Arizona water is at a crossroads. Will the Legislature respond?

The Arizona Legislature opened this week with the state facing significant water insecurity. Water has climbed to one of the top three concerns of Arizona voters, who are getting engaged in water issues and will be watching the Legislature closely this session as an election year looms large.

EDF Action and our Water for Arizona Coalition partners are focusing on the following five priorities for this year’s legislative session to respond to residents’ concerns and help ensure water security for Arizona.

1. Empower rural communities to plan for their water future 

The Colorado River is now being operated under a “tier 1” shortage, reducing the water flowing to central Arizona by one-third. New research also suggests that we should plan for diminished flows in other rivers like the Salt and Verde. As climate change shrinks river flows, our reliance on groundwater will increase.

Waterways like the Salt River (above) are expected to see flows decline as a result of climate change. Photo by Joe Cook on Unsplash

But for 1.5 million people living in areas of Arizona outside of Phoenix and Tucson, the legal norm is still “whoever drills the deepest well wins.” Consequently, many wells are either going dry or declining precipitously in several areas. These regions of Arizona are the only places left in the Colorado River Basin with such open access to groundwater.

Arizona must protect groundwater for all residents regardless of where they live. The concept of Rural Management Areas, which would enable communities to develop locally tailored groundwater management plans with state support, was introduced through proposed legislation for the last two years, but discussion on those bills was blocked.

Another version of the bill will likely be introduced again this year. While the prospects for real debate on the bill are unclear, one takeaway is clear from many water meetings across Arizona throughout 2021: Communities want and expect a meaningful public discussion on rural groundwater management in the Legislature.

Meanwhile, some residents are so fed up with state inaction that they are taking matters into their own hands. Residents in the Willcox and Douglas basins in Cochise County, for example,  are gathering signatures for a local measure on the November ballot asking voters to create new Active Management Areas. This is the first attempt to establish new AMAs through the petition process outlined in the 1980 Groundwater Management Act.

2. Renew existing groundwater protections

Another bill is also expected this session that will help address the 2025 expiration of current AMA planning authorizations, which are an important part of groundwater management in and around Phoenix and Tucson. To ensure we can adapt groundwater management to changing conditions and needs, the Legislature needs to extend and authorize new management plans beyond 2025. We must strengthen policies as groundwater dependence increases and suburban expansion runs up against the limits of finite water supplies in Central Arizona.

We will also oppose any shortsighted proposal that undercuts existing groundwater protections for the benefit of narrow interests.

3. Invest in multibenefit water infrastructure

In his State of the State speech, the governor proposed a $1 billion investment in new desalination projects. Although desal in the Sea of Cortez, if developed within the framework of the established binational process, could be viable down the road, it will only make an (expensive) dent in water supply shortfalls.

There are no magic silver bullets to increase water supplies. We can’t address water problems in this new era of aridification like we have in the past.

Instead, we must approach infrastructure investment with many distributed, multibenefit projects. Aggressive conservation, recycling and reuse, stormwater recharge and comprehensive watershed health should all be included in a statewide infrastructure spending plan.

4. Increase capacity for sound public water management

The Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality perform critical functions to manage and protect our water supplies, yet these agencies still have less staff than before the 2008 recession. It is critical they receive funding to retain and competitively recruit staff.

It is also important that the Legislature fund ADWR and the courts to accelerate the General Stream Adjudications, a process that when completed will provide certainty over who has the rights to what amount of river water and connected well water. This certainty can help foster innovation to address water scarcity.

5. Prevent weakening of clean energy standards

Aridification driven by carbon emissions is already reducing Arizona’s water supplies. The Colorado River, for example, has already lost 20% of its flow in the last 20 years due to warming, and will lose about 10% more for every 1 degree Celsius of warming.

Climate leadership is water leadership. EDF Action and coalition partners will oppose any effort to undermine work by the Arizona Corporation Commission to implement clean energy standards that reduce carbon emissions.

Status quo versus bold, visionary leadership

Water is top of mind for Arizona communities. During this legislative session, the same must be true for our state lawmakers.

The Legislature can maintain the status quo, choosing to dance around the edges of our state’s water challenges, block debate on real policy issues, and instead focus on singular, magical projects. Or state lawmakers can instead choose to fully engage on water issues with vision and bold action, both reforming key policies and making smart public investments in people and infrastructure to ensure water security for all current and future generations.

The people of Arizona say they want action on water. It’s time for the Legislature to listen.

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