The election season is over. Once the session begins in January, the new Legislature will have their hands full with the budget for the next fiscal year—a deficit of $1.5 billion is currently projected. This might mean serious cuts in the General Fund budgets for ADWR and ADEQ. Yet the head of Governor Ducey’s transition team, former Senator Jon Kyl, has promoted moving the adjudications process somewhat faster than its current glacial gait. ADWR will likely be called upon to support such an effort. ADEQ will potentially have new EPA rules or guidance that will increase their regulatory role under the Clean Water Act. All of which will require a commitment of state resources, meaning money.
Lack of money is also an issue in the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, headquartered at the Coconino National Forest, to better manage Arizona’s unnaturally dense forests. Almost 25% of the largest stand of Ponderosa pine in the West has burned over the last decade. The hydrological damage becomes evident after the fires are out. We saw the dramatic hydrological aftermath of the Schulz Fire on an AHS field trip in 2011. Increased sediment load and more frequent flooding are the result of removing the vegetation as the scorched earth no longer slows runoff. The ash-laden streams cause severe environmental damage downstream. The sediment can get into the water supply, causing expensive problems at municipal treatment plants.
It is safer and cheaper to thin forests like the Coconino, Kaibab, Apache-Sitgreaves, and Tonto, than to continue to fight every fire to save every twig. Thinning keeps the forest more natural; fire stays on the ground and thus becomes less intensive. Less intensive fires are ultimately less of a threat to the water supply. Salt River Project has been a leading supporter of large-scale forest thinning in the interest of protecting the water supply. But money is short, and the target acreage is big.
The aphorism “Water flows uphill towards money,” is only partially true anymore. Now we should say: “Money goes where water flows.” Wall Street banks, bonding agencies, venture firms and other entities with capital to invest—which the state needs—are watching to see if Arizona can solve its water issues. One measure is the degree to which Arizona will fund its regulatory agencies as well as efforts to address the hydrological problems resulting from forest fires on its watersheds. Politicians take note: you weren’t elected to fiddle while we burn.