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What Minnesota can learn from Arizona about water

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Storage basins
A mix of Colorado River water and native groundwater is stored in basins at the Central Avra Valley Storage and Recovery Project (CAVSARP) outside of Tucson.
Nick Cote for MPR News

 Third of four reports from Tucson, Ariz.

Minnesota is a long way from Arizona - in terms of geography, climate, politics and, of course, water. Instead of 10,000 lakes, Arizona has one natural lake not formed by a dammed river.

But Robert Glennon, a law professor at the University of Arizona and the author of two books on groundwater overuse  - most recently "Unquenchable" - believes Minnesota can learn a lot about water from the Grand Canyon state. 

• Beneath the Surface, a special Ground Level report

Robert Glennon
Robert Glennon, a law professor at the University of Arizona and the author of two books on groundwater overuse.
Courtesy of Robert Glennon

"It's tough to use the words 'Arizona' and 'progressive' in the same sentence," Glennon said in his Tucson office earlier this month. But a law the state passed in 1980 is just that, he said, and "Minnesota can and ought to learn from it, because your situation is not all that different from ours," he said. 

Before canals from the Colorado River were completed in the 1990s, Tucson was the largest American city completely dependent on groundwater. When those aquifers plummeted, the city adopted measures that have slashed per capita water consumption by 35 percent. It is now considered a national leader in water conservation and perhaps has lessons for Minnesota as it grapples with its own groundwater shortages. 

Here's an edited transcript of a conversation with Glennon: 

When did Arizona begin to experience a groundwater crisis? 

The big change in Arizona came not from the population growth, but really from the transformation of technology, and the ability to pump groundwater from ever increasing depths. That really is a post-World War II phenomenon. The excitement of getting water from such depths and such quantity and of such quality, was magical and transformed Arizona. It provided as much water as we wanted for citrus groves and cotton...and for copper mines. It was really groundwater that opened up areas not immediately adjacent to rivers. 

But by the end of the 1970s, we were pumping a couple of million acre feet more than Mother Nature recharged to the aquifers each year. And that led to a "come to Jesus" meeting between Bruce Babbitt (then Arizona Governor) and the Secretary of the Interior at the time. Babbitt tells this wonderful story in his memoir, about telling Secretary Cecil Andrus that he would have to be the bad cop in the deal, and threaten to take away funding for Arizona's Central Arizona Project (the system of canals that transports water from the Colorado River to Phoenix and Tucson). 

"What Arizona did, was to allow a limitless number of straws in the same glass, and that's the same road that Minnesota is going down."

Bruce in turn would condemn him as a meddling federal bureaucrat, but then use the leverage to get the Legislature to do something. And eventually in 1980 the Arizona Legislature passed the Groundwater Management Act. And it's progressive, and it's tough to use the words "Arizona" and "progressive" in the same sentence. But in this case it's the case, and really Minnesota can and ought to learn from it. 

Because your situation is not all that different. It's open sesame on the groundwater resource, the 2012 drought showed farmers that if they wanted to manage risk, they needed to think about drilling wells as a backup supply for occasions when Mother Nature doesn't provide as much water. The jury's out on what the impact of climate change will be in the Upper Midwest. 

So, you're seeing, as in the Straight River (near Park Rapids, Minn.), that I wrote about in "Water Follies," people all over the state drilling new wells. Permits are easy to come by. And the resource is finite. 

When I think about a groundwater aquifer, I think of a giant milkshake glass. And when I think about a well, I think about that well as a straw in the glass. What Arizona did, was to allow a limitless number of straws in the same glass, and that's the same road that Minnesota is going down. And you're not alone in the Midwest. Michigan is doing the same thing, Iowa. Even eastern Iowa, there's a run on groundwater pumping there. They never used to irrigate their fields. 

So what did Arizona's Groundwater Management Act accomplish? 

First we quantified existing water rights. Second, we banned the drilling of new wells, with very few exceptions. And third, we made the existing rights transferrable. 

So the big picture, I think, is how do you make sure there's enough water for high value new uses. And the way you do that is to have a demand offset system, to insist on anyone who wants to put a new straw in the glass, that they need to offset their demand on the public supply by persuading someone else to take her straw out of the glass. That's really at the heart of what the Arizona groundwater act did. 

Has that occurred here? 

It has occurred some, but not nearly as much as it should have. Unfortunately, in the 1990s, there was a howl from developers about how difficult it was to get certain permits. And the Legislature passed something called the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District, that gave developers an end-run around this demand offset system. I think we've never completely recovered. 

"I'm not advocating stopping growth. But I am asking growth to pay its own way."

But the model is incredibly sensible. The good thing is it doesn't prevent growth, that's a non-starter in a place like Arizona. Growth is the religion. And I'm not advocating stopping growth. But I am asking growth to pay its own way. And from the developers' perspective, that's not a big deal. Those conditions are just the cost of doing business. 

In "Unquenchable," I tell the story about Santa Fe, where the city was stressed for water. They said to the developers, 'If you want to build a house, we've calculated that if you were to replace eight old high-flow toilets with new low-flow toilets, that would be about the same as your house would use.' So that was the rule. 

Well, pretty soon, a cottage industry developed, of plumbers going around knocking on residents' doors, asking them if they wanted new toilets. It worked so well, that pretty soon the whole community was re-plumbed with new low-flow fixtures. So they took it one step further, and said, let's continue down this path. The result is that Santa Fe has reduced its water use by something like 40 percent over 10 years. 

How important is conservation in addressing water supply shortages?

Conservation remains the low hanging fruit, not so much in a place like Tucson. But if you go up the road to Phoenix, I'm still amazed. I can't get to Phoenix without seeing lots of green lawns that no one is using, and there's always water running off them. When you drive around Tucson, you're hard put to see lawn, it's just not in our DNA. So conservation can be and should be a big part of the portfolio going forward. 

What about re-using treated wastewater - how important is it to use water more than once? 

It's a big deal, and we do a lot of that here in Tucson. About 10 percent of the water that Tucson Water provides is reclaimed water. We could use it for potable purposes, for drinking and cooking, but we don't. To do that you need to make sure it's treated to the absolute highest level, and we don't do that with the reclaimed system. So we use it instead for watering golf courses, parks, cemeteries, highway medians, even some light industrial applications. 

Is water fundamentally undervalued?

"When we in the U.S. wake up in the morning, we turn on the tap, and out comes as much water as we want, for less than we pay for cell phone service or cable television."

Yes. When we in the U.S. wake up in the morning, we turn on the tap, and out comes as much water as we want, for less than we pay for cell phone service or cable television. When most Americans think about water, they think about it as if it were the air, as though it were infinite and inexhaustible, when for all practical purposes, it's very finite and very exhaustible. 

And when you talk about the value of water, we're just not pricing it correctly. It mystifies me the political blowback that occurs whenever there's a proposed modest increase in water rates. People besiege city council meetings, outraged, that they will have to pay more for water. And it turns out the amount that's being talked about is probably less per month than a single Starbucks latte. But it brings out people who I guess think that it's a God-given right. 

It is even undervalued here (in Tucson)?

It is, because it's still revenue-neutral. So we're actually not paying for the water at all, we're paying for the cost of service. We could do a lot more with conserving water if we were to raise the rates.  

I could not be more serious about how critical this is. As I travel around, I encounter engineers and inventors who've invented better water mouse traps - things that work, things that can save water, smart timers, valves, all kinds of neat stuff. What is so sad, is that almost to a person, none of them has a viable business model, because the price of water is too low. 

I've been arguing for market forces to reallocate water from lower values to higher values. In 2013, western farmers used more than a 100 billion gallons of water to grow alfalfa that was shipped to China. Much of this water came from California. 

I point that out, not to say it's bad to export water. That's what happens across the Midwest. We do it in the form of corn, wheat, and soybeans. 

What would you say to people in Minnesota who are just starting to think about what Arizona's been dealing with for 50 years? 

I'd say you should focus on groundwater, and get control over new wells. That's just essential. And you have to do it in such a way as to not deny new water use, but to insist that new water use pay its own way and not put an additional demand and stress on the public water supply. 

Because water is a public resource. We don't own water. We may have property rights, and the water rights, but those are use rights, not ownership rights. And it is perfectly fine for the government to set rules and regulations limiting access to the public supply. That's the first thing. 

"We don't own water. We may have property rights, and the water rights, but those are use rights, not ownership rights."

There's one other thing that Arizona has not done well. We have a completely bifurcated system of water rights. We have prior appropriation that governs surface water withdrawals, but we have the reasonable use doctrine for groundwater. 

That was the topic of my book Water Follies, and that is the environmental consequences of excessive groundwater pumping. Because, where does water in a river come from, if it hasn't rained recently? It's coming from the ground, because the river's always the low point in the basin. The surrounding land surface receives rainfall, the water percolates into the ground, and it keeps moving down-gradient until the groundwater system is supplying the surface flows. 

So a way of conceptualizing a well, is that a well is intercepting water on the way to the river. 

You have such a great state with people who love fishing and hunting and the outdoors, well, these wells threaten that. These wells threaten some blue ribbon trout streams, like on the Straight River. And it's critical for your collective well-being that you come to terms with this.