Arizona’s water problems show how climate change is reshaping the West

Jay Famiglietti moved to Arizona this year after a career using satellites to study how the worst drought in a millennium was drying up aquifers beneath the American West.

He documented that groundwater decline in California’s Central Valley has accelerated dramatically in recent years, and that states along the Colorado River were losing their aquifers much faster than the more visible wilting of the nation’s largest bodies of water.

It was not a satellite but an airplane, however, what Famiglietti had in mind as he picked up his wife at the airport earlier this year: a charter flight of people arriving in Phoenix as part of a major expansion of the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., one of Arizona’s leading economic development jewels. This symbol of Arizona’s future has brought home the stakes of this moment.

In one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country, it’s a boom time for microchip companies and water-intensive data centers relocating; tens of thousands of homes scattered deep in the desert. But it’s also a time of crisis: climate change is drying up the American West and putting more and more vital resources at risk.

I’m incredibly concerned, said Famiglietti, an Arizona State University professor who is leading a multiyear effort to assess the state’s above and below ground water supplies. I don’t think people, and that’s everyone, the general public, but down to our water managers and elected officials, really understand now that groundwater is the key to our future.

There’s not enough for all the things we want to do, he said.

Arizona’s decision last week to restrict housing in parts of Phoenix’s rapidly growing suburbs is another major warning about how climate change is disrupting lifestyles and economies in the West. Across the region, glaciers have retreated, fires have spread, rivers and lakes have shrunk. It has been a wet winter, but deeper trends caused by warming of the atmosphere persist.

Our forests are burning. Our rivers have diminished. There’s sand blowing through places that were previously overgrown, said Norm Gaume, a former water resources manager for Albuquerque who leads a grassroots group pushing for sustainable water in New Mexico. The signs are all there.

In Utah, the Great Salt Lake has lost more than 70 percent of its water, and recent reports warn it could be gone within five years, along with billions of dollars in economic activity and thousands of jobs that depend on it.

The wildfire spread in California just prompted the state’s largest insurer, State Farm, to stop issuing new policies there amid its rapidly growing exposure to the catastrophe, the company said.

States along the Colorado River just reached an unprecedented agreement to leave a major portion of their water supply in the river in an effort to keep Lake Powell and Lake Mead from sinking so low they can no longer produce hydroelectricity. If that happens, electricity could become much more expensive for millions of people. But the negotiated settlement of more than $1 billion in taxpayer funds to pay farmers and others to give up water will result in fallow fields and potential job losses in some of the country’s key agricultural regions.

It’s always a tricky balance, Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) said in a recent interview. How do we deal with the reality of dwindling water supplies without negatively impacting the economy, broadly from the farmers’ point of view, from the agricultural workers’ point of view, but also from the food supply of nations?

Such questions are increasingly pressing in Arizona.

On Thursday, Gov. Katie Hobbs (D) announced a pause on new developments in Phoenix suburbs that don’t already have proven water supplies. That restriction will hit hardest in cities and unincorporated areas on the periphery that have been some of the fastest growing parts of the country. The policy is a response to an analysis by the Arizona Department of Water Resources showing that groundwater under the Phoenix metropolitan area is insufficient to meet projected demand over the next century.

Groundwater can take thousands of years to replenish once it’s sucked out, so the problem isn’t easy to fix. Such shortages are likely to reshape where people live and how much they pay to live in the coming decades. State leaders need to start making tough decisions about Arizona’s long-term future, said Rhett Larson, a water law professor at Arizona State University.

Sometimes, you have to give up some dreams to reach for others, Larson said. Arizona is in that situation with its water.

We want to be the largest semiconductor and microchip manufacturer in the world. We can do it. We have enough water, but our food prices will go up because not as much food will grow, he said she. Those are the tough conversations Arizona needs to be having right now.

The Southwest has shown that it can adapt to shortages and use water more efficiently. Over the past two decades, Nevada has reduced the portion of water from the Colorado River it uses by 30 percent, even as the population has grown. Las Vegas lawns have been uprooted and replaced by cacti, gravel, and artificial grass. Los Angeles, prior to the onslaught of rain and snow this winter, imposed restrictions on outdoor watering that preserved dwindling supplies.

There’s been a titanic shift in how my community views water, and it’s been very encouraging to see it, said Zachary Renstrom, the general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District in southwestern Utah.

Its hot, dry corner of Utah, which includes the city of St. George, has been another boomtown stressed by water shortages. The county’s population is expected to more than double by 2050, as local leaders are desperate for new sources of water to replenish. Habits are changing. Developers are building more water-efficient homes. Citizens have embraced desert-friendly plants. A rebate program that pays $2 per square foot to convert weed has attracted tremendous interest, Renstrom said.

The growth has taken a toll on our system and the way we handle water, Renstrom said. There is only a limited resource. Water is unique in that you can’t really bring in new sources of water without massive capital projects.

When we talk about climate change and we talk about growth, I don’t know what’s going to happen, he said. I don’t have a crystal ball.

This spring, the New Mexico legislature unanimously passed a bill that sets the stage for more concerted, statewide planning for long-term water security. The legislation came after a state task force in February released detailed recommendations for individuals, government officials and local communities to better manage New Mexico’s dwindling water supply.

You can’t fix a problem unless you call it out and talk about it, Gaume said. We have to get everyone out of their selfish mentality. There isn’t enough water to do everything. It just isn’t there. And it’s about to get worse.

What seems likely is that water will become more expensive and trade-offs on its use will intensify. Agriculture consumes more water than cities, and balancing these uses has become increasingly important amid shortages. Thirsty cities are increasingly looking to farmers willing to leave their fields fallow and redirect water to urban centers.

Weather pressures, said Stefanie Smallhouse, president of the Arizona Farm Bureau, had brought us to a tipping point in our history, where we were making decisions about which housing developments or agricultural fields were more important.

It also means more money and a focus on expensive facilities that remove salt from seawater; pipelines that bring water from the wetter parts of the country.

Former Arizona governor Doug Ducey (R) created a $1 billion fund to pursue such projects. His former natural resources adviser, Chuck Podolak, now leads this effort at Arizona’s Water Infrastructure Finance Authority.

Finding new water seems like a relatively feasible task compared to keeping oceans in Miami or trying to keep hurricanes from entering Houston, Podolak said.

We, just like every other state, are struggling with climate change, he said.

Yvonne Wingett Sanchez of Phoenix contributed to this report.

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