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How new AZ bill would create way for rural communities to regulate groundwater

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Wednesday, February 14, 2024 - 11:59am
Updated: Tuesday, February 20, 2024 - 10:09am

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Gila Bend welcome sign
Chelsey Heath/KJZZ
The Gila Bend welcome sign on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024.

Lawmakers at the Arizona Capitol advanced a bill on Tuesday that would create a new way for rural communities to regulate groundwater. 

The bill comes as the debate over who gets to regulate often dwindling groundwater supplies heats up. This is the latest effort by Republican lawmakers to assert local control and, they say, protect agricultural interests. 

Camryn Sanchez with KJZZ’s Politics Desk has been covering it all and joined The Show with more. 

LAUREN GILGER: Good morning, Camryn.

CAMRYN SANCHEZ: Good morning.

GILGER: All right. So this all has to do with who controls groundwater in rural parts of the state where we are often seeing the water underground that people use for their wells dwindling and it's largely used by agriculture. So tell us, first of all, what the groundwater situation looks like in many parts of the rural parts of the state.

SANCHEZ: Not great. So we've got these groundwater basins sprinkled throughout Arizona and for a lot of people, that's their life. I mean, that's how they survive is with groundwater pumping. But the groundwater supply is dwindling a lot faster than the aquifers are being recharged. So it's not a good situation and everyone does sort of agree that we need a better solution than we have now. 

GILGER: OK. So one of the ways to regulate groundwater is what's called an active management area. Tell us how that works, who controls them?

SANCHEZ: Well, it's a very complicated process, but I'll try to stick to a short explanation. Basically, it's a designated area where groundwater is protected and pumping is regulated. And currently Arizona has six of those active management areas.

GILGER: OK. And people, not everybody's for these right? Like who is against the idea of creating more active management areas and, and the kind of state control that comes with them.

SANCHEZ: Well, no one says they're perfect. But right now there are Republican lawmakers in the state Legislature who are actively saying we don't want to create more active management areas because it's not a one size fits all approach. And for rural Arizona where we're considering, you know, implementing new solutions, an active management area isn't going to work, it doesn't give local control and it disproportionately harms agriculture.

GILGER: OK. So with this bill, Republicans like Sine Kerr are, are kind of want to create a local way to regulate groundwater that's similar to an active management area, but not quite the same, right? What does this look like?

SANCHEZ: I think she would say it's very different, but it is another area that is, you know, comprised of groundwater basins that's designed to protect groundwater. So in that way, it is quite similar, but the devil's in the details with this water policy. And it's unfortunately, this year, I think a very partisan issue and in the past, it's been very bipartisan, but at the moment, there's not a lot of negotiation, at least not friendly negotiation going on. So her proposal, critics say is way too complicated, makes it way too hard to create one of these alternative basin management areas and wouldn't really be implemented. But it's designed to protect the interests of rural Arizonans in particular by having local councils elected councils represent and manage their own basins.

GILGER: OK. Would it disproportionately affect a in the same way or how, how would it address agricultural interests?

SANCHEZ: Agriculture would potentially take small cut but it would be somewhat protected. So the cuts are designed to sort of be across the board. Democrats say that that's really just a giveaway to agriculture and mines, and it's good for their lobby but would harm everyone else. So, you know, push and pull.

GILGER: OK. This is pretty similar, I think to a proposal that the Governor's Committee on Water came out with not too long ago, right?

SANCHEZ: It is. I think again, I don't think Senator Kerr would describe it as similar because she's very much at odds with the governor right now and they do not support one another's proposals. But the governor had a policy council that Kerr actually quit, walked off of saying that it didn't represent rural Arizona enough but their recommendations again were similar. It was like AMAs are not perfect. We need to have an alternative approach and there does need to be more local control. And that's something that the governor said in her State of the State speech, she mentioned rural control.

Looking down a freeway
Chelsey Heath/KJZZ
Looking down I-8 in Gila Bend on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024.

GILGER: So this might sound like to most people that they generally agree. But what's the difference here? Where are the disagreements?

SANCHEZ: Well, there are a few things like having the council of, you know, local stakeholders be appointed or having them be elected and how easy it is to create one of these management areas. If there are too many, you know, hoops to jump through too many steps to take, then, you know, maybe it won't actually happen. And of course, you know, things about how much your groundwater would be regulated and people with existing rights, how much they would get to keep those rights. 

GILGER: OK. All right. One of the places that is sort of at the center of this right now is Gila Bend. There's a proposal to create an active management area there, right. And it's been met with pretty fierce opposition. Talk about what that case sort of says about the future of groundwater.

SANCHEZ: Yes, Gila Bend is definitely a very interesting study and this is all happening right now. The Department of Water Resources, which is a state agency just recently started the process of considering creating an AMA in Gila Bend, which absolutely, blew up at, you know, the Capitol with Republicans. They say it's a betrayal by the governor that she's a liar. That this is her initiating the process, even though she agreed to work to make changes that are not AMAs, I think, you know, whether or not that's the case there, there's only one option right now to regulate and that's AMAs, and the department hasn't taken any steps to actually create one yet. They have only had one very preliminary meeting. So it very much remains to be seen. I think, you know, the Gila Bend agricultural community came out and said, we don't want to be regulated and that's understandable. But I, you know, in the end, they might have to be.

GILGER: And this is because the groundwater there is, is really dwindling, right?

SANCHEZ: It's one of the sharpest areas of decline in the whole state. Yes

GILGER: Wow. So what does that case say about sort of what these debates might look like going forward?

SANCHEZ: It's very interesting. I mean, Gila Bend looks like it is going to be regulated, but is it going to be an active management area that we have now some sort of form of Sine Kerr's SB 1221 with these alternative basic management areas or something else? Something that the governor would like that would not be an AMA, but also wouldn't be one of those proposals have to wait and see.

GILGER: We will have to wait and see lots of negotiations I'm sure to come on that. That is KJZZ's Camryn Sanchez with our politics desk filling us in on all things groundwater. Camryn, thank you so much.

SANCHEZ: Thank you.

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