Dialogue, collaboration matter most to Arizona's water future

katie hobbs and sharon megdal sitting on chairs on a stage and talking

Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs, left, speaks with Sharon Megdal, director of the university's Water Resources Research Center and a professor in the Department of Environmental Science, during the center's annual conference. Hobbs emphasized the importance of collaboration in addressing Arizona's water issues.

Brad Poole/UArizona Cooperative Extension

Representatives from virtually every area of water research and management gathered this week at the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center's annual conference to explore how collaboration can help solve water problems on many levels.

The conference, which featured more than 50 panelists and speakers, brought together people from academia, government, environment groups and business to discuss and seek partnerships in water research and management. More than 700 people registered, attending either in person or via Zoom.

These gatherings and associated partnerships are vital to solving water problems, which transcend disciplines, sectors of society and even generations, said Sharon Megdal, director of the WRRC and a professor in the UArizona Department of Environmental Science.

"Dialogue is really important, and developing a common understanding of the problems and solutions is important, and networking is important," Megdal said. "These are things that take continuing efforts of broadly diverse groups over time."

The WRRC, which is part of the university's Cooperative Extension System, serves an important role in connecting the academic world to the non-academic, and the annual conference is a part of that, she said.

Everything the university does is achieved through collaboration, said Shane Burgess, vice president for the Division of Agriculture, Life and Veterinary Sciences, and Cooperative Extension.

"And I think that it's pretty clear that water is the most critical issue of our time in Arizona and the Southwest," Burgess said, calling Megdal a great example of a collaborator.

Megdal serves on Gov. Katie Hobbs' Water Policy Council, tasked with modernizing the 1980 Groundwater Management Act, which guides water use in the state's five Active Management Areas. She serves or has served on numerous other boards and commissions that inform and connect policymakers and researchers worldwide.

Hobbs, who gave a keynote address at the event, said the conference's theme, "Implementing Water Solutions Through Partnerships," was timely. This past week, the federal government finalized an interim water conservation deal among Colorado River basin states.

"Through the power of collaboration, we got a deal that protects Arizona from draconian cuts and ensures that no Arizonan will be forced to cut their water use. This collaboration has brought stability and given us time to negotiate a long-term solution for the Colorado River," Hobbs said.

"Arizona has a long history of leading the way on water management, and we will continue to do so," she said.

Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community also spoke at the event and underscored the importance of tribal partnerships. Their most recent five-year plan, which is still in development, features continued reliance on collaboration and relationships across the state and nationally, Lewis said.

"We will need our allies to stand with us in the coming difficult months and years," he said.

The conference was dedicated to the memory of Thomas Meixner, a renowned biochemistry researcher and head of the UArizona Department of Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences who was tragically killed on campus in 2022.

A team of researchers working on a Thomas Meixner legacy project involving UArizona, Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University also presented at the event.

"The objectives of this project are to identify where and how water is currently evaporating and where it can be captured and recharged," said Kathy Jacobs, director of the university's Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions and professor in the Department of Environmental Science.

The multidisciplinary team is using on-the-ground measurements and computer models to seek ways to save water that is figuratively falling through the cracks in urban and natural environments. By mapping where and how much water we are losing, the researchers hope to find ways to capture it and recharge aquifers.

Linneth Lopez and Rhona Mallea of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality offered an overview of the department's Advanced Water Purification program, which is building a roadmap to help communities use treated wastewater as a source for human consumption.

When the 1980 Groundwater Management Act limited groundwater use, interest in treated wastewater rose. This sparked a decades-long evolution of water reuse policies for local governments across Arizona, although currently no cities are delivering treated wastewater to homes.

Now ADEQ is working with other stakeholders to develop an advanced water purification plan to work toward household use of treated wastewater. The project will address risk management, treatment, monitoring, outreach and permitting.

Other partnerships highlighted at the conference included work to close gaps in research among water utilities and universities; UArizona President Robert C. Robbins' advisory Commission on the Future of Agriculture and Food Production in a Drying Climate; and interdisciplinary efforts to further alter flows on the Salt and Verde rivers to capture more water behind dams.

Learn more about WRRC collaboration on the UArizona Cooperative Extension website.

A version of this article originally appeared on the UArizona Cooperative Extension website.

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