UA's Water RAPIDS Program Creates Collaborative 'Atlas' to Address Water Scarcity

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By Jessica Schlievert, UA Water Resources Research Center March 5, 2014

In the Upper Gila Watershed, drought conditions are having serious effects. Wells are going dry and farmers are planting fewer crops.

Cover of the "Atlas of the Upper Gila River Watershed"

Cover of the "Atlas of the Upper Gila River Watershed"

The University of Arizona's Water RAPIDS program is helping southerneastern Arizona's water-stressed Upper Gila Watershed plan for a sustainable future water supply.

Through a unique collaborative process involving UA Cooperative Extension and the Gila Watershed Partnership of Arizona – a community-based effort that designs projects to address watershed issues and seeks funding to implement them – the Water RAPIDS team created an informative "atlas" of knowledge on the watershed, charting its history and changing conditions to help inform future planning.

"Watershed" refers to an area of land where all the water under it or draining off it goes into the same place.

"In order to plan for the future, we need to have a thorough, common understanding of where the watershed stands today, and how it got there," said Kelly Mott Lacroix, program analyst for Water RAPIDS, which stands for Research And Planning Innovations for Dryland Systems.

"We created the atlas of the Upper Gila River Watershed together with the people who live and work there, to help them answer some really important questions about the future of their watershed," Lacroix said.

One such question is: Will the Gila Valley have enough water to maintain its economy, community and natural environment?

Unlike many other water planning tools, the "Atlas of the Upper Gila River Watershed" was created from the input of those who will use it, through workshops and meetings to determine useful content and format. Many of these same stakeholders will continue to meet with the RAPIDS team over the coming year to help inform the next steps of the process: preparing to manage future water supplies.

Because so many watershed residents participated in the creation of the atlas, it includes pertinent information on the history of the watershed from a variety of perspectives, stretching back to 800 A.D. The RAPIDS team turned that collective history into an interactive online tool for exploring the region's shared past.

In addition to an expansive historical examination, the atlas takes into account the natural, water and cultural resources of the region. Over the coming year, the RAPIDS team will undertake the next step of the process: utilize the information in the atlas to more effectively plan for the next decades of water supply and quality.

"Kelly Mott Lacroix and the staff at the Water Resources Research Center did an amazing job of research and analysis of the water resources in the Upper Gila Watershed," said Jan Holder, executive director of the Gila Watershed Partnership. "The atlas gives us a valuable tool to aid our work in watershed restoration and protection, and to help meet the serious water challenges our watershed is facing."

The atlas can be downloaded here (PDF).

Preparing for scarce water supplies is an increasingly important topic in Arizona. In the recently released "Strategic Vision for Water Supply Sustainability" from the Arizona Department of Water Resources, Gov. Jan Brewer says a secure water supply is vital for continuing to expand our state's economy and ensuring a safe environment for residents.

In the Upper Gila Watershed, drought conditions are already having serious effects. Wells are going dry and, facing a severe water shortage, farmers in the area planted only one-third of their usual crops last year.

"The atlas is an important decision-making tool to help this water-stressed region think about their situation now, in hopes of better preparing for a very uncertain water future," Mott-Lacroix said. "The process that went into creating the atlas, and the work that we'll do with our watershed partners in the next year to build scenarios of future conditions, are valuable tools for other regions in our state to begin thinking about the future of their own watersheds."

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