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Some rural Arizona leaders are criticizing 2 members who quit the Water Policy Council

By Mark Brodie
Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services
Published: Tuesday, October 17, 2023 - 11:14am
Updated: Tuesday, October 17, 2023 - 12:09pm

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Supervisors from several Arizona counties are criticizing a state senator and the head of the Arizona Farm Bureau for walking away from talks about how to deal with water quantity problems in rural areas.

Travis Lingenfelter who chairs the Mohave County Board of Supervisors said the pair — and Rep. Gail Griffin who is an ally of theirs in the state House — are "acting like spoiled children who are not getting their way."

"It's not about taking water from anybody," said Holly Irwin, his La Paz County counterpart. "It's trying to protect what we have in the aquifers."

That, she said, requires everyone to be involved.

"Having people walk away from the table doesn't help matters," Irwin said.

The barbs are aimed at Sen. Sine Kerr, a Buckeye rancher, and Stefanie Smallhouse who raises cattle in Pima County. They quit the Governor's Water Policy Council last week saying that the rest of the panel was not interested in addressing the concerns of farmers about long-term water supplies.

But Griffin, a Hereford Republican who chairs the House Committee on Land, Agriculture and Rural Affairs, said she believes that the council process set up by Gov. Katie Hobbs is "extremely flawed."

"When it is exposed, what do they do?" she said of the supervisors. "Personal attacks."

Kerr declined to respond to the supervisors, saying she will continue to work separately on a proposal to protect rural groundwater basins "while protecting the livelihoods of hard-working farmers and ranchers who are the best stewards of our land and water as they put food on our tables and sustain the economies of rural Arizona."

But the four supervisors, also including Patrice Horstman of Coconino County, and Donna Michaels of Yavapai County, said they won't back down. They said the proposals being considered for some form of monitoring and conservation of groundwater — over the objections of Kerr, Smallhouse and Griffin — are "widely supported solutions for rural communities who are struggling to address declining groundwater supplies."

At the root of the issue is what updates need to be made to the state's 1980 Groundwater Management Act designed to deal with a dwindling supply of groundwater in the face of rapid growth.

Five "active management areas" were set up: Prescott, Phoenix, Pinal, Tucson and Santa Cruz. They are subject to regulations to stabilize the water table.

But most rural areas were left out — and unregulated.

Residents can petition for their own AMAs. But only one such effort was successful, in the Douglas area.

Meanwhile pretty much unrestricted and unmonitored pumping — much of it by agriculture — has left some of those unregulated areas in danger of drying up.

Irrigation water
Chelsey Heath/KJZZ
Irrigation water on a farm on Sept. 13, 2023.

"We don't even know what's underneath the ground, yet we continue to allow for this massive pumping to continue, without doing any modeling or hydrology studies," said Irwin. "To me, that's just good common sense."

All that, she said, is needed before there can be conservation measures imposed.

But farms don't even meter what they are taking from the ground, Irwin continued. And that has implications.

"Wells are going dry," she said. "That's an indicator that's something's wrong, that we at least need to start taking a look at how much water's being pumped out, and where."

And the situation has come into sharper focus with the reporting that a Saudi-owned company is leasing state land to grow alfalfa to provide hay for dairy cows in its home county — and those leases in Western Arizona came with the right to pump as much water as they needed.

Irwin said it always was understood the 1980 law was going to have to be updated at some point.

"We're going to all have to come together," she said.

Council members are looking at some form of regulation that would be less onerous than the restrictions of an AMA but that could finally begin to address the diminishing water supply. It is the suggestions around that which have angered the farmers who fear not only a state-imposed solution but the possibility that they won't have the same right to pump as they do now.

Lingenfelter was miffed that farming interests — and the lawmakers who have taken their side — want to control the process.

"Rep. Griffin and Sen. Kerr are advocating solely for the Arizona Farm Bureau while they continue to ignore all of the rest of us that call rural Arizona home," he said.

"The state of Arizona simply cannot allow one stakeholder group that uses 72% of Arizona's water to produce 1.5% of Arizona's GDP to continue to dominate the conversation on long-term security for our finite rural groundwater," said Lingenfelter. "Many rural areas simply do not have other water supply-side options and depend on those elected to look out for everyone in rural (areas), not just agricultural with deep pockets."

Kerr, for her part, sniffed at the comparison of water use with the state GDP.

"Water has never been measured in GDP," she told Capitol Media Services. Instead, she said, it needs to be looked at not just for hydrating people but also to put food on the table.
Kerr said there are many Arizona industries that contribute to the state GDP but don't provide for basic human needs.

"We can survive without the latest gadget or widget, but we can't survive without a local supply of affordable agricultural products," she said. "And that makes perfect sense regarding of the percentage of GDP."

"Nobody's talking about taking out ag that's already in existence," said Kathleen Ferris, a member of the governor's water council.

"Nobody's saying 'We're going to stop you from irrigating,' " said Ferris, a senior researcher at the Kyl Center for Waster Policy at Arizona State University. "The only thing we're talking about is how much more of this can we absorb, and how do we protect other uses."

And there's something else.

Much has been made in the farming and ranching community about how they were here first and have been good stewards of the land. But Ferris, who was the executive director of the 1977 commission that resulted in the 1980 Groundwater Management Act, said that doesn't paint a full picture.

"A lot of them weren't here first," she said, citing "big agricultural users" in the Kingman area, the Hualapai basin and in the Willcox basin.

"A lot of them are late-comers," Ferris said. "There are a lot of big industrial farmers that have moved in in the last 10 years."

And Ferris said the details of any plan, while explored in a council committee, have never even been discussed by the full council.

"It's a little soon to be walking away from the table," she said.

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