Arizona's water plan - goodbye to green lawns?

Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt doesn't want to make the desert bloom. He'd rather see it boom - right into the next century. With the Central Arizona Project due in the late 1980s to start providing water to Phoenix, Tucson, and other areas of the Sun State's dry country, and with a new groundwater management act beginning to take effect, Mr. Babbitt forecasts an era of responsible use of the precious water resource along with a growing, but altered, state economy.

If all goes as planned, he foresees these trends as the year 2000 approaches:

* ''Diminution of irrigated agriculture'' in the state, with a shift to ''low-water-use'' crops. Under the new law, agriculture's share of Arizona water will drop far below the present 90 percent. ''Not one foot of new agriculture'' will be permitted in critical water management areas.

* An end to the ''oasis'' culture in which lawns and gardens are kept green by weekly flooding. ''This is not Virginia,'' says Babbitt. ''Front yards of the future are more likely to have a saguaro (giant cactus) than an elm tree.'' Fortunately, he adds, dry landscaping of residential areas now is ''in.''

* Impressive growth of ''high tech'' industries, especially around Phoenix and Tucson. Babbitt says Phoenix already is the third-largest semiconductor manufacturing center in the United States. This high technology climate, he explains, has been carefully nurtured over the last several years.

In a recent interview, the governor described how Arizona - after years of depletion of the underground water supply and squabbling among agricultural, mining, and municipal water users - came up with the law he calls ''the most innovative and effective water code ever enacted in the West.''

Babbitt recalls how, fed up with the ''incredible mess of court decisions'' and an impasse of conflicting claims, he brought representatives of the major contending parties together in November 1979, and told them: ''We're either going to strangle together or do something'' to settle the water-supply situation. Negotiating 20 hours a week for six months, he says, ''10 people wrote that law word by word.''

On June 4, 1980, Governor Babbitt called the state Legislature into special session. He told them they must suspend the normal legislative process and ''pass this law without changing a period or a comma.'' The Groundwater Management Act was submitted at 9 a.m. and enacted at 11 a.m.

Behind all this resolute action was a stark reality: Arizona was drawing water out of the great underground reservoir beneath the desert at a far greater rate than nature was replenishing it.

Easing the way for legislators to vote for the water-use reform was the prospect of completion of the Central Arizona Project (CAP), enabling the state to use its allotment of Colorado River water which for years has gone by default to California. Indeed, water management reform was a federal condition for continued funding of the CAP.

Despite the cooperation of competing interests in writing the law, legal challenges are pending.

Presiding over the gradual but sweeping transition in water use is the director of the new Department of Water Resources, Wesley E. Steiner, formerly executive director of the state water commission. Critics of the act charge the director is a ''water czar,'' and Governor Babbitt acknowledges this is essentially correct. That kind of authority is needed to implement this revolution in water-use management, he contends.

''Mandatory conservation'' is the key to the new water code, the governor points out, and among the powers of the director is that of limiting per capita consumption in urban areas. New construction is prohibited in areas where the developers do not have an assured water supply for 100 years.

No new irrigated agriculture will be permitted in the four major management areas - most of Pima, Pinal, and Maricopa Counties and the Prescott area of Yavapai County.

Violators of the new code are subject to civil and criminal penalties.

Mr. Steiner was not available for an interview, but his assistant director, Don Maughan, told the Monitor that the initial stages of implementation of the new act are ''going well.''

Tucson, the largest city in the world totally dependent on groundwater, has had an active conservation program for some years, he noted. In June 1980, the city was consuming 160 gallons of water per day per capita, said Mr. Maughan. Now the figure is between 130 and 140 gallons. Phoenix, the major beneficiary for many years of Salt River Project water, has not had a conservation program and uses water at a daily per capita rate of 220 gallons. Now, says Maughan, the city indicates it is ready to start its own conservation effort.

Other aspects of the new water program - including certification of assured water supply by developers; preparation of management plans by agriculture, industry, and municipalities; and the licensing and metering of wells - are proceeding smoothly, he said, with better response than had been anticipated.

Says Governor Babbitt: ''In the long run, there is no question we have enough water to grow way out into the 21st century - but only if we treat the water situation seriously, marshal our resources, and set priorities.''

He admits the Groundwater Management Act is complex and ''imposes a great variety of restraints and regulations.'' But he says ''it would be a tragedy if the law were thrown out'' by the courts.

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