A Conversation with another Water Expert: Sharon Megdal

By Julie Murphree, Arizona Farm Bureau
In our most recent issues, we’ve addressed the water topic on varying levels. In this issue of Arizona Agriculture, we focus on the environmental aspect of our water resource in this state. For insights on this we connect with Sharon B. Megdal, Director of The University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center (WRRC) in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Our conversation with her will focus on her area of expertise: water resources management and policy, on which she writes and frequently speaks. She also holds the titles Professor, Department of Soil, Water, and Environmental Science, and Distinguished Outreach Professor. She serves as Director of the Water Sustainability Program and Co-Director of The University of Arizona Water, Environmental and Energy Solutions Program.

She is the lead editor of the book, Shared Borders, Shared Waters: Israeli-Palestinian and Colorado River Basin Water Challenges. Dr. Megdal teaches the multi-disciplinary graduate course Arizona Water Policy. She serves as President-Elect of the National Institutes for Water Resources and is a member of the board of the Universities Council on Water Resources. As an elected member of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District Board of Directors, Dr. Megdal is responsible for the policies, rates and taxes associated with delivering Colorado River water through the Central Arizona Project. Dr. Megdal has served on numerous Arizona boards and commissions, including the Arizona Corporation Commission, the State Transportation Board and the Arizona Medical Board. She holds a Ph.D. degree in Economics from Princeton University.

Dr. Megdal places particular emphasis on how to achieve desired policy objectives in terms of institutional structures and possible changes to them. Current projects include: comparative evaluation of water management, policy, and governance in growing, water-scarce regions; meeting the water needs of the environment; groundwater management and governance, water pricing; and transboundary aquifer assessment.

Arizona Agriculture: How would you rank Arizona’s water management on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the highest)? Please explain why you give it the ranking you do.


Megdal: I would rank Arizona’s current water management as an eight. I like to use the image of the partially full glass. Our water glass is more than half full, but there is an unfilled part to it. Looking to the past, Arizona has done an excellent job of managing groundwater in the Active Management Areas (AMAs) and identifying and developing supplies to meet the water needs of a rapidly growing population and economy. However, we have some challenges associated with the regulations in the AMAs related to groundwater, and there are water issues in some areas that are not in AMAs. The Water Resources Development Commission identified future demand for water that outstrips identified supplies. So, going forward, our challenge is to keep the glass full.


Arizona Agriculture: I’ve heard the quote several times now that “water flows toward money.” Doesn’t this hinder a holistic approach to water management? If so, please explain.

Megdal: I think one has to clarify what is meant by a holistic approach to water management. When I use the term “holistic,” I think in terms of the water cycle. We all know that no new water is created, though its form, quality and location may change. It’s important to understand the implications of decisions to move water from one place to another or to improve water use efficiency. For example, how will changes in water use impact communities and/or riparian systems? Yes, money is needed for water transportation and treatment infrastructure and water can flow uphill to money. The real issue is looking at the full range of implications so that they can be understood.


Arizona Agriculture: You point to a lack of consideration for the state’s environmental water needs. What should we be considering and why?

Megdal: My prior answer referred to riparian systems or, more generally, water for nature. Arizona is known as a state of natural beauty. Residents and visitors alike enjoy what Arizona’s outdoors has to offer. Studies have shown that homes near riparian corridors have higher values than those distant from greenways. Yet, as demonstrated in a paper I coauthored a few years ago, the water needs of the environment (nature) are by-and-large not recognized in Arizona law.

Water use has degraded riparian areas. I will reinforce my earlier comments regarding understanding the implications of our water use practices. At the Water Resources Research Center, we have a multi-faceted work program we call Water RAPIDS, Water Research and Planning Innovations in Dryland Systems.  Readers can go to wrrc.arizona.edu/waterrapids to learn more. We are working extensively with stakeholders to consider basic issues related to considering the water needs of nature, including just what words to use. Should we talk about the environment, riparian systems, natural systems, etc.?  Whatever the words, how should we go about incorporating these needs into water planning in the context of current law? Can voluntary programs like Conserve to Enhance (C2E) support local and regional efforts to enhance the environment? An extremely important element of our approach is what I like to call “robust” stakeholder engagement, through which we work with citizens of local communities and watersheds to assist them in developing solutions that work for them.


Arizona Agriculture: Regarding groundwater use, what are some of our most optimal options to guard against overdraft of groundwater?

Megdal: One obvious option is to use less water. Through water conservation, we can use less water, and thereby rely less on groundwater. But one has to keep in mind that, while groundwater pumping comprises close to 40 percent of Arizona’s statewide water extractions and diversions, some users are 100 percent reliant on groundwater, others use mostly surface water, while for many, groundwater is a portion of overall water use. Some families have their own wells, while most rely on water providers to meet their needs. So, the options will differ across communities and users. Regardless of circumstance, conservation will be a key mechanism to assist Arizona in meeting future water demands.

Also, our water storage (recharge) and recovery programs are assisting us in helping manage groundwater. In some AMAs, the Assured and Adequate Water Supply Rules require a significant amount of groundwater use to be replenished, but sometimes this replenishment does not occur in the same locale as the pumping, resulting in localized draw-down of aquifers. Use of rainwater, especially for outdoor watering through passive or active systems, can reduce the amount of groundwater that will be pumped. Grey water use by households and businesses and more re-use of treated wastewater or effluent are also options. However, it is possible that some approaches to reducing groundwater use may mean less water returning back into aquifers. For example, consider what I call the “conundrum of leaky agriculture.” As agriculture becomes more efficient in its consumptive use of water, less may return to aquifers through what is called incidental recharge. We return to the concept of the holistic approach, that is, understand the water cycle implications of options. I do not mean to suggest we do not do certain things because there are implications but rather understand the implications so as to avoid surprises.


Arizona Agriculture: How do we use groundwater recharge as an effective tool?

Megdal: We use groundwater recharge in several ways. Importantly, the Arizona Water Banking Authority is using groundwater recharge to store Colorado River water to meet Arizona water needs in times of shortage on the Colorado River. Water providers are using groundwater recharge as a means of treating surface water and effluent to meet community water needs. Groundwater recharge of Colorado River water can help communities avoid some treatment costs. Groundwater recharge enables others to utilize surface water indirectly when they take advantage of regulatory provisions that enable them to store water in one location and recover the water in another. This flexibility also enables the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District to meet is statutory obligations to replenish groundwater use for its members. Recharge that leads to long-term storage credits includes a “cut to the aquifer” – water that is not recoverable in the future, which offsets groundwater depletion. Arizona is a leader in use of groundwater recharge and water banking.


Arizona Agriculture: Explain your Conserve to Enhance program.

Megdal: Conserve to Enhance (C2E) is an innovative program developed at the WRRC whereby water consumers track their water conservation and their water bill savings, and then donate a portion or all of their savings to projects that enhance the environment. This is a voluntary program in all respects and depends substantially on grassroots or local efforts to identify recipient projects. More information about the program, which has been piloted in Tucson and is under development/consideration in other communities, can be found at the Water RAPIDS web page. We are very excited to be releasing the web-based Water Use Dashboard tool, which will greatly assist in C2E implementation by providing customers with an automated tool to track water use and savings. There is a role for all, including business, in a C2E program, so we encourage anyone interested to contact us!


Arizona Agriculture: Do we have a hopeful water future in this state? Please explain.

Megdal: While the water challenges are many, those responsible for managing and delivering water recognize these and are constantly working on addressing these challenges. Addressing long-term needs will often involve substantial lead times and financial investments. Consider, for example, the decades and money it took to bring the Central Arizona Project to completion. More understanding of both current conditions and the future outlook would help Arizona decision makers develop and implement solutions to ensure that Arizona’s water future is bright. The need to educate is multifaceted. We need to educate citizens and decision makers and we need to educate – and keep in Arizona – the next generations of water professionals.


Arizona Agriculture: Where does agriculture fit into all of this from your perspective?

Megdal: Agriculture is a prominent part of Arizona’s economy. Arizona Department of Water Resources data show that agriculture is responsible for about 70 percent of statewide water diversions or extractions. Agriculture in western Arizona holds senior water rights to Colorado River water, and agriculture in central Arizona holds well-quantified groundwater rights. Agriculture in central Arizona has been utilizing a lot of CAP water in lieu of groundwater. As the cost of CAP water continues to increase and as a shortage declaration on the Colorado River looms, agriculture will return to groundwater use and/or curtail farming activities. Farming entities with senior rights to Colorado River water know that there is interest in entering into water transactions, which I see as being voluntary. While it is beyond the scope of this interview to delve into these issues, by virtue of its water use, agriculture has been and will continue to be a major voice and player in the shaping of Arizona’s water future.


Arizona Agriculture: When you’re trying to sell the idea of an environmental water-based consideration, what do you tell your detractors?

Megdal: I hope it is evident from my responses that I see solutions emerging out of engagement, collaboration, and consultation. As a university-based center that focuses on promoting understanding of water management and policy, the WRRC engages in applied research, education and outreach programs. Because we are not regulators and we do not have a water right or use to protect, we look to work to improve understanding so that the water stakeholders can develop solutions. In the context of environmental water-based issues, we have: (1) studied the law, (2) developed a database, which is available on line, of what we know about the water “needs” of Arizona’s rivers and streams, as well as a related guidebook; and (3) worked on Conserve to Enhance as a voluntary mechanism for funding some environmental projects; and (4) partnered with many on several projects. We want people to know about what we are doing so that their concerns can be shared. Therefore, we invite “detractors” to talk with us so that we can learn from each other and craft solutions that address environmental as well as other water challenges.

Arizona Agriculture: What haven’t I asked you that you’d like to share with our 3,500 farm and ranch members?

Megdal: I would like to thank you for this interview. The WRRC is a statewide Extension and research center of the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. We work on local, regional and statewide projects. We have a very active web site, wrrc.arizona.edu, which contains many useful publications and information on our projects. We encourage Arizona Farm Bureau members to sign up for our weekly email, The Weekly Wave, to keep informed on what we are up to and the schedule of talk and other programs. In particular, we would very much like to have your membership join us for our one-day annual conference at the University of Arizona on Closing the Gap Between Water Supply and Demand, which is scheduled for April 8 of this year. Information about the conference can be found at wrrc.arizona.edu/conf. We at WRRC look forward to identifying additional opportunities to work with the staff and membership of the Arizona Farm Bureau!