By Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, Special to the Arizona Daily Star
When I look at other western cities and the problems they’re having with water, I’m grateful for what Tucson has done to secure a safe and sustainable water supply.
Decades ago, our city pumped more groundwater than nature replaced—a condition known as overdraft. Today, not only have we achieved balance, our water table is actually rising.
How did Tucson become a leader in water management, putting us in a position many western cities might envy? With good regulatory and rate structures, and by investing in infrastructure, education and incentives.
Just last year, California passed its first-ever statewide rules for pumping groundwater. Arizona did this 35 years ago—a major reason we’re not experiencing conditions like those in California.
Tucson’s water is a blend of Colorado River water from the Central Arizona Project (our CAP allocation) and groundwater. We recharge our CAP allocation, storing it in the ground. Phoenix is the reverse, relying heavily on surface water from CAP and SRP, the Salt River Project, and storing most of its water in reservoirs.
Tucson’s 200-plus wells give us the infrastructure to take full advantage of recharge. We even have capacity to help our neighbors in Phoenix, storing some of their CAP allocation in our well field. If all works out as planned, they’ll cover the cost of improvements to increase our capacity further.
Tucson’s groundwater is like a savings account. You don’t want to deplete it—in our case, we want to keep building it up as much we can—but having it can act as a buffer against dry years, even decades. Groundwater buys you time to adapt.
Not that we’re waiting. We’re continually investing in our water infrastructure, planning for worst case as well as best case scenarios. We’re vigilant in protecting our water supply against threats—environmental or political.
Along with infrastructure, we’ve invested in education and incentives. Pete the Beak, Tucson Water’s beloved spokesduck, promotes conservation year-round. We offer rebates for high-efficiency toilets and for rainwater and gray water systems. Our WaterSmart Business Program helps businesses save water and energy. Even our rate structure promotes conservation, while keeping water affordable. As a result, Tucsonans have reduced our per-capita water use 29% from 1996 levels.
Sadly, in other parts of Arizona, per-capita water use continues to rise. Cities where this is the case could benefit by following Tucson’s lead. And businesses that want to locate in a city that manages water properly, for the long term, would do well to look at Tucson.
The west is experiencing persistent drought, and much attention has been focused on Arizona’s junior priority status among the Lower Basin states that receive Colorado River water. In the event of a shortage, Arizona would bear the brunt of reductions. Within Arizona’s share, however, municipal and industrial water users, including Tucson, would see their CAP allocations prioritized. Reductions would come first from excess and agricultural water users—which account for about a third of all CAP water use.
It’s important to note that Tucson’s CAP allocation belongs to Tucson. Water we don’t use stays in the ground for use another day. It’s not reassigned somewhere else. Our conservation efforts really do pay off here at home.
As I said, when I look at what other western cities are facing, I’m glad I’m in Tucson—a city that continues to lead the way in water management and conservation.