Gammage: Arizona's water crisis is manageable if we do these three things

Posted 12/27/22

Those of us who talk about Arizona’s water situation often point out that the challenge we face is less daunting than other dilemmas of climate change like sea level rise or an increasing …

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Gammage: Arizona's water crisis is manageable if we do these three things


Those of us who talk about Arizona’s water situation often point out that the challenge we face is less daunting than other dilemmas of climate change like sea level rise or an increasing frequency of hurricanes. A dramatic decline in water resources, we say, is manageable, and Arizona has a strong history of water management.

But there’s a catch: We have to actually manage it.

There are a lot of seemingly disconnected ideas floating around. It is important to fit these ideas into a context, and to give Arizonans a way to talk about how we will manage our way through. 

Here are some thoughts on such a framework.

Conservation is a small yet critical need

We cannot conserve our way out of the looming shortages. Reducing turf, limiting lot sizes and increasing use of effluent are all good and important things. The reality is we could shut off all municipal use and not solve the problem.

Conservation is an important piece of reminding everyone how critical water is, and of making a statement that we are serious and we are all in this together. Conservation would involve some mandates (like prohibiting winter overseeding); incentives (paying to remove turf) and a lot of education.

The best way to achieve conservation is to create targets for municipal reductions in per-capita consumption. The best way of reaching those targets is to carefully raise water prices on amounts beyond a minimum quantity per household. 

This represents action we can take immediately.

Shift water from agriculture to urban use

The biggest water use in Arizona by far is irrigated agriculture. Encouraging farming was the goal of public policy to settle the West. That worked, but today the policy should be to first preserve western economies and urban growth. 

Agriculture does not need to disappear. But it needs to dramatically curtail use when there is not enough water to go around.

We must compensate farmers for such changes, and incentivize them to increase efficiency and be more flexible in crop choices. Farmers in Yuma have offered such a proposal, which can become the basis for negotiation. This should be the primary use of state dollars through the newly enhanced Water Infrastructure Financing Authority (WIFA). The Legislature put a billion dollars into WIFA in 2022. A good start, but there needs to be an ongoing revenue stream for these purposes.

Just as an example, a $500 surcharge per acre foot of municipal water use in Maricopa County would raise about half a billion dollars every year. That amounts to $.0015 per gallon. Carefully shifting water from farming to urban use can get us through the next 30-40 years.

Invest in new, long-term water sources

It is important to start working now on solutions in the distant horizon. This likely means ocean desalinization, but there may be other alternatives. What is important is that a plan for 50-plus years into the future begins to unfold.

The price tag will be high. The recent Build Back Better bill has about $4 billion earmarked for Western water projects. This is great, and we should thank our congressional delegation.

Federal participation in dealing with the cost of natural disasters is a bedrock purpose of the national government. It is a way of spreading the risk of hurricanes, floods and fires over a larger revenue base. It is also a way of protecting interstate commerce. New York City alone got $4 billion in federal money after “Superstorm” Sandy.

The federal government has averaged more than $30 billion per year in hurricane relief since 2000. Drought and aridification in the West are the same sort of challenge. 

The Colorado River basin states should band together to make this point in Washington. Federal reclamation policy settled the West. That policy is now needed to sustain what reclamation built.

Confronting the challenge of a drying climate at different scales and in different time frames will help Arizona reassert its storied history of leadership in water management.

Grady Gammage, Jr. is a practicing lawyer and author. Reach him at This opinion piece was originally published at