Arizona Water Supply

Commercial Corner, General Real Estate

Thomas Buschatzke 1

Thomas Buschatzke
Director, Arizona Department of Water Resources


For decades, the state of Arizona’s water policy has rested on a single, basic assumption: That sooner or later, the Big One – that is, the big drought – would come along to challenge the Southwest’s capacity to deal with below-average moisture over a lengthy period of time.

That time, of course, is now. The region is entering its 17th year of historically low rainfall and mountain snowpack.

Fortunately, Arizona recognized decades ago that the time to plan for drought was “now.”

The federal Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees the allocations of Colorado River water, has calculated that there is a better than even chance of a shortfall in the allocations of the river’s water by 2018.

As the state’s designated manager of its Colorado River allocation, the Department of Water Resources is deeply involved in the complex, on-going negotiations over how that vital resource gets shared with other states and Mexico. We are hard at work with the feds and with representatives of the other Lower Basin states on contingency plans to prevent that all-important reservoir, Lake Mead, from falling to critical levels.

Those are tough issues. Yet there actually is good drought news, on the other hand: No state in the region is better prepared for this historically dry moment in time than is Arizona.

Preparations for this current Age of Drought actually began in 1968 when federal legislation fostered by Arizona Sens. Carl T. Hayden and Ernest McFarland was signed by President Lyndon Johnson. The Colorado River Basin Project Act of 1968 authorized the 336-mile diversion canal we know as the Central Arizona Project, which annually supplies up to 1.6 million acre-feet of Colorado River water to five million Arizonans.

At the state level, Arizona’s Groundwater Management Act of 1980 remains the most effective legislation created by any state at limiting groundwater pumping and all the deleterious effects that go with it.

In the “active management areas” created by the Act, homeowners and businesses can be confident that water availability will be there for at least 100 years.

As a result, new development cannot be reliant solely on groundwater supplies. Rather, developers must use predominantly renewable water supplies (such as surface water and reclaimed water) in order to break ground.
Since the Act, groundwater used by new growth in an AMA is required by law to be replenished with stored groundwater. That means residents and businesses have a sense of certainty that their cities and towns are actively preparing for dry times.

The rest of the West is playing catch-up: Just last year, California enacted a groundwater-management act that attempts to mirror what Arizona did 36 years ago.
Drought preparation scarcely ends there. Arizonans have been among the most innovative and resourceful water-users in the country.

The state has been a leader in creating the concept of “water banking,” a tool employing market principles to a public resource managed by the state. It allows water users effectively to retain rights to water they have stored for future use.

Over the years, the Arizona Water Banking Authority has replenished state aquifers by storing 3.4 million acre-feet of water — the equivalent of over two years of central Arizona’s Colorado River allocation – specifically to prepare for any potential shortfall in the state’s Colorado River allocation. All told, Arizonans have recharged nine million acre feet into underground aquifers. That’s almost three trillion gallons of water, enough to supply all of Phoenix’s water needs, residential and commercial, for 30 years.

Nearly all of the state’s major communities recycle water. Some, like Phoenix, are approaching 100 percent re-use. Very little Arizona water just disappears down a drain.

Most recently, Gov. Doug Ducey has created Arizona’s Water Initiative, a two-track plan to identify and maintain sustainable water supplies long into the state’s future. The first track focuses on addressing supply and demand issues on a local level. The governor has directed the Department of Water Resources to work with water-users in 22 “planning areas” around the state to come up with sensible, workable and local responses to each area’s water-related challenges.

The second track is devoted to identifying new sources of water. The governor has created a Water Augmentation Council, which I chair, to find long-term additions to the state’s water supplies.

For some states, the advent of chronic drought has come as a surprise. That sort of short-sightedness is what prompts panicky responses like water rationing and gubernatorial demands for draconian water-use cutbacks by communities.

The drought was not a surprise to Arizona. The state has conducted water-planning with the baseline assumptions of population and economic growth firmly in place. Those assumptions have not changed.

In short, this is what long-term water planning looks like.


  • No state is better prepared for the historically dry period facing the American Southwest than is Arizona.
  • The rest of the West now is playing catch-up, enacting measures that Arizona made into law decades ago.
  • Arizona communities have recharged the equivalent of two and a half years of the state’s entire Colorado River allocation into underground aquifers.


Thomas was appointed by Governor Doug Ducey as Director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources in January 2015 where he is responsible for planning and policy programs for the management of the state’s water supplies. He also manages multiple regulatory and permitting programs and ADWR’s water conservation and drought management efforts. Thomas can be reached at or at 602 771-8500.


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FRIDAY, MAY 27, 2016  –  9:00 AM TO 12:30 PM


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Learn from industry leaders regarding Arizona and Salt River Pima economic development, land availability, trust land funds, energy and water plans as well as a current market update – hear how all these factors effect the state’s growth and the real estate industry. Tempe Mayor Mark Mitchell will also provide some detail on how projects in Tempe are creating a positive influence for the state of Arizona.

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