Sharon B. Megdal, Ph.D., couldn’t have guessed she would end up as the director of The University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center when she earned her doctoral degree in economics from Princeton University. But some interesting twists and turns in her career led her to where she is now.
She originally came to Arizona for a job in the economics department at the University of Arizona in the late ’70s. In the mid-1980s she was appointed by then-governor Bruce Babbitt to the Arizona Corporation Commission. “My name was in the right place at the right time, and I was appointed to what is an elected position,” explains Sharon.
The Corporation Commission regulates privately owned water companies; the position introduced her to water issues. From 1991 to 1994 she was the executive director of the Santa Cruz Valley Water District. She worked in consulting for awhile, then in 2002 she was offered the position of associate director of the Water Resources Research Center at UA.
“I made director a little over two years later,” says Sharon. “It was a circuitous route getting into water from a very applied on-the-ground perspective. Getting into a university position, not from what I studied in grad school – it’s all been on-the-job training.”
Her “on-the-job training” became international when she went to Israel in 2006.
She came back from that trip thinking about the similarities between Arizona and Israel. “We’re both semi-arid, face water scarcity, have growing economies, have large and vibrant agricultural sectors; … what can we learn from each other in terms of policy and management? I knew over the years that there had been a lot of exchange over agriculture and irrigation methods. I wanted to focus on the policy and management approaches,” says Sharon.
Over the next few years, she worked on funding for a workshop to be held in Tucson discussing water policy. In 2009, she brought together people from the United States, Israel, Mexico and Palestinian territories. Since that workshop, she has been to Israel a dozen times, all on business. “I see water projects, I meet with the top level water officials, academics and so forth,” says Sharon.
“What I have been able to accomplish, which I am both proud of and pleased about, is that I’m kind of a bridge – I have developed enough expertise about what’s going on there that I can talk about it and help people understand it here. I’m helping spread the word about good practices in water management.”
One of Arizona’s interests in Israel’s water practices involves their desalination process. “Not all of Israel’s desalination activity is seawater; they do a lot of what is called ‘brackish’ water,” says Sharon “This water that has a lot of salt in it, too much to drink or use on crops, but it’s not bad water if you take some of that salt and minerals out.” This process is not as expensive as the desalination of seawater, and you reclaim about 85% back as usable water.
As Arizona is growing, and the people in charge of water are looking at how to meet the needs of all the regions in the state going forward, desalination of brackish water is one option. Another option, and Sharon admits that this sometimes sounds far-fetched to people, is to create an agreement with Mexico to help fund water desalination – maybe with water from the Sea of Cortez. California also has been exploring desalination along the Pacific coast of Mexico.
“There is even some talk about piping that water up north, or maybe doing an exchange with Mexico where Arizona could take some more water from the Colorado River in exchange for funding the production of desalinated seawater in Mexico. This has been discussed for over a decade now,” says Sharon.
Fundamentally it comes down to economics and how serious the water situation is. Israel began desalination after some really severe droughts in the late ’90s and early 2000s. They had to do something to expand their water. Sometimes a crisis spurs on action.
Luckily, Arizona has a good system for groundwater management in areas like Tucson and Phoenix. These cities have adopted policies to cut down or eliminate the over drafting of the aquifers.
One of Sharon’s big concerns is that people generally take water for granted. “When you ask someone, ‘Where does your water come from?’ I prefer the answer to not be, ‘Out of the tap,’ ” she says. She wants people to become more informed because everyone is a “water stakeholder.”
Do you realize that 40% or so of the water used in the state of Arizona is Colorado River water? Arizona gets water from the river from where it runs along the western edge of our state; the river’s water is also brought into central Arizona by the Central Arizona Project canal. The CAP is designed to bring about 1.5 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River to Central and Southern Arizona every year.
Even if Arizona has a wet winter, water scarcity can still be an issue. Weather and precipitation conditions in Colorado and Wyoming and other areas that feed the Colorado River have a major impact on water resources in our state.
“A more educated public would see the connections between the different regions and climate patterns – so people would understand better when they might be asked to pay more for water or cut back on their water use,” explains Sharon. “One of my concerns is that we haven’t prepared the public well enough for conditions that we might find ourselves in. We have limited resources and potential shortages with the Colorado and replenishment of groundwater that is quite complex. How do we continue to grow, but make sure going forward that we have a sustainable water future? That’s the priority, and it doesn’t come easy.”
Sharon’s economics background had her working with tax policy initially, and now she realizes that’s what still drives her professionally.
“I want to make a difference in policy,” she says. “I want to do some things that help with either understanding the opportunity for better policy; or helping to implement those better policies. Water ended up being a very good place for me.”
In addition to the positions mentioned in this article Sharon also is an elected public official. Since January 2009 she has represented the residents of Pima County on the Board of Directors for the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, also known as the Central Arizona Project (CAP). The board is responsible for the policies, rates and taxes associated with delivering Colorado River water to Central Arizona.
Since February 2016, Sharon has served as Secretary of the CAP Board and Chair of the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District and Underground Storage Committee.
Sharon is also President of the board, Universities Council on Water Resources (UCOWR); Board Member, International Arid Lands Consortium; and Board Member, American Water Resources Association (AWRA).
She served as President of the National Institutes for Water Resources (NIWR) for Fiscal Year 2015.
Dr. Megdal has served on numerous Arizona boards and commissions, including the Arizona Corporation Commission, the State Transportation Board and the Arizona Medical Board.