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To Keep Desert Rivers Flowing, Protect Groundwater

People who don’t live here in the desert southwest are often surprised to hear about our rivers. The common vision of a desert is a place without water. But in fact, in a desert—where water is scarce—its importance is elevated, its beauty and centrality made perfectly clear. As clear, you could even say, as a deep blue pool in the dry heat of a southwestern canyon.

My home state of Arizona is spectacular. It’s the third most biologically diverse state in the lower 48, second only to California and Texas—making it the most biologically diverse state without a coastline. The diversity of landscapes and lifeforms comes in part from the huge range of topography and elevations—from near sea level in Yuma to more than 12,000 feet at the top of the San Francisco Peaks. It is also made possible by the network of desert rivers, streams, and springs that crisscross and dot the landscape. Rivers, streams, and springs create the small and large oases of green that are the hub of the state’s abundant life.

The desert’s waters have of course also been the hub of and central to human life—providing shade and cooling, solace and inspiration, not to mention drinking water and water to feed the rest of our human endeavors.

But, as I wrote about in a previous post, the continued flow of these waterways is not guaranteed, and in fact once-iconic springs and significant stretches of river in the state are now dry—because we have not built a structure to protect them.

Some people who care about Arizona’s rivers and streams ask me: what’s the single most important thing we can do to protect them? And of course any answer to the question will be a simplification, because problems are always complex and often require a suite of approaches. The social changed needed to get to solutions certainly does.

But if we could change one thing in order to protect the state’s rivers, I would argue with passion and conviction that it is to protect Arizona’s groundwater.

Why? The year-round flow in Arizona’s springs, streams, and rivers comes from groundwater.

Flow in rivers and streams in general can also come from rain and snow-melt. Mountain streams in wetter states, for example, may be fed by snowmelt all through the summer, and further swell in their banks when rain falls on the lands they drain.

But in Arizona and the rest of the desert southwest, rain is scarce, and snow even more so. At some times of year, Arizona rivers and streams carry snowmelt down from the high country. During monsoon season they can surge with floodwaters. But during parts of the year when rain and snow are rare (think mid-June in Arizona), some rivers and streams still flow. Why? Groundwater.

Groundwater moves underground according to subsurface geology, gravity, and pressure gradients. It percolates up in places and creates springs, that can then flow into creeks. It intersects with low points in the land surface and feeds streams. It moves through canyon walls and emerges as a waterfall. Scientists suggest that every river or stream that flows year-round in Arizona is likely fed by groundwater.

(“Base flow” is the name of this year-round portion of a river’s flow that comes from groundwater. It’s the flow you can typically count on even when the rain isn’t falling on our desert lands.)

So groundwater feeds our rivers. But groundwater, in Arizona, is unregulated and unmanaged throughout much of the state. More on this in a future post. But we’re pumping water out of the ground and in many cases not even monitoring, let alone managing, the locations or quantities.

And rivers, streams, and springs feel the effects. We’ve already lost iconic springs and river stretches to groundwater pumping—for example parts of the Santa Cruz River near Tucson; Del Rio Springs, and the headwaters of the Verde River it used to feed; parts of the Gila and San Pedro River, whose flows are diminished from both groundwater pumping and diversion of surface waters; and the Agua Caliente Hot Springs that used to be a tourist attraction and respite in central Arizona before they dried up several decades ago. At least 35% of the Arizona river miles that used to flow freely year-round no longer do.

But we could lose more. One 2007 study identified a set of other Arizona river stretches that could dry up or be substantially degraded from municipal pumping alone, as projected through 2050—in many of our lifetimes—if we don’t do something to change the system.

There are many other good reasons for us to protect our groundwater resources. Groundwater is the drinking supply for much of our state’s population and many cities and towns.

Given how critical groundwater is as a water supply, though, its role in our landscape can sometimes be overlooked. Thus, I tell people: if you care about our state’s magical and remarkable springs, streams, and rivers that are so often at the heart of the places we love: you need to care about groundwater, and how we use, manage, and protect it. To keep rivers flowing… protect groundwater.

Why Rivers Need Protecting

Many of our clients at Freshwater are working to protect rivers here in the desert Southwest and beyond. But why do rivers need protecting?

There are any number of things that can threaten a river’s ecological health, water quality, or even the structure of its channel and banks. There are of course dam projects that can block or alter a river’s flow.

But the fundamental threat that we are often trying to address here in the American West is the threat to the continued flow of water in rivers themselves.

As with many natural resources, our rules for using water are set up to allow for extraction and consumption. Our current western water law was designed as a system of removing water from a river or stream—and with no built-in stopping point to ensure that a river continues to be a river, a stream a stream.

In the 1800s when European Americans first started settling this part of the West, they developed a system for surface water use called “prior appropriation” that is now enshrined in our state laws. “Prior” of course means before, or first. “Appropriate” means, essentially, to take. Water law in Arizona and much of the West is set up so that the first landowner (or in practice, often the first European American landowner) to divert water out of a stream and put it to “beneficial use” (typically, an “economic” use) gains a continuing right to take that amount of water out of a stream each year. Those who come later can only claim water if it will not interfere with these “prior” uses. Once a surface water right is created in this way, it generally stays “attached” to the land on which the water was first used.

What often surprises people is to learn that there is still, today, generally no “stopping point” built into this system—no point at which we say, that’s all—that’s as much water as can be diverted from the river while allowing the river to still flow.

As a result, rivers and streams are often “overallocated”—more water is claimed, or more rights exist, than there is water to satisfy those rights.

What does this mean for the river? In some cases, a river can in practice remain flowing and relatively healthy despite this system, and even despite being overallocated. If there is, for example, a senior (early, prior) water user at the downstream end of a river, the law’s protection of that senior water right can in effect protect the flow of the river down to the senior user.

In other cases a river’s allocation can lead to what is sometimes politely called “dewatering”—where small or large stretches of the river or stream diminish to a trickle, or even dry up completely. In Arizona there are several familiar and striking examples of dry riverbeds where rivers used to flow—like the Salt River and the Gila River through much of Phoenix, or the “mighty” Colorado River right as it prepares to pass into Mexico. (That’s what is shown in the picture at the top of this post.)

Parts of the Santa Cruz River near Tucson also used to flow but are now dry—but that is due mainly to groundwater pumping, a related topic for another day.

We can become desensitized to calls to “save” something, especially without understanding what it needs to be saved from. In the case of rivers in Arizona and much of the American West, the problem is often not a specific, time-bound threat—it’s a structural and systemic threat. We’ve set up our laws to allow us to consume a river’s waters—but not to control how much water remains, so that the river can be a river, and we and our children can live in a world where rivers and streams continue to flow.

Congratulations to Freshwater Client Friends of Verde River Greenway

We have been working for several years with our client Friends of Verde River Greenway on an exciting project called the Verde River Exchange. The Exchange is a voluntary, collaborative, locally developed program allowing groundwater users in Arizona’s Verde Valley to “offset” the impact of their groundwater use on the Verde River. The program creates a mechanism where new uses of water can be balanced by projects to reduce or temporarily curtail existing uses, helping move the system towards a healthy equilibrium.

This month, it was announced that the Verde River Exchange is one of five finalists for the New Arizona Prize Water Innovation Challenge. The challenge, sponsored by the Arizona Community Foundation, Republic Media, and Morrison Institute for Public Policy, invited collaborative teams to “develop innovative and scalable market-based solutions to advance the sustainability of its water future.” The winning team will receive $250,000 to implement its solution.

Congratulations to Friends of Verde River Greenway and all of its partners on the Verde River Exchange for being named a finalist! And congratulations to the other creative entrants and finalists in the challenge. Here’s more information about the Water Innovation Challenge and the solutions proposed by the winning teams.

To learn more about the Exchange, go to www.verderiverexchange.org. And if you live in Arizona, consider helping out by visiting the Verde Valley wineries that are some of the first participants in the Exchange—Page Springs Cellars and Caduceus Cellars—and thanking them for their civic leadership.

Freshwater Philosophy: The Genesis of Our Approach

Hi! My name is Jocelyn Gibbon, and I am the founder and principal of Freshwater Policy Consulting, LLC. I’d like to introduce myself and the approach of our company.

My husband and I live and work in Flagstaff, Arizona. By education and training, I am a writer and editor; a water and environmental lawyer; a conservation advocate; a boater and river guide in the Grand Canyon; and a teacher of “Restorative Exercise” as taught by the Nutritious Movement Center. How does that fit together, and why am I bothering telling you so?

Our approach at Freshwater has been shaped by this varied background. As a lawyer, I spend time studying how the rules and practices of our systems produce outcomes in the “real” world of our landscapes, our communities, and our lives. I don’t believe that the best answer to a problem is always legal, in the sense of litigating or changing the law. (More on this below.) But understanding the legal and policy context of a problem often helps you see the situation more clearly, and understand the right leverage points to promote desired results or changes.

As a writer and editor, I also believe in the importance of good communication, and that success can often come from sharing ideas clearly, creatively, and with attentiveness to the understanding and perspective of those you are working with. As a river guide—well, I’m passionate about rivers—but also about working on things as a team, and approaching them pragmatically and with a good sense of where the current might take you, how and when to go with it, use it, or work hard to get across it… As a movement teacher I have thought a lot about how we as people function and change our physical and mental habits and alignment over time, and how what we do affects our health—and I draw a lot of analogies between the way to approach changes in the complex workings of our bodies and the complex workings of our social systems. Finally, in all of this work I have become acutely aware of—and awed by—the complex interactions among our physical, social, and natural systems, and interested in how we—as people with some but not complete control over our surroundings—can promote well-being through our interactions with these systems. This is the kind of perspective that led to the creation of Freshwater and has shaped the philosophy of our company.

Finally, one more note about how we work with the law. I am trained as a lawyer and have worked as a lawyer. But I believe that natural resource problems often call for legal knowledge, but not always “legal” solutions. Freshwater was conceived based on an observation that understanding the complex legal and policy background of land, water, and energy issues is necessary—but not sufficient—to make important progress on issues of sustainability. We also recognize that many organizations—and conservation non-profits in particular—can benefit from a deep understanding of law and policy, without always needing, wanting, or being able to “hire a lawyer” to seek legal representation in a specific matter. Freshwater thus works with and values the field of legal knowledge, but we do not provide legal advice or services or serve as a lawyer to any of our clients.

Welcome to Freshwater

Welcome to the website and blog for Freshwater Policy Consulting, LLC. Founded in 2013, we are a small and specialized consulting company working on water and natural resource policy issues. We aim to provide support and resources to others who are working collaboratively to improve the sustainability of our natural resource use and the resilience and health of our land and water. Our particular expertise and passion is the realm of western water policy; we have been working with organizations in Arizona and the Colorado River Basin to identify and work toward the system changes needed to keep rivers flowing, water supplies ample and secure, landscapes healthy, and communities thriving. While not all of our country or region’s legal, economic, and social systems are currently set up and tuned to support the well-being of our communities and planet—and this is certainly true in the water resource arena—we believe that they can be. We understand that improving the world we live in, even a little, takes time, patience, resources, and good strategy that is attentive to the details of the present system, and we enjoy working with others who believe that it is nonetheless possible and worthwhile. Thank you for visiting our website. We plan to use this space to share news, thoughts, and information related to water and natural resource issues. Please contact us if you have comments, questions, or other reactions—and, of course, if we might be able to support or assist you in your work.