With more eyes on water, 2023 is the year for meaningful action.
Updated: Oct 4, 2022
By: Tom Prezelski
Water is finally dominating the discussion in Arizona, and it is reasonable to say that this should have happened years ago. For decades, we as a state have gone along as if things were being taken care of, and arguably, maybe they were. But now, with the state facing cuts in its allocation of the Colorado River, aquifers in rural areas being depleted for aggressive investor-owned farms, and one county fighting the state over whether there is adequate water for future development, these issues are now unavoidable. This is not the first time something like this has happened. Back in the late 1970s, Arizona’s apparent inability to manage its water resources had become a crisis that imperiled future development, even jeopardizing funding of the nascent Central Arizona Project, the canal system which brings Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson and has made their growth over the last few decades possible. In response, the legislature passed the Groundwater Management Act of 1980, which has become the basis for most water regulation and policy in the state. For the most part, this has been working, but with one particularly glaring omission. One of the act’s most powerful policy tools was the creation of Active Management Areas (AMAs). In these defined areas (Phoenix, Pinal, Prescott, Santa Cruz and Tucson), use of groundwater is monitored and regulated toward specific management goals. Outside of these areas, there is little regulation of groundwater, meaning that in most of the state’s land base, there is no such management.
This apparent oversight happened for a good reason, namely, that, at the time, the management problem was in these growing urban areas which were dependent on groundwater. Four decades later, we face a different set of issues as a state, and it has become clear that while the current arrangement has accomplished much in many ways, it has fallen short in others. The last legislative session saw the most significant effort to address our water issues as a state, with some $440 million directed toward “augmentation” and conservation projects. Any gains, however, made in terms of infrastructure and new supplies, will be quickly squandered if regulatory and enforcement tools that allow local communities to manage water resources are not in place.
An effort to address this shortcoming came in the form of legislation to create county-level Rural Management Areas (RMAs) so that rural communities would have the tools to manage their groundwater resources. Despite the idea’s broad, bi-partisan support, the bill died at the hands of one committee chair who would not grant it a hearing. This fight, however, is not yet over. The upcoming legislature, and perhaps a new political dynamic at the capitol, presents a potential renewed opportunity to pass this legislation, perhaps even with improvements. While the situation seems dire, the fact that people outside the traditional stakeholders are actually talking about this very complex and nuanced issue gives cause for hope. That’s where you come in. Throughout the legislative session, we will be watching policymakers closely and alerting you to opportunities to weigh in on bills that impact our water future. Sign up for our newsletter to be the first to hear about calls to action on water and other important policy issues.
An Arizona native and former state representative, Tom Prezelski is a program manager for
Rural Arizona Action. On Twitter: @tomprezelski.