A 19-year-drought almost brought the Southwest to its knees this year as states and water stakeholders wrestled to reach consensus on a plan to conserve Colorado River water for the future.

In a race against Mother Nature, Arizona and six other states were able to make a deal to update the binding seven-state Drought Contingency Plan (DCP). It was needed to address a new, harsh reality: a drier future.

The effort was merely a stopgap measure. But as challenges to quench Arizona’s growing cities and towns continue, there are reasons to be optimistic, said experts and state water leaders who came together to discuss solutions at the 2019 Congressional Conference, “Revolutionizing Arizona’s Water Future,” at Arizona State University.

Finding water management solutions before they turn into water crises was the focus of the Aug. 27 conference, sponsored by ASU’s offices of Knowledge Enterprise Development and Government and Community Engagement.

“We can’t go from denying there are challenges to being fatalistic. That would be the wrong response. We have to trust we have the capacity to find solutions,” said one of the speakers, Peter Schlosser, vice president and vice provost of ASU’s new Global Futures Laboratory.

The lab was launched in July to become the international headquarters for prominent scientists to develop solutions to save the planet.

Water scarcity is on the to-do list.

Arizona water leaders voice possible solutions 

Among those who attended: Arizona scientists, tribal leaders, public and private water officials, congressional members and industry representatives who spoke about solutions and moving forward.

“There’s a recognition that we can’t look back 10 years from now and say, ‘We should have brought together the right people, partners and teams to find the right solutions a long time ago.’ We’re doing it now,” said Sethuraman Panchanathan, executive vice president of Knowledge Enterprise and chief research and innovation officer at ASU.

Here are some of the solutions offered at the conference:

Tap into existing water supplies

Ted Cooke, general manager, Central Arizona Project, that diverts Colorado River water to the central, populous regions of the state, spoke about tapping into existing, unused resources.

“There’s a lot of efficiencies that can be gained with the supply we have. We have magnificent infrastructure in this state, the Central Arizona Project and the Salt River Project are two of them. A little bit of federal funding could interconnect them. We have millions of acre feet of water that’s been put underground for future use and we don’t have the recovery infrastructure to use all of it.”

Accelerate water infrastructure projects at local levels

U.S. Senator Martha McSally, a key figure in gaining congressional passage of the DCP,  talked about bipartisan legislation she and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema introduced this year to spur investment in Arizona’s aging water infrastructure. The proposed legislation would provide more flexibility in a new funding mechanism for investments to be made up front and paid over time with interest.

“One issue I heard about in Yuma is that some of our water infrastructure is more than 50 years old. In other places in the world, if you make a long-term investment in something, you can pay it back over many years. But because the way this works with federal policy, the water districts … literally have to recoup those costs that year. The only way they can do that is to charge their users more for water in that year. That’s not a good model.”

Allow tribes to lease water to off-reservation users

Dennis Patch, chairman, Colorado River Indian Tribes spoke about the need for tribes be able to move water off the reservation to lease to other users. Currently, federal law does not allow that.

“We’ve seen several rivers in Arizona go dry and that’s our first priority. We’ve always lived on the river and we’ve always been farmers. We want to develop our full water rights and we also want federal legislation that permits us to lease water to Arizona. Right now we only have the right to store water in Lake Mead.”

Thin Arizona’s overgrown forests

Chuck Podolak, director of water rights and contracts, Salt River Project, said removing trees from Arizona’s northern forests would protect precious watershed.

“Our ponderosa forests are too dense and they’re the headwaters of the water supplies. It’s a matter of getting the U.S. Forest Service to work with the contractors to get it done. Indian water rights and forest treatment are two things that are unacceptably slow. There are way too many trees in our forests and getting them out is one of the highest priorities for in-state water supplies.”

Public and private partnerships

Todd Brady, director of global affairs and sustainability, Intel Corp, said companies must be proactive.

“Water is critical to making semiconductors. We broke ground on our Ocotillo facility, one of the largest semiconductor manufacturing plants in the world, and we made a partnership with the city of Chandler to build a reverse-osmosis plant where our wastewater went to be treated to be reused by the city or put into the aquifer.

“More recently we set a goal to restore 100 percent of our water supply by 2025. Our idea was for every gallon of water we took in, we would put a gallon back. We’re a bunch of engineers and the only way to get to that 100 percent was to do partnerships across the state of Arizona to replenish the watershed.”

Bring industry together

Paul Westerhoff, Fulton Chair of Environmental Engineering, ASU said industry needs a way to come together to be part of the solution.

“We commissioned a survey of a variety of industrial water users in Maricopa County and … looked at hospitals, hospitality, breweries, small businesses. Over 70 percent identified water as critical to their business but they didn’t really understand the true cost to what they were spending beyond their water bill. They didn’t feel that industry has a common place to go to talk about concerns. We can start getting these industries together to talk about best practices around water.”

Restoration of the Gila River

Stephen Roe Lewis, governor, Gila River Indian Community said that restoring the Gila River is a water priority for the tribe. Currently, the tribe, nonprofit organizations, the University of Arizona, and communities along the river like Buckeye, Avondale and Surprise are working to restore the river’s watershed.

“First, we want to be sure our current and future farmers have enough water, and second we want to restore portions of the Gila River on our land. When our Gila River was diverted over 100 years ago, that literally pushed us to the brink of extinction. We almost died out as a people but we didn’t because we persevered. So holding water in the highest regard is one of our most important value systems.”

Arizona will find a way

Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy, ASU stated that technology, research and know how will continue to blaze the way in Arizona, long a leader in water policy and innovation.

“An important fact for us all to keep in mind is that currently, statewide demand is slightly lower than it was in the mid-1950s. We’ve grown our economy 17 or 18 times and our population eight times since the mid-1950s and we’re using slightly less water.”

To read more comments from the participants go to: Revolutionizing Arizona’s Water Future.