Here’s how we can secure the future of water in Arizona
Arizona has experienced a rapid transformation from an economy based on agriculture and tourism to one more focused on logistics and advanced manufacturing, with the Grand Canyon State poised to reap long-lasting benefits from advanced manufacturing and the automotive industry’s transition to electric vehicles. But how will all this economic development impact the future of water in Arizona?
“Our economy has really been diversified and now is competitive with any state in the nation,” Gov. Doug Ducey told the crowd at a Valley Partnership breakfast earlier this year. “It’s an all-of-the-above jobs economy, from the high tech, high paying semiconductor sector to our service sector and transportation and hospitality. Things like Intel and Taiwan Semiconductor, ElectraMeccanica, Lucid and Nikola are big deals. We’ve got a pipeline that is just full of these types of opportunities.”
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This growth can only be sustained so long as water remains readily available, despite the state using less water today than it did over six decades ago thanks in part to a reduction in agricultural output with high water needs.
To be sure, much has been done to secure Arizona’s future water supply. Just three years ago, Ducey signed legislation enabling the state to collaborate with California and Nevada on the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan. According to a Central Arizona Project (CAP) fact sheet, the plan is one part of a larger set of agreements designed to protect the Colorado River system through voluntary reductions and increased conservation, and developed with the federal government, seven states, water users and Mexico.
A generation earlier, Governor Bruce Babbit ushered the 1980 Groundwater Management Act into law, which requires developments in designated “active management areas” of the state to have a guaranteed 100-year supply of water.
“We are blessed with vast quantities of groundwater in central Arizona,” says Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. “Despite the fact that we have those abundant supplies, we’ve been allocating 100-year-supplies of groundwater since 1980.
“In the Pinal active management area,” Buschatzke continues, “which is almost the equivalent of the county, we’re seeing a large deficit between the demands, and what supplies are available — an 8 million acre-foot deficit in total, and a 2 million acre-foot deficit in the assured water supply program. Because groundwater is finite in other areas, that same outcome will eventually occur. It’s just a matter of time.”
With more industrial users calling Arizona home, it’s fair to ask if they too are working to be good stewards of water resources. While some manufacturing processes do require substantial amounts of water, Nicholaus Fischer, investment officer at Merit Partners, notes that the majority of the current industrial space is occupied by warehouses and distributors that use very little water.
“If you look at a 1-million-square-foot Amazon facility, it could limit its water used to literally drinking fountains and bathrooms,” he explains. “If you think about that use compared to a cotton farm, the metrics are way, way less for industrial development.”
The primary consumer of water on an industrial project tends to be the cooling system. Fischer notes that up until the last decade or so, many warehouse spaces utilized evaporative cooling. While adequate most of the year, the system is less effective in humid conditions.
Moreover, evaporative cooling requires water to be poured over a medium that then flows down the drain. Fischer says the less efficient evaporative cooling systems have fallen out of favor. Most industrial facilities today have transitioned to HVAC with units on the rooftop, which increases the power load but greatly reduces water use.
“For a long time,” Fischer adds, “the [capital expenditure] difference between evaporative cooling and HVAC was far too great for users to underwrite the initial [capital expenditure]. They would prefer to save money up front and probably have a little bit higher operating expense, but not have to invest in the refrigerated cooling on the front end.”
As the costs have come down, the price gap between HVAC and evaporative cooling has narrowed, with Arizona’s affordable power helping users make the switch. The increased quality of life for employees in these facilities is yet another added benefit.
Fischer has also observed a shift in attitudes in the private sector. “The corporate community is mindful these days of their water consumption. Companies are almost always choosing to make higher levels of [capital expenditure] for higher levels of sustainability,” he says. “Anybody that’s using processed water that they have to clean, the [reverse osmosis] systems they’re using are doing two or three passes to reduce the number of byproducts so they’re able to utilize as much of their incoming water as possible for whatever their industrial need is.”
Expanding the toolbox
Being good stewards of water — whether as individuals, companies or elected officials — is necessary for the future of Arizona. Groundwater is a limited resource, yet represents 41% of Arizona’s water sources, according to a fact sheet released by the Governor’s office. On the other hand, the Colorado River provides the state with 38% of its water, though the first Tier 1 shortage has been declared by the Secretary of the Interior.
Ted Cooke, general manager of CAP, explains at a Valley Partnership breakfast on Nov. 19, 2021, that the shortage means Arizona will lose approximately 18% of its Colorado River supply, which represents 8% of its total water supply. “Those are significant numbers no matter what your yardstick is,” he says.
With such reductions occurring and the potential for more in the future, it’s reasonable to question whether using water more efficiently will be enough. “Why is there all this focus on conservation? Why aren’t we working on augmentation? And why aren’t we working on reuse?” Cooke posits. “We are working on those things simultaneously with conservation. It’s expensive and going to take a lot longer. So at least for a few years, the biggest and most effective tool we have in the toolbox is conservation.”
That said, there are efforts underway to address the water issue beyond conservation. Brian Biesemeyer, executive director of Scottsdale Water, explains that the City of Scottsdale has been a leader in indirect potable reuse.
“We have a 20-million-gallons-a-day sewage treatment plant where we treat wastewater to what’s called Class A plus standard, the highest standards for irrigation reuse,” he says. “On the back end of that, we built an advanced water treatment facility where we use ozone, membrane filtration, reverse osmosis and [ultraviolet] photolysis. And with that, we can treat that wastewater once to very good standards, and then treat it a second time so it exceeds drinking water standards.”
That water is then put back in the city’s aquifer, which can be pumped from different well sites. “That’s indirect potable reuse, and we’ve been doing it for 24 years. Being good stewards of our water means knowing that wastewater is a resource,” Biesemeyer says.
Until recently, there was a prohibition against doing direct potable reuse, which would be taking the water from the advanced water treatment plant and providing it to customers to drink, despite meeting the standards for such water. But in 2018, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) put out a call to utilities with the technology to collaborate and learn more about direct potable reuse.
“In 2019,” Biesemeyer recalls, “we went and worked with ADEQ and got the first facility permit for direct potable reuse in the state of Arizona. It’s currently just a demonstration permit, meaning that we haven’t hooked it into our system for customers yet.”
There’s an undeniable “yuck factor” associated with drinking wastewater — despite it being perfectly safe to consume — that Biesemeyer says they are working to overcome through exposure to the public. People can tour the facility to see the treatment process and have a glass of recycled water at the end. Before the pandemic, 10 local breweries participated in a showcase at the annual arts and culture event in Scottsdale called Canal Convergence featuring beers brewed with direct potable reuse.
Valley Partnership advocates for updates to the Arizona Administrative Code on Purified Water for Potable Use to be fast-tracked to make sure all water resources can be fully utilized to lessen the need for groundwater pumping.
Cheryl Lombard, president and CEO of Valley Partnership, explains that the organization supports legislation that enables “the [ADEQ] to not only do the necessary rulemaking to enable all of the cities to create recycled water programs, but it’s also to do a bit of a public relations campaign,” to educate water consumers about the safety of direct potable reuse.
Arizona is not alone in its water supply crunch. The dwindling supplies of the Colorado River negatively affects the states that depend on it. The shortage also impacts Mexico, where the river terminates. As the Grand Canyon State works to secure its water future through many channels and partners, Governor Doug Ducey announced his plan to invest an additional $1 billion to secure Arizona’s water future, some of which would be put aside for augmentation projects.
“One we’re investigating — and there will be more to follow on this — is a desalination project,” Ducey says at a Valley Partnership breakfast on Feb. 25, 2022. “This is not new technology. It has been here since biblical times, but it has been incredibly expensive. With what Israel has done on desalination has squeezed a lot of the cost, brought in a lot of efficiencies. We think we have this opportunity that we want to explore and report on. But whoever is my successor will have numerous options to make certain that water remains abundant in our state.”
The potential for desalination stems from an agreement signed in May 2021 by Ducey and Sonora Governor Claudia Pavlovich known as a Memorandum of Understanding, which includes studying opportunities to remove salt and other minerals from water in the Gulf of California, also referred to as the Sea of Cortez.
Buschatzke explains at a Valley Partnership breakfast on Nov. 19, 2021, that a binational desalination workgroup is in place to study the viability of a desalination plant in the Sea of Cortez that would benefit the U.S. and Mexico.
“It’s very collaborative,” he says. “But honestly, we’re probably 8 to 10 years away in that process to actually have a plant that might be built. We have a lot of work to do. Fortunately, the U.S. just appointed a new commissioner of the International Boundary and Water Commission. Commissioner [Maria-Elena] Giner and I had the pleasure of having dinner about three weeks ago. She is a go getter and is pushing things forward more quickly.”
Lombard concludes with a paean to partnerships. “It’s the only solution,” she says. “The governor and Speaker [Rusty] Bowers are putting 1 billion dollars out there, but that’s not enough to build significant water infrastructure. It has to be in conjunction with other cities, communities, taxing districts — you name it.
“If we do [desalination] in Mexico,” Lombard continues, “that’s a partnership with another country. Then, down to where Valley Partnership and our members work in the development community, it’s about them partnering with their cities or locales. Everyone must buy into this together and see their role. The whole thing is about partnership.”