Collaboration is key to preserving Arizona water supply

By: Kaysey England, ASU Sustainable Food Systems graduate student.

Throughout the Sustainable Food Systems graduate program food and farm immersive opportunity in the Fall of 2022, an overwhelming topic was discussed at every stop along the way: water security. During this experience, our cohort got the opportunity to listen to Dr. Dave White share his knowledge about the Arizona water supply. With over 20 years at Arizona State University, he currently serves as the Director of the Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation. Dr. White shared his belief that water is the lifeblood of the American West and is the foundation of all social, environmental, economic, and cultural amenities. He is right; with a rapidly growing Arizona population, time is of the essence to ensure a sustainable water supply is protected and used efficiently.

History and Current State of Water Rights in Arizona

Like many others not originally from Arizona, I always imagined the state as a vast, dry desert landscape incapable of growing its own food. However, where there is water, there is life. Arizona actually has a long history of utilizing its freshwater resources to sustain its population. Over the last 100 to 120 years, Arizona officials have consistently provided price supports and incentives to reduce water costs. Investments in infrastructure to provide reservoirs, storage, and flood protection have gone into effect to ensure a stable agricultural food supply.

Despite being amongst the most water stressed regions in the country, Arizona astonishingly enjoys amongst the lowest prices for municipal and agricultural water supply. Dr. White explained to us that water can be seen as both a public and private good, with the idea that water enables public goods but is treated as a private right. This notion can be applied to how we, as a society, value water and the food we grow with it. Considering the population growth and shrinking freshwater supply in Arizona, it begs the question, “Are we accurately pricing water to ensure its sustainability for future generations?”

Indigenous Water Rights

Concerns of prolonged drought continue to plague Arizona. However, a lot can be learned by those who have called Arizona home the longest. Indigenous communities in Arizona have thrived in the American Southwest despite the harsh, arid conditions. Recently, the decrease in water availability has led to the emergence of new stakeholders. Dr. White explained to us that there has been more involvement by indigenous communities in water policy dialogue in the last decade across the state due to the growing legal recognition of tribal water right settlements. The Colorado River Indian Tribal Community is the largest water rights holder in Arizona for Colorado River water, more than any other entity. This has solidified indigenous communities rise in political influence, authority, and representation in shaping future water policy. In fact, the Gila River Indian Community played a big role in shaping the drought contingency plan that was later signed by Arizona’s governor in 2019.

Water Conservation Solutions

Water conservation in the 21st century will need to look a lot differently than the past. Dr. White emphasized a comprehensive approach that accounts for all stakeholders is needed. Technology, creativity, economic incentives, and policy instruments are a focus at the forefront of the fight to conserve Arizona’s freshwater supply. He mentioned the opportunity for Arizona to apply itself as a leader in water management. Arizona can take a proactive and innovative approach to serve as proof to other arid countries or regions around the world that it can balance its environmental, social, and economic goals through successful water management.

Dr. White pondered, “How can we get the same or more value with less water?” If we start to develop this mentality, we can ensure a long-term water supply for a growing population. New innovations such as vertical farming, drip irrigation systems, and water policy incentives are vital technologies and strategies that need to be considered further. He also stressed the need for more collaboration and a decrease in perceived conflict between urban and agricultural regions. We all share the need for freshwater. We can either argue about it and delay the implementation of  solutions, or we can work together for the common good of all Arizona inhabitants and build a thriving sustainable food and water system.

This blog is part of a series from the December 2022 Arizona immersive component of the MS in Sustainable Food Systems Program. Students toured the state, meeting with farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs, government staff, and non-profit leaders.