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Arizona expert sheds light on state's challenging water outlook

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Alex Gonzalez

(Arizona News Connection) An Arizona water expert said the state faces a challenging situation with the Colorado River being over-allocated, compounded with what she calls a historic drought.

Kathryn Sorensen, director of research at the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University, said Arizona's water system is in distress.

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She explained access to water from the Colorado River depends on what she called a "hierarchy of water rights." Certain Native American communities and farmers enjoy "senior rights," while other towns and cities have to get by with less.

Sorensen noted Arizona is blessed to have significant groundwater aquifers, so management of these aquifers is paramount.

"The water was laid down over tens of thousands of years, and it isn't annually renewed at any significant rate," Sorensen pointed out. "If you pump too much of it, you're basically 'mining' that groundwater and depleting it, meaning that there will be less available for future generations."

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While Arizona has taken significant steps to conserve water, Sorensen said the work and innovation must continue, from improving use of reclaimed water to finding ways to augment water supplies. In a poll earlier this year, Arizonans said they believe the state should be doing more to regulate groundwater consumption, as well as prioritizing conservation and restoration projects. 

As Arizona continues to grow, Sorensen stressed water demands are much more closely related to land use than to population growth, with the agricultural sector using about 70 percent of the state's water. She said some crops require as much as six acre-feet of water per acre of farmland. An acre-foot of water equates to about 326,000 gallons. 

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Lake Mead on the Colorado River in Nevada as seen from the Hoover Dam. Courtesy Waycool27

"Whereas urban developments actually use much less water, probably more like one to two acre-feet per acre," Sorensen stated. "So ironically, as our population has grown and we have converted what used to be farmland into urban uses, there has been a sort of natural water savings."

She added in the future, experts predict Arizona will be hotter and drier, so it is important to understand land use choices are meaningful and will have a direct impact on water availability.