March 22, 2024

Groundwater: A Tale of Two States

Every grower’s water story is unique, but just like water, everything is intrinsically connected. With new groundwater basin classification and a rain response executive order in California alongside a newly formed council tasked with groundwater management in Arizona, the water terrain for these two states in 2024 is shaping up to be turbulent. Below, Western Growers provides an update of the recent legislative movement around groundwater in these two states.

California 2023 Overview

Those in California who rely on the rain, rivers and groundwater resources to grow food and fiber for an expanding population know that weather and the precipitation it brings isn’t reliably cyclical. Yet the conversations around water management and the regulatory measures that result from that discussion don’t recognize that reality, instead moving at a glacial pace.

The concept seems simple enough: when the rain comes, be ready to capture it. And if accounting metaphors apply, saving for a non-rainy day means the groundwater basins are one of the options for a savings account.

Early 2023 brought heavy rain to California after a long and difficult stretch of drought years. And with the influx, the water showed the holes in California’s system. In response, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued executive order N-3-23. In this Executive Order, he recognized that “the frequency of hydrologic extremes experienced in the State is indicative of an overarching need to continually re-examine policies to promote resiliency in a changing climate.”

The Executive Order also states that “groundwater use accounts for 41 percent of the State’s total water supply on an average annual basis but as much as 58 percent in a critically dry year, and approximately 85 percent of public water systems rely on groundwater as their primary supply; and capturing and storing storm and snowpack runoff underground to recharge aquifers is an important strategy to help regions stabilize water supplies in the face of hydrologic extremes.” To meet the stated aims, the Executive Order alleviated some of the constraints that were hindering groundwater recharge by expediting permitting.

Though the Executive Order was a move in the right direction, aligning with growers and investing in ways to support a large-scale recharge is a way forward to meet Newsom’s goal to increase average annual groundwater recharge by about 500,000 acre-feet. Some of that support could come through weaving of the new designation of groundwater reservoirs as natural infrastructures with a climate resilience general obligation bond that could potentially land on the November 2024 ballot.

Agriculture and water agencies across California are advocating for a $7.85 billion bond investment in water infrastructure that focuses on a number of critical water issues, including recycled water, groundwater recharge, storage, flood protection, dam safety, conveyance, storage, safe drinking water, water quality, regional watershed resilience, State Water Project improvements and water conservation.

Arizona 2023 Overview

Though the complexities of groundwater resources change from one basin to the next, the chain of difference does not live on a gradient. One stark line is drawn in the arid sand: the California and Arizona border. The story of Arizona groundwater has its own arc, and one of the current key players is Gov. Katie Hobbs.

After one year into her term as governor, she has made it clear that water use is a focus of her administration. In January 2023, she also issued an Executive Order to modernize Arizona’s groundwater management by establishing the Governor’s Water Policy Council to update the Arizona Groundwater Management Act. She also put a hard stop for any development of subdivisions reliant on groundwater. (She has since revised this, stating in January 2024 that communities will be allowed to use some groundwater with approval from the state water department.)

True to her word about groundwater transparency, she’s clear that her attention isn’t limited to new housing developments and that her agenda includes creating a new framework to allow for groundwater management in rural parts of the states. Bruce Babbitt, the former Arizona governor who was responsible for Arizona’s Groundwater Management Act, has made his stance public and clear: Rural areas need local groundwater control.

In November 2023, the Water Policy Council ─ a council that was set up by Hobbs when she started her term ─ submitted the “Rural Groundwater Management Area” Framework Proposal. This proposal states that the director of Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) has the option to designate a “Rural Groundwater Management Area,” which will include a hearing process. The expanded use of groundwater is paused during this process.

Each of the management areas will be given a goal that is tied to the needs and conditions of the local area. This goal is designated by the Council, which is made up of five-to-nine individuals from the area and is comprised of those who represent water use sectors within the area like agricultural, industrial and municipal users. The designation of the management area is to be reviewed every10years.

The Governor’s proposal has yet to be heard in a legislative committee. Instead, a counter proposal was drafted by Arizona State Sen. Sine Kerr, and was passed in a Senate committee on a party-line vote in early February 2024. “At this point of the Legislative session, it is very unclear as to what policy changes impacting rural groundwater use are going happen. There are two strong proposals, with significant support and opposition for each,” says Robert Medler, Western Growers Manager for State Government Affairs in Arizona. “A Legislative solution is important though, as Executive action would not be the preferred way to address this issue facing rural Arizona.”

Whether the groundwater site is in California or Arizona, there is one looming force that affects the situation, and that’s the Colorado River. Last year, California, Arizona and Nevada all agreed to cut water use from the Colorado River by 10 percent, which equates to about 3-million-acre feet of water, through 2026. The cuts to municipalities, tribes and agriculture results in reverberating water effects, some of which will influence groundwater use throughout 2024.

As a geological force, water is a juggernaut of power. It cuts through mountains and shapes deserts. The influence it has on nature is matched in the tenacity needed to manage human interests related to this resource. Contact Western Growers for more information and ways to engage with current and future water issues. Gail Delihant, Senior Director of Government Affairs in California, can be reached at [email protected] and Robert Medler, Manager of Government Affairs in Arizona, can be reached [email protected].