Water Scarcity

Water Security

No new Federal projects should be undertaken to improve Arizona’s water supply until WE get OUR own water management “house in order”, particularly when it comes to groundwater.

I was born in Phoenix in 1972 and was raised in Mesa, Tempe, and Chandler in the 1970s and 1980s.

I grew up in the tract housing subdivisions which sprang to life in the East Valley as the assured water supply from the Colorado River became readily available via the Central Arizona Project (CAP) during those decades.[1]

As a student in Mesa Public Schools – and later Tempe Public Schools – and as a Boy Scout, I also grew up visiting the ruins and listening to the stories about the Hohokam (Native American) civilization which thrived in the Valley until their society collapsed around 1400 A.D. – which most experts believe occurred because the size of the Hohokam population could not be supported by the available water supply.[2]

What always stood out to me, event at that young age, was that the size of the Hohokam population at their zenith – before their collapse – was so SMALL compared to the number of people living in the valley in the modern era.

As a frame of reference:

Population of the Valley/ Maricopa County Year Remarks
~50K – 100K ~1400 A.D. Peak of the Hohokam civilization[3]
~2M 1991 When I left the Valley to attend West Point[4]
~4M 2015 When our family returned to live in the Valley
4.6M 2021[5]

So, at its PEAK – before its collapse – the Hohokam population was  estimated to be somewhere between 50,000 – 100,000 people.  This was certainly an impressive feat given technology standards in the mid-14th and 15th century in this very arid environment, but fifty thousand people is almost TWO ORDERS OF MAGNITUDE LESS than the current population of Maricopa County.[6]

Consequently, every rational policymaker and resident in the Valley MUST question whether superior technology alone has allowed our population to exceed the Hohokam population by TWO ORDERS OF MAGNITUDE without risking a similar collapse in the future?[7]

However, even if we WANTED to reverse course, we can’t simply “flip the switch” overnight and completely shut off the spigot of people coming to the Valley, either; because our economy is largely built around the business of development, construction, and growth.[8]

Therefore, every rational policymaker and resident in the Valley must ALSO acknowledge that significant policies and attitudes – especially the “growth at any cost” mindset – will have to change so that we can balance the political, social, and economic needs to maintain a vibrant economy and high quality of life with the MORAL imperative – and self-preservation instinct – to maintain a sustainable supply of renewable water resources available in our desert home.

Thinking of sustainable solutions to resolve this natural tension between what our RENEWABLE water resources can SUPPORT and what our BUSINESS, POLITICAL, AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT STAKEHOLDERS EXPECT from our available water resources is what keeps me up at night – because we don’t have ANY time to lose if we want to ensure economic prosperity AND a reliable source of water for our children, grandchildren, and generations of Arizonans to come.

And that is why Arizona’s Water Security is one of the three focus areas of my campaign.[9]

It’s not all “doom and gloom” when it comes to water resources in the Valley, though.

On an extremely positive note, as of 2017, the state of Arizona uses LESS water now then we did fifty years ago.[10]

Furthermore, sound planning and policies, set into motion by Arizona’s landmark Groundwater Management Act of 1980[11]; coupled with “banking” of water in underground aquifers are two ways that previous generations have helped set up future generations for water management success.[12]

However, we need to examine critically the areas we are falling short – specifically when it comes to managing groundwater, which is NOT renewable. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.

And even more precisely, we are NOT on track to meet “safe-yield” groundwater management goals by 2025[13]. Although there is some debate as to what this means in practice, in a nutshell, “safe-yield” means that by 2025, the amount of groundwater being withdrawn from underground aquifers must be replaced by an EQUIVALENT amount of groundwater every year so that we never go zero balance on groundwater.

However, the fear is that we are still too dependent on groundwater to ACHIEVE that “safe-yield” goal – and our inability to develop a sustainable groundwater solution threatens the long-term prospects of the Valley’s economy and well-being, especially when coupled with the extremely low water levels in our largest reservoirs on the Colorado River system.[14]

Could new Federal projects HELP offset the impact of our inability to meet safe-yield goals and long-term drought and over-development? Yes.

However, no responsible Federal policymaker should support any NEW Federal projects to improve Arizona’s water supply until WE get OUR own water management “house in order”, particularly when it comes to groundwater. This includes, but is not limited to, implementing the recommendations outlined in Sarah Porter and Kathleen Ferris’ policy paper:[15]

1) Addressing the long-term rights to pump groundwater.
2) Improving the measurement and communication of the “safe yield” goal.
3) Ensuring that sources of water DEMANDS are reasonably close to sources of water SUPPLY.
4) Stop allowing groundwater to be used as a source of “assured water” to justify construction of new subdivisions.[16]


[1] https://www.cap-az.com/about-us/background (accessed 8/1/2021)
[2] https://www.arizonamuseumofnaturalhistory.org/plan-a-visit/mesa-grande/the-hohokam (accessed 7/31/2021)
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hohokam (accessed 8/1/2021)
[4] Population data found via Google Search on 7/31/2021.  Source of data: https://www.census.gov/
[5] In 2021, the population of Maricopa County is 4.6 million people – which is more than double than what it was when I graduated from high school in 1990.  Population data found via Google search on 7/31/2021.  Source of data: https://worldpopulationreview.com/us-counties/az/maricopa-county-population#:~:text=Maricopa%20County%2C%20Arizona’s%20estimated%20population,recent%20United%20States%20census%20data.
[6] The estimated size of the Hohokam population in the Valley was around 50,000 at its peak.  If I add two more zeros (or two “orders of magnitude”), we get 5,000,000 – which is not too far off from the Maricopa County population of 4.6M in 2021.
[7] The groundbreaking book, Beyond the Limits to Growth: Confronting Global Collapse, Envisioning a Sustainable Future explains how technology CAN expand the carrying capacity of natural systems – but only to a certain point which I would suggest we have probably exceeded in Arizona.  See https://donellameadows.org/archives/beyond-the-limits-to-growth/ (accessed 8/1/2021) for additional context and details.
[8] While I am skeptical that a water lawyer working on behalf of developers and corporate interests can be sufficiently unbiased when it comes to recommending sustainable water policy in the Valley, I still STRONGLY recommend that EVERY resident of the Valley read Grady Gammage Jr.’s book, The Future of the Suburban City: Lessons from Sustaining Phoenix.  Grady Gammage Jr. has a wealth of experience – both professional and personal – that informs his opinions and insights, and which makes this worth reading.  Specifically, “Chapter 6: Jobs and Economy of Cities in the Sand” is probably one of the best, most concise summaries of how we have arrived at a dependence on development and growth – as well as a critical analysis of how things may not be bad (or as dependent on growth) as it may seem.
[9] https://lindbergforcongress.com/policy-positions/
[10] https://kjzz.org/content/1662668/study-arizona-using-less-water-it-did-50-years-ago-continued-growth-threatens-supply (accessed 8/8/2021). https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona-environment/2019/02/12/arizona-water-usage-state-uses-less-now-than-1957/2806899002/ (accessed 8/8/2021).
[11] https://www.azcentral.com/story/opinion/op-ed/joannaallhands/2018/01/04/lessons-groundwater-management-act-saved-arizona/1000061001/ (accessed 8/8/2021). https://new.azwater.gov/adwr/history (accessed 8/8/2021).
[12] https://waterbank.az.gov/ (accessed 8/8/2021).
[13] My hat goes off to the OUTSTANDING work that Katherine Sorensen, Sarah Porter, Kathleen Ferris, and the rest of the Kyl Center team at ASU’s Morrison Institute are doing to make this research accessible to the general public https://morrisoninstitute.asu.edu/sites/default/files/the_myth_of_safe-yield_0.pdf (accessed 8/8/2021).
[14] https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona-environment/2021/07/24/lake-powell-water-levels-near-record-low/8077479002/ (accessed 8/8/2021).
[15] See “Summary of Recommendations” (page 46) in https://morrisoninstitute.asu.edu/sites/default/files/the_myth_of_safe-yield_0.pdf (accessed 8/8/2021).
[16] Every new subdivision requires proof that they have a 100-year supply of water.  The intent behind the Groundwater Management Act of 1980 is that this would NOT come from groundwater.  However, in 1993, the Arizona State Legislature changed the law to allow groundwater to be part of that 100 year assured water supply calculation – and THAT is part of the reason why we are at risk of missing our 2025 safe-yield goals https://www.azcentral.com/story/opinion/op-ed/2014/12/03/arizona-groundwater-management-act/19860529/ (accessed 8/8/2021).

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