Ensuring Arizona’s future of water access, ENVS alum takes on vital water management role

Sept. 19, 2023

Rebecca Bernat, ‘21, searches for innovative solutions as the newly hired Manager of the Arizona Water Banking Authority while Colorado River levels run to an all-time low

After graduating from the University of Arizona only two years ago, Rebecca Bernat has found herself overseeing water storage for millions of Arizonans in a time of water crisis.

Bernat earned a PhD in Environmental Science in 2021 and is now managing the Arizona Water Banking Authority (AWBA). As the Colorado River continues to deplete, AWBA is responsible for providing backup water supplies for Arizonans throughout the state.

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Headshot of Rebecca Bernat
Rebecca Bernat, '21, now manages the Arizona Water Banking Authority (AWBA)

The seven states in the Colorado River basin, including Arizona, are entitled to an annual allotment of river water, but due to recent shortages caused by extended droughts, those amounts have decreased significantly. In the past, a portion of Arizona’s unused river water was stored by AWBA, but the state is not able because of Colorado River curtailments.

“For 23 years we stored Colorado River water but now there’s not enough for us to store, so we are getting ready to distribute it,” Rebecca said. “We have backup supplies for certain tribal nations and also certain water municipal and industrial users in Arizona.”

Bernat was uniquely prepared to step into this role because of her research on water markets and policy as an Environmental Science student. She studied entities that transfer water ownership through a system of credits, called Long-Term Storage Credits (LTSC), among other management strategies.

AWBA can no longer store Colorado River water, but they can still acquire water by purchasing LTSCs from other owners.

“Last year I made my first purchase of Long-Term Storage Credits on behalf of the Water Banking Authority,” Bernat said. “I studied the market as a student and now I am participating in that market, so it was a resonating moment for me.”

While at the University of Arizona, Bernat worked at the Water Resources Research Center and was advised by the director, Sharon Megdal, who said Bernat’s passion during her PhD is what led her to earning the manager title so quickly.  

“Rebecca was extremely focused on water policy and management the entire time she was here, and within just a couple years she got the position she wanted,” Megdal said. “It's gratifying to see the next generation of leadership manifest itself so quickly, I'm very proud of her.”

Growing up in France, Bernat always felt a pull to Arizona after watching a Grand Canyon documentary as a child. Combining her desire to visit Arizona with her familiarity with the water industry—her father built wastewater treatment plants—Bernat moved to the US to start her PhD program.

When she graduated and earned her position at AWBA, she said it was like “fitting the last piece of the puzzle.”

Having only served in the leadership role for a few months, Bernat hopes to implement innovative solutions to alleviate Arizona’s water crisis in the future, some of these ideas stemming from research she conducted as a student, like purchasing treated wastewater.

Bernat is presenting her recent findings and plans at the AWBA Commission Meeting in December.