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Water Resource Management: Local Control and Local Solutions

Water is managed under a bifurcated system in Arizona, meaning that surface water and groundwater are managed separately even though from a hydrologic standpoint they are connected. This bifurcated system has created many challenges to managing water supplies throughout the state, especially in rural areas.

Surface Water: Per State statute, surface water includes all sources flowing in streams, canyons, ravines or other natural channels, or in definite underground channels (whether perennial or intermittent), flood, waste or surplus water, and of lakes, ponds and springs on the surface, belong to the public and are subject to appropriation and beneficial use. Early in its history, Arizona adopted the doctrine of prior appropriation to govern the use of surface water. This doctrine is based on the tenet of “first in time, first in right” which means the person who first puts the water to a beneficial use acquires a right that is senior to later appropriators of the water. Prior to June 12, 1919, a person could acquire a surface water right simply by applying the water to a beneficial use and posting a notice of the appropriation at the point where they diverted the water. On June 12, 1919, the Arizona Surface Water Code was enacted, which requires a person to apply for and obtain a permit and certificate to appropriate (use) surface water and mandates that beneficial use shall be the basis, measure, and limit to the use of surface water within the state. The types of beneficial uses acknowledged in State statute include domestic, municipal, irrigation, stock watering, water power, recreation, wildlife (including fish), non-recoverable water storage, and mining.

It’s also important to note that surface water rights are appurtenant to the land, which means that landowners can’t move the right from one place to another, with limited exception, by going through a process known as a sever and transfer. This process is managed by the Arizona Department of Water Resources. These surface water rights can also be transferred to certificated instream flow rights in support of riparian and aquatic habitat.

Groundwater: Unlike surface water, the regulation of groundwater is based on a reasonable use doctrine. Throughout the majority of the state, there is no limit on the amount of groundwater that a landowner can pump as long as they are not wasting it. This makes managing groundwater resources in these areas a major challenge. The ever-increasing number of wells pumping groundwater to support increasing population, development and associated water demands continues to contribute to declining water tables and decreased aquifer storage. As a result, rivers, streams, and springs that have a hydrologic connection to groundwater are experiencing significant reductions in flows, which have further been exacerbated by drought.

However, many years ago, Arizona leaders recognized the need to aggressively manage groundwater in certain areas of the state with excessively high reliance on groundwater in order to support a growing population and economy. This led to the passage of the 1980 Groundwater Management Act (Act). The Act established five Active Management Areas (see Attachment 1) to provide for the long-term management and conservation of limited groundwater supplies in each area. Statutory management goals for each AMA guide the policies for managing water in these areas. In the Phoenix, Tucson and Prescott AMAs, the primary management goal is to attain safe yield by 2025. Safe yield means balancing groundwater withdrawals with the amount of water being naturally and artificially recharged back to the aquifers. In the Pinal AMA, where the economy is primarily agricultural, the management goal is to preserve that economy for as long as feasible, while considering the need to preserve groundwater for future non-irrigation uses. In the Santa Cruz AMA, the management goal is to maintain a safe-yield condition and to prevent local water tables from experiencing long-term declines.

Also, all AMAs require a legal right or permit to pump groundwater from non-exempt wells (>35 gallons per minute). The rights and permits required include grandfathered rights, service area rights and withdrawal permits. Each type of permit or right is subject to certain conditions, particularly as to the quantity and purpose of use.

Effluent: In addition to surface water and groundwater, a third important potential source of water that may be legally available for use is treated effluent (aka treated wastewater or recycled water). The Arizona Supreme Court held that:
1. Effluent is owned by the entity who produces it
2. The owner has the right to transfer or sell their effluent, and
3. Transaction terms are subject to negotiations with the owner.

Some common uses of effluent in Maricopa County include golf course and landscape irrigation, cooling the Palo Verde Nuclear Plant in Tonopah, restoring the Tres Rios wetlands and recharging aquifers.


Key Topic 1: Understanding how groundwater and surface water systems function.

Objective 1. Knowledge of the hydrologic cycle.

Objective 2. Knowledge of groundwater and surface water interactions.

Objective 3. How human activities effect groundwater and surface water.

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Key Topic 2: Understanding the importance of water quality and quantity as a foundation in a healthy ecosystem.

Objective 1. Understanding the connection between groundwater and surface water and how they affect each other.

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Key Topic 3: Understanding a variety of water quality indicators in different landscapes.

Objective 1. Knowledge of water quality impacts such as agriculture practices, urban development, nitrates, toxic algae, etc.

Objective 2. Understand indicators of water health, including physical, chemical and biological properties and its role in the hydrological system.

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Key Topic 4: Understanding a variety of water quantity indicators in different landscapes

Objective 1. Knowledge of water quantity impacts such as agriculture practices, urban development, groundwater levels, etc.

Objective 2. Understanding of stream gauges and groundwater maps.

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Key Topic 5: Understanding how sustainable and best management practices enhance and protect water quality and quantity for humans and wildlife.

Objective 1. Understand the importance of moving toward sustainable practices to protect water quality and quantity.

Objective 2. Understand best management practices that improve water quality and quantity such as improved agricultural practices, urban planning and water efficiency.

Objective 3. Understand the role of technology: flow meters, observation wells, Airborne Electromagnetic (AEM) surveys, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) (drones, GIS, etc.), precision agriculture, etc.

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Key Topic 6: Understanding the differences of local, regional, and national agencies/organizations that manage natural resources and the importance of each in water resources.

Objective 1. Knowledge of various natural resource agencies/organizations and how they work together for conservation success.

Key Topic 7: Understanding the social, economic, political impacts of natural resources management and decision making.

Objective 1. Describe the social, economic and political impacts of regulating water quality and quantity.

Objective 2. Understand the delicate balance behind decision making – funding projects, social responsibility, and regulatory authority.

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