Tapped Out

Pop Rocket, July 2012

The annual monsoon is upon us, or it should be. Late immigrants to our area will be forgiven for scoffing at the idea that significant amounts of water fall from the sky this month, as the weather trend has been progressively drier in recent years. June and the anticipation of July always remind me of our dire situation with water and our glacially slow progress in doing anything about it.
     Contrary to appearances, we're not completely paralyzed. I recently spoke with Prescott Valley Water Resources Manager John Munderloh about a pilot project he's working on with the Upper Verde Watershed Protection Coalition (which in documents goes by the mind-numbing acronym UVWPC) to study various engineering schemes to keep rainwater from evaporating and get it into our aquifers instead.
     It's called macro rainwater harvesting, and the plan is to take five half-acre plots donated by Chino Valley, treat them in different ways that promote concentration and penetration of water, and study and compare the results to come up with engineering cost-benefit analyses.
     This small pilot project has been in development for four years and will run for three, maybe five years before it offers conclusions. The five governments involved, including the Yavapai-Prescott Tribe, have put up $130,000 for it. If everything goes well, construction could begin late this summer.
     Obviously no one's planning to bulldoze vast areas of the county and do landforming and soil amendments to catch rain. But on a scale of a few acres here and there in spots most conducive to recharging the aquifers, it could do some good. Says Munderloh, "The days of large single-source water projects may be waning. Those things have already been developed. There's probably not going to be another canal from the Colorado River for us. So we need to look at all the possible solutions. This may not be the panacea, but it may fill in a number of gaps."
     See, it's all about small percentages. Currently only about 2% of rain makes it into groundwater supplies. About the same amount runs off to sprinkle golf courses in Maricopa County. The rest evaporates after it hits the ground or transpires from plants. Encouraging another 1% to sink in could make our area far more sustainable long-term.
     It'll cost us, of course. Munderloh: "We have to let water supplies go by that would be cheap for us to appropriate, but because there's a senior appropriator downstream, we have to let the cheap water go, and we go after the more expensive stuff."
     This really brings home to me how we have to put a much higher priority on securing water resources. Other than some pretty tight individual conservation on a large scale, which no one in officialdom thinks we're ready to even contemplate, no option is easy. (Did I just mention that conservation is easy?)
     The UVWPC is moving ahead with this in a perfectly rational way, carefully looking at options, building consensus and doing long-term studies to get an idea of what sort of initiative will be most effective. On top of the physical challenges, we'll also have to satisfy a recently constituted committee in the state Legislature that nothing we're contemplating will have any effect on the big cities downstream.
     Given the already huge groundwater deficits we run every year to quench the thirst of a population too large for the ecosystem to carry, compounded by a decades-long drought with no end in sight and accelerating climate change promising worse, all this careful incrementalism sets my hair on fire. We're moving slower than grass growing, and there's no grass.
     Rick Shroads, president of Civiltec Engineering and the contractor handling the project, tells me there are other ideas on the table: "We have a menu of pilot projects that we'd like to do, but of course funding is our stumbling block." The coalition picked this project to fit its budget, essentially. The designs that it'll be testing for five years are already working elsewhere in the world, presumably racking up hard results daily. I try to imagine why we're not plugging those numbers into our spreadsheets and moving to the next phase, and all I can think is that Americans simply won't take anything seriously that's not invented here.
     This is not a problem we can put off for decades, and there's no silver bullet. We're already using a lot more water than we have coming in, and every sensible scientific projection shows progressively less coming in for the foreseeable future. All around us, the ghost towns show us what happened when the mines tapped out. Imagine how much more decisively a lack of water will wither our economy.
     We need a very serious concentration of human and monetary resources working this problem with old-school wartime priority if we're to hope to solve it. We're all going to have to kick in, and there's no getting around paying much more for water. (Think I mean "a lot more"? Double it.) That will come sooner or later, and the sooner it comes, the more time we have to build and balance a sustainable system. But bear in mind that anything we do with engineering will still depend on rain, and there will be less of that all the time. Use less. Now use less than that.

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