This editorial is from the April issue of M&A’s Arizona Water Policy Update.
According to the Global Environmental Flows Network, environmental flows, or “eflows,” are defined as “water provided within a river, wetland, or coastal zone to maintain ecosystems and the benefits they provide to people.” In Arizona and much of the West, where surface water laws are based on the “use it or lose it” doctrine, eflows are not generally recognized as beneficial uses. However, seeds of change are beginning to emerge, and eflows may now be finding a legitimate voice in Arizona water allocation and management.
The University of Arizona’s Water Resources Research Center (WRRC) recently published a report entitled The Arizona Environmental Water Needs Assessment. Using GIS and nearly 100 previous studies of streams and riparian habitat, the report attempts to quantify the relationship between water flows and environmental health. In other words, it takes the critical step of quantifying the flows necessary to support riparian systems on a stream-by-stream basis.
Another development that bodes well for eflows in Arizona is the growing presence of advocates. Prominent environmental groups such as The Nature Conservancy (with funding by the Walton Family Foundation), the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Western Resource Advocates are expanding their research and advocacy work on Arizona’s surface water issues. WRA announced a job opportunity in its Arizona office for a senior water policy advisor. TNC and Walton have established a partnership to address mechanisms for preserving streamflow in both the Verde and San Pedro Rivers. EDF recently opened an office in Phoenix to focus on water-management issues in Arizona and the Colorado River basin. In addition, representatives from most of these organizations participated in the recent Arizona Water Tour organized by Water Environment Foundation, which attracted a large and diverse group of participants.
The WRRC report points out that Arizona is one of only a few western states without a statewide water plan. The most comprehensive statewide compilation of water data, ADWR’s Arizona Water Atlas, does not consider riparian water demands. However, the Water Resources Development Commission has set up an Environmental Committee to look into the issue. This effort could contribute greatly to our knowledge about eflows in Arizona.