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Water in the West: Is growth at risk due to drought, climate change?

The Colorado River just outside of Moab is pictured on Sept. 20, 2021. A Tuesday gathering of politicians, water experts and policymakers made clear that the glass is half full — with plenty of reason for optimism if wise-water management is embraced head-on.

The Colorado River just outside of Moab is pictured on Sept. 20, 2021. A Tuesday gathering of politicians, water experts and policymakers made clear that the glass is half full — with plenty of reason for optimism if wise-water management is embraced head-on. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — As drought continues to hold states in the West by the throat, threatening power generation, livelihoods, growth and more, a pessimist would say the glass is half empty and the region's destiny is doomed.

But against the backdrop of triple-digit temperatures in Tempe, Arizona, a Tuesday gathering of politicians, water experts and policymakers made clear that the glass is half full — with plenty of reason for optimism if wise-water management is embraced head-on.

"There is no reason for people not to come here," said John Giles, mayor of Mesa, Arizona, throwing down the welcome mat for would-be newcomers.

"Going back generations, we are standing on the shoulders of giants who laid the framework for people to live in this environment. Certainly there is more acute awareness of that now because of the shortages on the Colorado River. ... And yes, the urgency is crescendoing, but this has always been the issue in our environment."

Doug Wilks, executive editor of the Deseret News, left, hosts a panel discussion on water in the West with John Giles, center, mayor of Mesa, Arizona, and Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, right, in Tempe, Arizona, on Tuesday, May 17, 2022. The two mayors opened the event hosted by the Deseret News to “Elevate” the conversation and convene thought leaders and decision makers in Tempe, Arizona. Tuesday focused on water use and the drought with an eye on successful stewardship of natural resources.
Doug Wilks, executive editor of the Deseret News, left, hosts a panel discussion on water in the West with John Giles, center, mayor of Mesa, Arizona, and Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, right, in Tempe, Arizona, on Tuesday, May 17, 2022. The two mayors opened the event hosted by the Deseret News to “Elevate” the conversation and convene thought leaders and decision makers in Tempe, Arizona. Tuesday focused on water use and the drought with an eye on successful stewardship of natural resources. (Photo: Gage Skidmore, for the Deseret News)

A civil dialogue on a complicated issue

Giles was joined by Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego; Benji Backer, president and founder of the American Conservation Coalition; Cheryl Lombard, president and chief executive officer of Valley Partnership; and Rhett Larson, a professor of water law at Arizona State University's Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law in an event convened by the Deseret News.

The panel discussion, moderated by Executive Editor Doug Wilks, was designed around the Deseret News' goal to "elevate" the national discourse, in this case on the topic of water and drought in the West, looking at where there might be opportunity to learn as well as opportunity for change.

Investments in new technology, aging infrastructure, and yes, getting disparate interests to a common table to talk solutions are all key because, while politics are partisan, water is not, Backer stressed.

He pointed in particular to the urban/rural divide and how bridging that space is crucial in all levels of management decisions, particularly stewardship of resources such as water.

"One of the things I see as a young person looking at the political world is that we don't have enough of these conversations," Backer said, emphasizing that divisive rhetoric and rallies simply kick the problem — like a can — down the road.

"At the end of the day, we need sound decisions that work for rural and urban Arizonians and to bridge the gap between where we are now and where we need to be doing things in the future. And if we bridge that gap with open arms, rural communities are going to be far more likely to engage instead of feeling like they are going to be let down."

Virgin Canyon in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area on the Arizona-Nevada border is pictured on May 11, 2021. A high-water mark or bathtub ring is visible on the shoreline. Lake Mead is down 152 vertical feet.
Virgin Canyon in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area on the Arizona-Nevada border is pictured on May 11, 2021. A high-water mark or bathtub ring is visible on the shoreline. Lake Mead is down 152 vertical feet. (Photo: Mark Henle, The Arizona Republic)

Water use is on all of us

Larson, who pointed out he proudly hails from a rural area of Arizona, said because agriculture commands such a large percentage of available water, it is easy to blame ranchers and farmers in an overly simplistic fashion.

"It's impossible for us to manage this problem without farmers, but we are all farmers. We are all beneficiaries of the work that farmers do. And so it doesn't do anyone any good to wag our fingers at farmers and tell them to fix it," he said.

He noted that a 9% reduction in agriculture's use of Colorado River water would double the amount of water available in the basin states.

"That would be a huge jump, but that 9% is not just on farmers, it is on all of us," he said.

Shortages on the Colorado River have led to federal reductions of water allocations to states like Arizona, which is maneuvering to deal with a new reality and, within that reality, embrace flexibility.

Gallego, the mayor of Phoenix, pointed to the city's drought pipeline project, which will help ensure residents of the nation's fifth-largest city have access to water in times of Colorado River shortages.

The city recently launched the Blue Bank partnership that involves cooling tower projects for industry and institutions — inspired by the water conservation success of cooling towers at the Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, as reported by KTAR news.

Doug Wilks, executive editor of the Deseret News, left, Benji Backer, president and founder of the American Conservation Coalition, and Cheryl Lombard, president and CEO of Valley Partnership, listen as Rhett Larson, professor of water law at Arizona State’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, addresses water as a public health concern during a panel discussion hosted by the Deseret News in Tempe, Arizona, on Tuesday, May 17, 2022. Larson noted that clean drinking water is one of the greatest drivers of good health, equality and economic success.
Doug Wilks, executive editor of the Deseret News, left, Benji Backer, president and founder of the American Conservation Coalition, and Cheryl Lombard, president and CEO of Valley Partnership, listen as Rhett Larson, professor of water law at Arizona State’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, addresses water as a public health concern during a panel discussion hosted by the Deseret News in Tempe, Arizona, on Tuesday, May 17, 2022. Larson noted that clean drinking water is one of the greatest drivers of good health, equality and economic success. (Photo: Gage Skidmore, for the Deseret News)

Having the right mindset

Gallego said just as there is a lot of investment and excitement around energy policy, there needs to be a kindred spirit like that in Washington, D.C., when it comes to water management, with bright minds making wise policy and financial decisions that are in tune with the West's unique needs.

Lombard, of Valley Partnership — a real estate industry leader advocating for responsible growth — said it is a false choice to say either/or when it comes to new development in the West, new residents and stewardship of water resources.

She pointed to water management decisions made in cities like Phoenix and Mesa as an example.

"Those are huge investments in how we can actually be more efficient," she said. "We are all part of that sustainability."

Larson said water — critical for life — is also an indelible part of our culture and is very much a precious commodity.

People don't use squirt guns full of gasoline during the summer or get baptized in uranium — it's that simple, he said. Then later, he mentioned the pandemic.

"I know all of us have been deeply affected by COVID. I certainly have been. It's been a difficult time for everyone. But COVID is not now nor has it ever been the biggest public health crisis facing the world. Six thousand children under the age of 5 die every single day because of lack of access to clean water," he said. "If we want to make the world a healthier place, the most important thing that we can invest in, internationally and globally, is water."

Larson stressed that states like Arizona and others in the West have the ability to innovate, and they will when it comes to the drought.

"This is a great place to raise a family and a wonderful place to start a business. The future of Arizona is bright. Our water scarcity is not a problem we are going to solve; it is a challenge we are going to manage," he said.

"It has always been a challenge, it will always be a challenge. In a desert, it doesn't matter what policy you get right if you get water policy wrong."

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Amy Joi O'Donoghue

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