Top 3 water priorities in the 2021 Arizona legislative session

Despite uncertainty about the Legislature’s operations amid the COVID surge, Arizona’s 2021 legislative session opened last week with the expectation that several bills will be introduced to advance water security and support a healthy environment.

State policies that promote water security for all people and ecosystems remain as important as ever as communities confront public health challenges, look to rebuild economies and face what is shaping up to be yet another record-shattering dry winter across the Southwest.

EDF Action and the Water for Arizona Coalition are working to advance three main priorities during the 2021 Arizona legislative session.

1. Empower communities to protect their groundwater supplies.

Roughly 1.5 million people live in parts of Arizona where groundwater pumping is essentially unregulated. In rural Arizona, a new user can pump groundwater even if its pumping lowers neighbors’ wells, causes property damage, or dries up connected rivers and springs.

Although The Arizona Republic and other entities have been documenting these impacts of unfettered groundwater pumping, communities from Wilcox to Camp Verde to Kingman that depend on groundwater still have very limited options to plan for a sustainable water future.

Meanwhile, a recent study by Arizona State University demonstrated the importance of sustainable groundwater supplies to the state’s economy, finding that in regions where water is actively managed, groundwater pumped $1.2 trillion into the economy from 2010 to 2018.

A farm in rural Arizona, which relies heavily on groundwater for irrigation. (Credit: Justin Clifton).

Rep. Regina Cobb (R-Kingman) is expected to introduce legislation again this year to help rural communities address this groundwater challenge. Her bill would allow rural communities who depend on groundwater to opt into a “rural management area” and empower a local management entity to set goals and implement best management practices and other conservation and planning measures in ways that meet local groundwater needs and conditions.

We also hope to see legislation from Sen. Lisa Otondo (D-Yuma) and Rep. Cobb that would allow the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) to consider future, projected groundwater use when evaluating requests by communities to prevent additional irrigation through the creation of new irrigation non-expansion areas. Adding this common-sense, forward-looking planning option would help communities and farmers halt unsustainable expansion of new, industrial agriculture.

2. Pass a new clean water protection program.

All people should have access to clean water — for drinking, fishing, recreation and cultural purposes. Clean water is also essential to support healthy landscapes and wildlife as well as our communities and economies.

But the Trump administration’s rollbacks to the federal Clean Water Act mean that many beloved rivers, lakes and streams in Arizona are now unprotected and at risk from pollution and construction. Aravaipa, Watson Lake, Sycamore Creek, Tonto Creek — all are no longer protected. Arizona needs policy that advances water security for people and nature for generations to come. Click To Tweet

Because it could likely take years for a new rule from the Biden Administration to take effect in Arizona, it is imperative that state lawmakers pass legislation authorizing the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) to implement a state-level water quality protection program. EDF Action and our partners have been working with ADEQ and other stakeholders for months to develop legislation that would protect our rivers, lakes and streams, which we hope will be introduced during this session and passed.

EDF Action and Audubon are collecting stories about cherished Arizona rivers, creeks, streams and lakes that need protection to demonstrate their importance to lawmakers.

Submit your story here and spread the word on social media with the hashtag #ProtectAZRivers.

3. Remove barriers to conservation that supports flowing rivers.

Rep. Gail Griffin (R-Hereford) has reintroduced one water conservation bill, HB 2056, that was progressing with significant bipartisan support last year before the pandemic. The bill proposes to remove the risk that a water user could lose — or forfeit — a water right if that water user chooses to take less water out of rivers.

In other words, the bill is intended to remove the “use-it-or-lose-it” disincentive to conserve water. Removing this risk would provide more opportunities for farmers and other water users to leave water in rivers for the benefit of ecosystems, other water rights holders and a wide range of downstream water users.

Although it’s still unclear how the state’s legislative session will unfold given the pandemic, EDF Action and the Water for Arizona Coalition stand ready to support policy that advances water security for people and nature for generations to come.

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