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‘With Water, We’re all in it Together,’ says Arizona’s Jewish Water Expert

Sharon Megdal, at Tucson’s Sweetwater Preserve in 2018

This story first appeared in Jewish News (greater Phoenix).

During a Gilbert Town Council meeting this month, a few citizens shouted their displeasure when council members voted unanimously to raise the city’s water rates by about 50%, a measure that will take effect in April. The increase was necessary to deal with aging infrastructure, water shortages and for the maintenance and reconstruction of treatment plants to prevent potential water quality issues, officials said.

Gilbert is far from the only Arizona city making costly choices. Mesa’s city council approved a water rate hike recently and Phoenix residents already saw their rates go up by 6.5% in October; they will increase by similar percentages again in 2024 and 2025.

In Southern Arizona, Tucson’s mayor and city council approved water rate increases of $2.16 for an average bill in July 202. This is part of a series of annual increases of 5.5% expected until 2027. Also in July, Oro Valley Water raised its rates by 4.8%. Marana Water instituted a 5-year plan in 2020; the impact for an average residential customer that year was $2.16 per month.

It’s hardly surprising that water, or more accurately, the lack of it, is increasingly on the minds of Arizonans and their elected officials. After all, last year’s steady drumbeat of national headlines about Arizona’s water woes shone a new intensity on the issue: Lake Mead’s water level fell low enough to reveal several sets of human remains covered decades ago; the water in Lake Powell was so low that the dam’s turbines could barely turn; and the Colorado River, whose water Arizona, six other states and Mexico depend on, is in crisis.

Then there was the Rio Verde Foothills weeks-long saga that began when Scottsdale turned off the water tap to its neighboring “wildcat” development, forcing residents to flush their toilets with rainwater, carry laundry to friends’ homes and skip showers, a situation that Alexander Kolodin, the area’s Jewish and Republican representative, called “not OK.”
As shocking as all that news was to many, it was not surprising to Sharon Megdal, the director of the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center and someone who has worked on Arizona water policy since the late 1980s. Megdal credits her view of things to a Jewish sensibility.

“With water, we’re all in it together,” she told Jewish News. “We need to have smart and good policies in our state.”

The problem is agreeing on what constitutes “smart and good policies” given the state’s long-held, competing views about private property rights and government not infringing on one’s ability to pump groundwater versus the idea that groundwater is a public good. Governor Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, would like to put $73 million toward protecting the state’s water resources, and legislators on both sides of the aisle have written a slew of competing bills pressing different ideological solutions to Arizona’s water management. For example, Kolodin suggested the free market will sort out the state’s water shortages, while Democrats want more active government management in rural areas.

Megdal is glad to see the amount of legislation being put forward, after so many years where there’s been nothing, even while she regrets the high degree of partisanship in the legislature.

“This year might be a busy, even an ugly, year. But I hope, even though we start from different places, we will come to some compromises to move us forward rather than do nothing. Doing nothing on groundwater means we keep taking from our aquifers. At least with the debate, we might get some positive outcomes,” she said.

Megdal, a member of Kol Ami Synagogue in Tucson, is an optimist, partly because it’s her nature and also because “you have to be optimistic to get good management. If you’re pessimistic, you won’t have the mindset to solve these issues and it takes a lot of work to solve them,” she said.

Megdal is featured in Tucson Water’s “One Water 2100 Plan Announcement” video, which details a plan the utility created after four years of research. The mayor and town council approved the plan in October. In the video, Megdal said the plan, which includes water supply diversification, innovative infrastructure, and conservation, creates “a very reliable system.”

“We’re using the aquifers underground to store water. It’s resistant to drought, it’s resilient to water interruptions. You couple that with the advanced use of reclaimed water, with environmental projects … and with our conservation ethic of the community,” she said, “and One Water and Tucson Water are doing a great job at preparing us for a very reliable future of water delivery.”

Ironically, Megdal never could have imagined she would be a water expert when she was growing up in New Jersey and earning a doctorate in economics from Princeton University, the subject she came to Tucson to teach in 1978. Seven years later, former governor Bruce Babbitt appointed her to the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC), which regulates private utilities, and started her journey to becoming one of Arizona’s preeminent water policy wonks.

“Even though I never thought about water before the ACC, I’m driven by policy and being an educator. I want to help people make better decisions. That’s my contribution to society,” she said.

She does that in myriad ways apart from her job as chief of the WRRC. She’s a writer, teacher and public speaker and often speaks to synagogues and Jewish Community Centers. She also works closely with Israeli water policy experts because “Israelis think about their water utilization every day,” she said.

She does that in myriad ways apart from her job as chief of the WRRC. She’s a writer, teacher and public speaker and often speaks to synagogues and Jewish Community Centers. She also works closely with Israeli water policy experts because “Israelis think about their water utilization every day,” she said.

She wants the public not only to think about water but know what questions to ask.

“People need to know where our water comes from, where there might be risks, and what is the risk to those living in cities like most of the Jewish News’ readers,” she said.

Residents in Arizona need to know what it means when the Colorado River is stressed and not producing the flow it once did.

“It’s complicated and might not be sexy, but it sure is important if the water is not there. I want people to know where their water comes from and not take it for granted. Only then can they know how to be a good water user,” she said.

One thing she talks about that always comes as a surprise is how many individuals “are spending their days, and more than their days, working on water to make sure that water is there for all,” she said. For people to learn more about what they’re doing, they can go straight to the websites of their public utilities or the WRRC; that will be a good starting place to get a handle on the situation and what they can do as individuals.

But most of all, she wants everyone to know “it’s never too late.”

Megdal sometimes gets calls from individuals wanting to know the water situation in a certain part of the state and whether moving there is safe. Her doctor has asked her what the future holds for the state’s water supplies. On vacation in San Diego, she casually chatted with someone on the beach who asked if it’s smart for their family to move to Arizona after discovering Megdal’s expertise.

“I’m not going to crystal ball it for anyone,” she laughed, noting that most of the state’s citizens live in areas that are served by well-operated utilities. However, every person in the state needs to continue to pay attention to this issue.

“We’re in the desert and water is a scarce commodity,” she said. All of last year’s national headlines were “well overdue.”

For more information on Arizona water resources, go to wrrc.arizona.edu.

AJP Feature Writer Phyllis Braun contributed to this report.