arizona”. You really should have a subscription, a local newspaper is critical to having a well functioning local government, but if you don’t, I’ve reproduced it below. My last column in the paper was about hope not being a plan for solving our water crisis. Today the paper ran two stories on water, one of which quoted a state official stating “I was hoping for a much better winter this year, a recovery”. Last week I had an email exchange with a federal agency involved in controlling releases from Prineville Reservoir in the Crooked River asking about their plans. The response was they were waiting to see what happens during the remainder of the spring. Once again, hope is not a plan and right now we have no plan. Arizona does. Here’s my column in today’s paper.

Oregon has been mismanaging water for decades.  Our lakes, reservoirs, rivers, and streams as well as the fish and wildlife that depend on them are suffering.  People are suffering too as wells dry up, food production and economic output is reduced, and recreational opportunities diminished.  Surface water and groundwater are both declining.  In Central Oregon, groundwater is of critical importance as it is the source of most of our lakes and rivers.  As has been noted, “surface water and groundwater are intimately connected despite all efforts by lawyers and judges to rule otherwise”.

Over 50 years ago, Arizona experienced dramatic groundwater declines.  In response, the state passed the Groundwater Management Act in 1980, which was hailed as the most far-reaching groundwater management regulatory framework in the United States.  The Act is complex, but the highlights are easy to understand.  Most importantly, water in Arizona is understood to be a precious commodity and is treated as such, unlike in Oregon where water is considered free and until recently, plentiful.

Arizona’s 1980 Act requires that prior to approval, most new developments must secure a 100 year supply of water.  This 100 year supply could come from groundwater that is recharged with recycled water, from the purchase of surface water rights, from a city with a 100 year supply, or from mandated water conservation measures.  While this may seem onerous to new development, the enormous growth in Arizona since 1980 has proven otherwise.  A similar requirement does not exist in Oregon where developers can build with little to no concern about long term water availability.

The Act also required that canals in management areas be lined to stop leakage and that irrigation systems be upgraded so that overall distribution losses do not exceed 10%.  Landowners had to bear the expense of these upgrades. 

In Oregon, water is supposed to be used beneficially and without waste.  Unfortunately, these provisions have been ignored.  In Arizona, beneficial use without waste is enforced economically.  No one will bear the expense of lining a canal or upgrading their irrigation system if they will not make money on the use of the water.  Contrast that to Central Oregon where taxpayers are paying for canal piping and most irrigators are “hobby farmers” who do not make a profit.

Most irrigators in Arizona are given an annual water allocation based on crops grown and the actual water required for those crops over the past 5 years.  Water use is monitored and reported at the expense of the landowner.  In Central Oregon, water is delivered based on an allocation established when the state was first settled, regardless of the current use of the water.  Further, water use is largely unmonitored and unreported.

In the 40+ years since the passage of the Act, Arizona has continued to adapt water policies to meet the needs of a growing population and heating planet.  For example, water recycling and direct groundwater recharge are now widely used.  A recharge and recovery accounting system was implemented to protect the rights of the storer and stored water credits can be traded.  Water conservation is a focus for domestic, municipal, industrial, and agricultural users.

Arizona knows that more work must be done.  Declining levels in the Colorado River, higher temperatures and reduced snowpack, drought contingency planning, water rights transfers, the potential hydrologic disconnect between groundwater withdrawal and recharge, continued groundwater declines in some areas, tribal water rights, and environmental needs are among issues that are actively being addressing.  The point is that they are working on the problem.  Oregon is not. Clearly, Oregon is not Arizona.  We need to craft legislation specific to our needs, a process that will be contentious.  Over 40 years ago, however, Arizona showed how thoughtful government can proactively address complex problems and enact lasting solutions.  We need effective leadership that will do the same.