Complicated, and with little basis in reality or science, Arizona’s water law is a bifurcated system of management with no legal connection between surface water and groundwater. As is the case throughout much of the west, surface water usage is managed according to a system of prior appropriation – or first in time, first in right. Groundwater pumping, on the other hand, is in most cases a free-for-all. Individuals can sink a well and draw water for domestic uses – up to 35 gallons per minute – without a permit and without a meter. Thousands of these wells have dotted the state map, increasing exponentially over time.
Groundwater pumping for municipal use and for large-scale irrigation has, over time, depleted several of Arizona’s rivers over the past hundred years. The Santa Cruz River, parts of the Gila River, Del Rio Springs, and many other streams and springs have or are in the process of going dry due to groundwater pumping. And nowhere in state law is this illegal.
As we are faced with catastrophic global climate change and significant shifts in weather patterns, the southwest is projected to receive less and less rainfall in the future. Compounding the impacts of groundwater pumping, we will likely see hundreds more stream miles of riparian habitat devastated.
We have an opportunity to consider the future effects of climate change alongside the effects of groundwater pumping, dams and diversions, and make better choices that preserve our flowing rivers and the many species that rely on them. Watershed and/or sub-watershed based water management districts would localize decision-making while at the same time encompass the affected water resources. Providing legal recognition of groundwater and surface water resources, as well as providing for riparian and base flow protections, could significantly curtail the degradation.
Arizona Rivers is committed to educating the public and law-makers about these needed policy changes so that our streams will continue to flow for generations to come.
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