Arizona fends off threats to water supplies

Republican Gov. Doug Ducey is sticking by regulations and negotiating deals.


In 1980, Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt helped a water revolution blossom amid the state’s unnaturally verdant lawns by signing the Groundwater Management Act, which mandated that communities pump no more water from aquifers than they put back in. Today, the state’s 6.8 million residents collectively consume less water than their 2.8 million predecessors did in 1980. 

Now, the tough-minded sense of shared sacrifice that helped push that law through has returned, under conservative Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, who recently vetoed legislation that would have rolled back some of the groundwater restrictions. Meanwhile, his staff has negotiated a possible three-state agreement to protect the Colorado River from a disastrous shortage.  

 “It’s a good sign that the governor decided he was going to speak on water,” says Kathleen Ferris, a longtime water-politics player who, until recently, ran the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association. “We haven’t had a governor engaged like that on water since Babbitt.”

Arizona’s recent sturm und drang over water has two immediate causes. One is the $3.5 billion Central Arizona Project, or CAP, which brings Colorado River water into the state’s parched midsection. Supplying about 40 percent of Arizona’s water supply, it’s helped the state meet the 1980 act’s requirements by reducing its dependence on groundwater. The other is the planned 7,000-home Tribute development in Sierra Vista in the state’s southeast corner. Backers see it as a boon to a lagging economy, but critics say it would strangle the already-imperiled San Pedro River.

The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, outside Sierra Vista, Arizona, the town where 7,000 new homes are planned.
Bureau of Land Management

This May, Lake Mead, where CAP water is stored, fell to its lowest level in history –– 1,074.09 feet and sinking, compared to 1,220 feet in 1999. Yet critics have said the state has dragged its feet, even as scientists’ warnings about water shortages have grown more urgent. In the past year, particularly, Arizona’s leaders were criticized for being too complacent.

That complacency is now evaporating like water from a desert pothole. In late April, Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke told reporters that state officials had negotiated a historic Colorado River agreement with California and Nevada — committing Arizona to deep cutbacks in Central Arizona Project deliveries, just to keep Mead alive.

Under the proposed agreement, which all three states must approve, farms, cities and tribes using CAP water would see small cuts possibly as soon as next year, and cuts of up to 40 percent later.

Then, in May, Gov. Ducey, the man who appointed Buschatzke, vetoed two bills that would have weakened the 1980 groundwater law, which requires urban-area developers to prove they have a 100-year water supply before building new homes. While the law has a loophole for far-flung suburban development, it encouraged cities in the Phoenix and Tucson areas to use renewable CAP supplies and treated sewage effluent rather than pumping groundwater.

The vetoed bills would have weakened a recent expansion of the 100-year rule that allows rural county governments to extend the requirement to cities within their boundaries. One bill would have allowed cities to opt out, while the other would have sunsetted the counties’ rules after five years, forcing county governments to readopt them.

The Tribute project, which triggered the two bills, lies in Cochise County, one of two counties to opt into the groundwater rules. Developers had obtained a 100-year supply certification, but a state Superior Court judge overturned it after opponents, including the Bureau of Land Management, charged that the massive project’s groundwater pumping would dry up the San Pedro, damaging federal water rights.

The bills’ backers, who said they wanted to allow Sierra Vista to control its own growth without federal “interference,” argued that the legislation’s  failure could drastically crimp future growth. David Godlewski, president of the Southern Arizona Homebuilders Association, says construction in Sierra Vista has already nearly stopped, thanks to an economic slump.

But there is no immediate concern about a statewide water crisis if the proposed Colorado River agreement goes through. The state and cities have recharged nearly three years’ worth of CAP water into the ground over the past 15 years, so officials say they’re prepared for cuts in the short term. Without those cuts, a water crisis looms, officials say: Mead could drop to 995 feet by 2023, triggering a 75 percent cut in CAP deliveries.

The willingness to make hard choices has allowed the state to manage its water without a serious crisis since Babbitt’s day, according to Buschatzke. It’s also led to a two-tier system of water management, which is strong in and around cities, but much weaker in the hinterlands. In consequence, the water table has risen or stabilized in many urban areas, while it has fallen in the countryside. The Colorado River agreement and Ducey’s vetoes will preserve this tiered system, at least until 2026, when the proposed agreement runs out and would have to be renegotiated.

“We’re not going to allow bills that get in the way of the 1980 Groundwater Management Act,” says Ducey, “or take away from the work of the people that have come before in protecting Arizona’s water.”

Tony Davis writes for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson. 

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