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Science and Innovations

Arizona Law Opens New Pathway For Water Conservation

Verde River Institute

A bill signed by Governor Doug Ducey last week allows Arizona farmers, ranchers, and other water users to leave water in rivers and streams without the risk of losing their rights to it. The new law modifies a water policy called “use it or lose it” which has been a longstanding roadblock in conservation. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke about the change with Kim Mitchell of Western Resource Advocates.

Tell me what this new law does.

This bill is really important for Arizona’s rivers. It removes a barrier that discouraged landowners from conserving water on their property, for fear that unused water could be considered forfeited or abandoned under Arizona’s current surface water law. Essentially farmers and ranchers can reduce their river water use and leave more water in nearby rivers and streams.

Why is that needed, why is that important?

The original intent of “use it” laws—what we call “use it” laws—was to make sure people who held rights to water exercised them. They could keep those rights indefinitely, passing them on through generations, as long as they constantly put the water to use, they remained intact. Related to that, under this provision in Arizona’s water law, people may lose their surface water right or a portion of it after five consecutive years of nonuse. It’s considered abandonment. This is commonly referred to as the “use it or lose it” clause. And it forces landowners to use more water than they actually need. It’s fairly common in states throughout the Colorado River Basin… This out-of-date policy was a huge disincentive for growers who want to be part of the solution and conserve water on their land…. Now water users will need to file a Notice of Conservation Plan with the Arizona Department of Water Resources to gain that protection.  

Okay, so as long as they have a conservation plan on file with the state, they can essentially leave water in a river or stream and not risk losing that water later?

That’s correct, and the plan is for a period of up to 10 years.

Tell me a bit about the types of projects farmers or ranchers could use to conserve water?

Many farmers are beginning to experiment with growing new, lower water use crops. For instance, barley uses about a third less water than corn or alfalfa, and reduces water use in the summer when water availability and river flows are both at their lowest, so that’s an important feature. Ditch companies and irrigation associations have been working together to update their infrastructure and modernize their systems. For example, automatic headgates allow for more control over when and how much water is diverted from the river. The problem with old infrastructure is that it diverts more water off the river than is actually needed.

Okay. What do you think that’s going to mean for Arizona’s ecosystems?

We’ve just experienced twenty years of drought. We don’t know how much longer this drought will continue. There’s also the uncertainty of climate change… So any amount of water that we can save and add back to rivers to help with river restoration is going to be helpful.  We know that annual flows in many of these rivers have declined in the last couple of decades, and this will be a very important measure to help sustain the health of those rivers.  

Unlike many water issues this didn’t really stir up any controversy, there was widespread support for this measure. I’m curious if you have any idea why that is.

The bill received unanimous bipartisan support at the legislature, it just sailed through both the House and Senate. It’s a commonsense amendment to an outdated policy…. I think water leaders and legislators understand very clearly the uncertainty we’re facing with this continued drought and climate change, and the need to conserve water for all who depend on it, including our fragile river systems.

Kim Mitchell, thank you for joining me today.

Happy to join, thank you Melissa.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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