Arizona at the Crossroads: Water Scarcity or Water Sustainability?

September 13, 2011

Karen L. Smith, Ph.D.
Fellow, Grand Canyon Institute

Imagine a much drier Arizona than exists today. Drought conditions persist or worsen, Colorado River flows have diminished and water storage at Lake Mead drops to levels requiring shortage declarations. Farmers send their water to cities, drying up land and sending regional economies dependent on agriculture into a tailspin. Groundwater pumping in excess of that amount replenished naturally has caused overdraft of Arizona’s aquifers, reducing or eliminating river flows and drying up riparian areas, and transforming the land surface through fissuring and subsidence.  Arizonans face strict water use limits and industry requiring large amounts of water in their processes will have to pay increased costs, conservatively $1,000-$2,000/acre-foot for additional water supplies. One economist has projected this increased water shortfall of surface and groundwater will cost the Southwest as a region between $7 billion to $15 billion annually. Sound far-fetched? These elements of a very dry Arizona are credible assumptions for water resource analyses over the next 100 years and if nothing is done to change how Arizona manages and uses its water resources, probably likely.