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Water Supply Challenges

For centuries, Native American societies in the arid Southwest have cherished water as the sacred lifeblood of Mother Earth, a reverence that is also a straightforward acknowledgement of fact in the desert. Today, explosive growth is putting tremendous pressure on the region’s water systems, challenging the historic conservation ethic and the age-old wisdom it embodies.

How will that demand be met? No silver bullet solution appears to exist. Future water supply alternatives may well need to include a Colorado River pipeline, at least to Native American lands. But a judicious use of regional aquifers and water conservation technologies will also be necessary to address burgeoning water demand.

Effective water conservation programs across the country have shown that water efficiency and conservation should be considered a “supply” of water — an already developed resource that, when tapped, can help defer, downsize, or avoid altogether costly new water supply infrastructure. Aggressive implementation of water conservation technologies such as efficient faucets and toilets, water reclamation, recycling, gray water reuse, and rainwater harvesting have been shown to reduce water demand as much as 30 to 50 percent.

Water delivery schemes should also be fair as well as sustainable. Addressing Native American water requirements must be prominent in any equitable regional water solution. Navajo and Hopi tribes have severe water delivery problems with per-capita use in many areas on the reservation at just 40 gallons per day. (Flagstaff’s per-capita use is 130 gallons per day.)  Tribal water development is a compelling environmental and social justice issue.

Grand Canyon Seeps & Springs

The fragility of Grand Canyon seeps and springs epitomizes the water issues sprinkling the arid landscape of the Greater Grand Canyon region. What will become of the vulnerable springs, the ecological crown jewels of Grand Canyon?

While covering only a tenth of one percent of the canyon’s land area, riparian zones fed by the springs are crucial to the survival of diverse plant and animal life. Regional scientists confirm that these habitats hold the highest density of biological diversity anywhere in the canyon. Unfortunately, numerous wells south of Grand Canyon pump water from the aquifer that feeds these seeps and springs. The blue-green jewels of Grand Canyon must be protected through the development of alternative water supplies that replace the harmful groundwater pumping.

The Grand Canyon’s South Rim springs are fed largely by the Redwall-Muav aquifer, a sea of ancient water over 2,000 feet below the surface. Small springs, especially, are extremely sensitive to changes in aquifer equilibrium. Unfortunately, water levels in the aquifer are projected to decline due to deep-well groundwater pumping fueled by regional growth and park gateway development. Presently, seven wells south of Grand Canyon pump water from the aquifer at a collective rate totaling about 800 acre-feet per year. A recent paper by hydrologists Errol L. Montgomery & Associates, Inc., concluded that “groundwater pumping from the R-aquifer [the Redwall-Muav] . . . will eventually result in less discharge at the principal springs. . . along the South Rim of Grand Canyon.”

Population & Water Demand Projections

The Coconino Plateau Water Advisory Council, a regional water study and policy group, has overseen the development of several recent studies, including those of population and water demand needs in the future. By 2050, Flagstaff is expected to grow from its current population of 63,000 to between 114,000 and 125,000. Coconino County is expected to nearly double to 236,000 during the same period.

Consistent with population increases, water demand in the region is expected to roughly double by 2050. The Bureau of Reclamation estimates that 2050 water demand for the region will be 40,000 acre-feet per year.

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