May 3, 2016

In Arizona, a Focus on New Water Storage and State Control

Arizona’s position as a landlocked state with vast amounts of desert land could be a water nightmare.  Yet, since the state’s inception, our policy makers have embarked on a long and distinguished history of protecting our most precious resource.

Starting in 1973, Arizona led the nation in regulating groundwater for development.  This was followed by the historic 1980 Groundwater Management Act requiring demonstration of a 100-year water supply for new residential growth in the five designated Active Management Areas (AMA) throughout the state where groundwater overdraft was most severe.  During the same time frame, the Central Arizona Project received congressional approval and was being constructed to bring water from the Colorado River into the growing metropolitan areas in Phoenix and Tucson.  As the Legislature in Arizona wraps up its 2016 session, they are considering a few bills this year that are important to the water future of the state.

SB 1399 – Water Storage; Plan Report

Last fall, Western Growers joined other agricultural groups in Arizona in sponsoring an agricultural water summit.  The concept was to bring together producers from across the state to discuss water issues and look for ways in which we could work together to protect agriculture in Arizona.  Prior to the conference, polling was conducted to get a sense of voter sentiment toward agriculture and water use.  The results were surprising.  Arizona voters—both in our large cities and in rural areas—think highly of agriculture.

Further, they overwhelmingly support the development of additional water storage in Arizona, even if it means relaxing environmental regulations to achieve results.  With this data in hand, SB 1399 was introduced to authorize the Department of Water Resources and the State Land Department to develop a plan to create additional water storage in Arizona.  Specifically, they are charged with identifying at least six of the most acceptable sites for potential construction of new water storage facilities on existing state land.  This legislation is specific to state land to ensure that the federal government does not have authority over the projects.  This bill has passed many hurdles in the legislative process, and if signed by the governor, would represent the next phase of Arizona’s impressive water management endeavors.

SB 1268 – Adequate Water Supply Requirements; Municipalities

While water laws that regulate development don’t pertain to agricultural users, the repercussions and unintended consequences of these laws could impact all water users within the state.  In 2007, the Legislature passed and Governor Janet Napolitano signed the Adequate Water Supply program to enable towns, cities and counties outside of the existing AMA’s to adopt mandatory adequacy rules for new development.

Within the state’s adequate water supply laws, federal agencies have found a way to claim rights to water.  Essentially, the law adopted in 2007 has given the federal government a state cause of action to sue for water for environmental purposes.  This is bad policy that has just recently been highlighted by a conflict in the town of Sierra Vista, which is facing federal intrusion that would block local and state-approved water management policies governing development.  For those following the federal government’s heavy handed management of California’s water supply, the Sierra Vista situation is chillingly familiar.

On a larger scale, the federal government is increasingly laying claim to water rights in the West due to the immense amount of federal lands in the Western United States.  Clearly, it’s not in the best interest of Arizona to give the federal government additional tools to lay claim to water.  State Senator Gail Griffin is sponsoring SB 1268 to allow local governments to exempt themselves from Adequate Water Supply rules should they face unnecessary litigation from federal agencies.  In addition to this bill, she is sponsoring another that would require counties that have adopted the Adequate Supply Rules to review this policy every five years. Both of these bills allow towns, cities and counties the option to undo the Adequate Water Supply requirements in the event they are faced with litigation from federal agencies that threaten not only their water rights, but the water rights of agriculture and industry within their boundaries.

Western Growers will continue to promote and support the Arizona Department of Water Resources as the primary water authority in this state.  The state’s water leaders are more aware of, and sensitive to, the needs of our citizens, businesses, industries and environment than federal agencies that have proven, in California and elsewhere, that their goal is not to foster responsible water development to sustain economic health.