Severe drought, dead wells, political division are pushing Arizona steadily closer to water supply peril


“I’ve been told water is a private property right and leave it alone,” Cobb said. “My thought is it’s a private property right until it affects everyone in the county, and everyone in the state. Then it’s no longer private. It’s a resource all of us need.”

Another group of responses to water scarcity in Arizona is aspirational. Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, reflecting the popular views of industry, real estate, and the farm community, wants to develop new water supplies. Ducey budgeted $160 million last year to study the potential for what he and others call “augmentation.” That term reflects a number of approaches like building desalination plants, designing homes, streets, and parks to capture and store stormwater, and increase supplies from recycled wastewater. 

The latter already accounts for over 500,000 acre-feet of water available for landscaping, irrigating golf courses, and cooling Palo Verde, the state’s lone nuclear generating station. Ducey wants more. It could come from California.

Arizona and CAP are investing $6 million in a $30 million, three-year feasibility study by the Metropolitan Water District in Los Angeles that could lead to construction of a $3.4 billion wastewater recycling plant capable of producing 168,000 acre-feet annually. Instead of being flushed into the Pacific, the water would be available for the dryland metropolises. The new supply would offset some of the 4.4 million acre-feet that California is entitled to withdraw annually from the Colorado River. 

The new recycled supply also could provide more water for Arizona and other Colorado basin states, or it could be used to keep water levels in Lake Mead high enough to prevent more emergency shortage declarations that come with even larger cuts in the state’s surface water supply.

This year Ducey proposed establishing a new state agency, the Arizona Water Authority, to find new sources of water and called on the Legislature to approve $1 billion for it to spend. Ducey is particularly intent on building a desalination plant capable of delivering 250,000 acre-feet of water annually. The proposed location is the Gulf of California in Mexico. A plant of comparable size in Saudi Arabia took three years to build and opened in 2014 at a cost of $7 billion. 

Given the 10-year to 20-year timeline to plan, design, finance, and build major infrastructure projects, including the necessary pumping stations and pipelines for a Mexico-based plant, the price would be much greater. The cost of an acre-foot of water would be thousands of dollars. 

Nor is it clear where the new supply will go. Given the location, the new supply could go to Mexico to offset the 1.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water that Mexico has been entitled to since 1944. In that case it would be a cross-boundary trade. Mexico’s allotment of Colorado River water would drop by the same amount that Arizona supply increases. 

Whatever occurs, if the plant is built, Arizonans will almost certainly spend considerably more for water than they do today. 

An even more frantic and fanciful idea, offered by Tim Dunn, a Republican House member from Yuma, is making its way around the state Capitol: somehow capturing water from the Mississippi River for use in Arizona. Such a project would rival China’s South-North Water Transfer Project — the construction of three immense water pipelines for siphoning water from the Yangtze River and transporting it 890 miles north to Beijing. 


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