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Why Water Conservation Matters in Arizona

Water supplies in Arizona are already a precious resource. Given estimates that the state will almost double in population over the next 45 years, water supply challenges are only going to become more difficult.

Western Resource Advocates promotes urban water conservation as a no-regrets strategy for increasing water supplies -- one that is often cheaper, faster, and smarter than "traditional" water supply approaches that rely on obtaining more water from elsewhere.

Maximizing water conservation efforts and programs across the state will allow Arizona cities to do more with their existing water supplies.

How is Your Arizona Community Conserving Water?

Click on different locations on the the map to find out how each community is conserving water.

AZ communities map Lake Havasu City Clarkdale Prescott Payson Peoria Buckeye Phoenix Scottsdale Mesa Chandler Casa Grande Safford Tucson Yuma Sierra Vista


Arizona Water Meter Report

Arizona Water Meter Report

This report looks at 15 diverse Arizona communities and evaluates their water conservation programs. The study will help utilities, researchers, policy makers, and communities can make informed decisions about the possibilities that exist for improvement in their own water conservation programs.

Estimated Water Demand and Conservation Potential of Domestic Wells in the Sierra Vista Subwatershed, Arizona Study


To better understand residential domestic well use for planning purposes and to identify appropriate conservation approaches, Western Resource Advocates funded a study that developed a method to estimate demand and the water conservation potential of domestic wells in the Sierra Vista Subwatershed (SVS) in southeastern Arizona.

Arizona Rivers

Salt River

Arizona's rivers are part of the state's rich cultural and natural history. They support communities, agricultural and mining uses, and are "ribbons of life" for plants and animals. For example, it's estimated that almost half the bird species in the U.S. use the San Pedro River in southeast Arizona at some point in their lives. Arizonans visit their rivers for fishing, swimming, and relaxation. Wildlife-based recreation alone brings more than a billion dollars to the state's economy every year.

However, many of Arizona's rivers and river habitat have been destroyed or altered by human activity and climate change. An estimated 35 percent of Arizona's rivers have disappeared. The ones that remain are critical to both wildlife and to Arizona's citizens.

Instream Flow Rights: A Legal Means to Protect Our Rivers

Under Arizona's surface water law, farmers, ranchers and others can apply to the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) for a water right to remove water from rivers and streams to: irrigate fields, water cattle, meet domestic needs(i.e take a shower, water your garden), and meet other "beneficial uses." A surface water right applies to water in rivers and streams as opposed to water in underground aquifers.

For a long time there was no legal way to keep surface water in rivers and streams because the courts only protected water rights that took water out of rivers and put it to "beneficial use." But in 1979 that changed with the addition of the instream flow water right program, which lets landowners apply for a right to keep water in the stream for recreation, wildlife and fish. This relatively new program finally gave river flows legal protection.

Water Drop

During times of drought or water shortages, water is given to those who have the oldest or most senior water right first - this concept is known as priority. Since the instream flow program is relatively new most river flows are protected by a junior right. Senior water rightholders must be satisfied before more junior water right holders. This can be problematic because there is no requirement that some water must be left in the stream. Still, instream flow water rights provide an opportunity to maintain and protect flows, and generally the law prevents harm to all rights (regardless of their seniority).

Arizona water law allows surface water rights to be transferred from one water user to another. Surface water rights can be transferred for irrigation, municipal use, stock watering, power and mining purposes and for instream uses without losing priority. However, for instream uses the right must be transferred to the state or a political subdivision of the state, such as a state agency or irrigation district to maintain the original priority date. A transfer from a diversionary use like irrigating a farm field to an instream use like protecting a river's flow is still untested but two applications have been made to "sever and transfer" rights on the San Pedro River and Aravaipa Creek in southeast Arizona. If these transfers are approved by ADWR it will represent a major milestone in river protection because of the older priority dates and the removal of a historic water diversion.

Applicants for an instream flow water right must show the streamflow volume requirements before ADWR will issue an interim permit and eventually a Certificate of Water Right (CWR) with a priority date of the initial application. As of May, 2013 there were 38 CWRs, one permit and 88 applications.

Changes to state law in 2012 (SB 1236) now require instream flow water right applicants to submit at least five years of continuous stream flow measurement data at the time of application - a higher standard than previous application requirements. This change also led to an ADWR decision to complete the processing of pending, incomplete applications, not all of which could be completed by applicants within the timeframe provided. As a result, 55 applications were withdrawn or dismissed in nine watersheds, representing almost 340 miles of stream reach.

Status of Instream Flow Water Right Applications

Status of Instream Flow Water Right Applications
Watershed Permits/Certificates Active Applications Withdrawn/Dismissed Applications Withdrawn/Dismissed Application Stream Miles
Agua Fria


2 2


Bill Williams


4 0


Little Colorado River 1 8 2 5.6
Lower Gila 1 0 0 0
Salt River 5 12 13 100.6
San Pedro River 14 13 8 33
Santa Cruz 1 13 8 64.8
Upper Gila River 2 14 8 45.2
Verde River 10 15 10 45.8
Virgin River 0 7 0 0
Whitewater Draw 1 0 1 10.9
Willcox Playa 0 0 3 0
Total 39 88 55 337.6

*Last updated: July 2013

Click to download a .pdf map of the applications

Keeping Arizona's instream flow water right program intact is a critical tool to keep water in rivers. You can help protect Arizona's rivers by participating in restoration, monitoring or advocacy activities and by telling your state legislator how important rivers and their protection are to you.