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If we knew this about water and broadband, would we make different choices?
Posted on March 03, 2019 • Category: Op-EdBy Sybil Francis, opinion contributor

Arizona Central

Opinion: These facts don't tell us the answers. But they can help us ask the right questions to make Arizona a better place.

Today, we’re going to talk about data.

Oh, gosh, please don’t stop reading, even though that sentence can have the effect of clearing a room. It’s not just for geeks, scientists and policy wonks, I promise.

Data tell us stories that touch our lives and affect our future. Data can tell us the likelihood that water will come out of our taps when we need it, how hot Arizona is getting and might get, and how our child’s school is ranked on educational outcomes.

In the months ahead we will spotlight data about the issues that Arizonans have said matter most to them and underscore the value of using data as a starting point in decision-making and action.

Data don’t tell us the answers. Rather, data help us ask the right questions.

  • What does this information mean for me, my community and for Arizona?
  • Is there something we should be doing about it?

Here are a few examples of data that can prompt further inquiry, conversation and even action.

Arizona county has no broadband access

We are admonished every day to put down our cell phones, unplug from electronic devices and give our social media accounts a rest. But access to broadband is as important to our lives as is access to basic utilities like water and electricity. Broadband powers our businesses, provides access to educational resources, and connects us to health care services and entertainment content.

Yet 13 percent, or almost 900,000 Arizonans, do not have access to broadband. Thirteen of our fifteen counties (all but Maricopa and Pima) have lower than average access to broadband, and tribal communities are hit hardest. One county in Arizona – Apache County – has zero access to broadband.

Imagine what it would be like to disconnect your internet service – forever. A quick comparison of access to broadband and K-12 educational outcomes reveals an interesting correlation between broadband access and some educational outcomes.

Access to broadband would give rural communities the ability to deliver science and math courses to schools lacking the teacher talent to do so.

The economy is being driven by the internet. What opportunities are all of us losing by being disconnected from 13 percent of our fellow Arizonans? What impact would this have on your work or on other aspects of your life?

Leaks lose as much water as we must cut

You’ve probably been asked to cut back on water, heard about how much water golf courses and agriculture consume, and appreciate how complicated and important this issue is to Arizona’s future.

For the past two years, as has been well covered in the pages of this newspaper, states that rely on Colorado River water have been negotiating a voluntary agreement to share the pain of required cutbacks needed because of recent drought and anticipated shortfalls.

But you might be surprised to learn that the amount of water we have been asked to contribute to Arizona’s part to the hotly debated Drought Contingency Plan is about the same as the amount that leaks out of our water systems every year. 

The Arizona Department of Water Resources has set a maximum allowable loss of 10 percent for large municipal systems and 15 percent for small systems. The City of Mesa reduced its system loss to 5.7 percent in 2017.

We know that maintenance and infrastructure investments can make a big difference in addressing water leakage. Can we do more?

While no system can be 100 percent efficient, reducing water loss caused by leaky water systems could help us manage our needs in an era of scarcer water resources.

What is the right amount of acceptable leakage? And what is the relative cost of fixing our water infrastructure compared to the opportunity lost by cutting back on our water use?

If you don’t know how your community is doing on water system loss, find out. We need to support and encourage smart approaches to our water issues.

3 more facts that raise questions

Additionally, did you know that:

  • There is a 13 percent chance that 16- to 24-year-olds in Arizona are neither working nor in school, and may not have even finished high school? The data also tell us that these young people are likely to become dependent on government support in one form or another, including through incarceration. Focusing on their success could lower the cost of government in other areas.
  • Renters in Coconino, Yavapai, Pima or Maricopa Counties are spending close to 50 percent of their income, on average, on housing? Can we incentivize builders to provide affordable workforce housing?
  • Infant mortality among African American babies is nearly three times that of Caucasian babies in their first year of life, and for Native American babies it is twice the rate of that for Caucasian babies? The disparity in infant mortality between racial and ethnic groups is troubling, especially considering that for our African American neighbors the rate is well above the national average. What is driving this outcome, and what can be done about it?

Why we're collecting this data

The Center for the Future of Arizona (CFA) is launching a new set of tools – Arizona Progress Meters – that will report on how we are progressing on the top priorities of Arizonans as expressed in The Arizona We Want and documented in our landmark study by the same name.

As a nonpartisan organization, CFA is committed to providing reliable, thought-provoking data that can spark long-term thinking about the future of our state. There is already strong evidence that bringing publicly available and trusted data to communities in a usable format can help them identify problems and point to possible solutions and action in support of their goals.

We launched the first progress meter – the Arizona Education Progress Meter – in 2016 in partnership with Expect More Arizona, and it is already impacting educational outcomes across the state in communities that have used it to drive data-based decisions and actions.

CFA is now bringing Arizona Progress Meters to communities across the state to help everyday residents and leaders stay focused on what matters most to Arizonans, track how the state is doing and celebrate success as it happens in areas such as jobs, health, infrastructure, natural resources, community engagement and civic health. We are also delving into the issues of most importance to young people, who will be our future, after all.

See, that wasn’t so bad, was it? Data tell interesting – and important – stories. Reliable data are a springboard to better questions, more public discussion and, ultimately, better decisions.

More to come. Stay tuned.

Sybil Francis is president & CEO of the Center for the Future of Arizona.