East Mesa lawmaker on hot seat with governor over water bill
March 5, 2018
By Howard Fischer
An East Mesa legislator has drawn the governor’s ire for helping to push legislation that would undermine the state’s conservation efforts that enable it to keep drawing water from the Colorado River.
Top officials in the Ducey administration are reaching out to the media – and, by extension, the public – to blunt efforts by Republican State Rep. Rusty Bowers and Cochise County Sen. Gail Griffin that would allow developers to circumvent requirements that they show there is sufficient water to sustain their projects.
Tom Buschatzke, director of the Department of Water Resources, also said there are flaws in language designed to deal with whether there really is water for development in Pinal County.
But Kirk Adams, the governor’s chief of staff, said the real problem with the measure is what it lacks: a clear water-conservation plan that would preserve Arizona’s ability to keep withdrawing water from the Colorado River in the face of the ongoing drought.
Adams said that is crucial because the level of Lake Mead is reaching a critical low. And at that point, the multi-state deal that resulted in federal dollars to build the Central Arizona Project would shut off Arizona’s water supply.
Gov. Doug Ducey’s top aide said he and his staff are working directly with both Griffin and Bowers in a bid to make changes.
But he also has taken the unusual – and possibly unprecedented – step of reaching out to reporters to generate stories designed to put pressure on lawmakers to make the legislation, up for debate this coming week, more acceptable to the governor.
Griffin expressed some surprise when being informed of the outreach effort, but would only say, “That’s interesting.’’
Adams said this isn’t the first time the governor and his top aides have taken such action in promoting legislation. He said that’s the process that occurred before Ducey introduced a comprehensive measure designed to deal with opioid addiction.
But the difference is that this public outreach is occurring after lawmakers have introduced a measure with things Ducey does not want and missing things he does. Adams said that what’s at stake here requires such action.
“Not all issues are created equal,’’ Adams said. “Water is of critical importance to the future of the state. And it requires proactive management, proactive thought. And that’s what the governor’s bringing to the table here.’’
Ducey made it clear he would use his power to veto any bill that threatened Arizona’s access to water. He vetoes two separate bills by Griffin in 2016 with provisions virtually identical to some of what she is trying to push now, saying they would have undermined the historic 1980 Groundwater Management Act.
That law resulted in five “active management areas.’’
For the Phoenix, Prescott and Tucson areas, the goal is “safe yield’’ by 2025 when the amount of groundwater withdrawn is no more than recharge. Pinal and Santa Cruz have other goals.
Outside those areas, developers must get a determination from the Department of Water Resources on whether there is a 100-year assured water supply.
The lack of that, however, does not prevent them from building. But they do have to disclose that fact to initial buyers.
That law does allow counties to mandate that 100-year showing of adequate water before construction can begin. Cochise and Yuma have adopted ordinances that pretty much are irreversible.
The new bills would require supervisors to revisit those ordinances regularly. It would take a unanimous vote to renew; anything short of that would make the requirement disappear.
That is something that some developers want.
Ducey made his views clear in vetoing the 2016 measure.
“We’re not going to allow bills that get in the way of the 1980 Groundwater Management Act or take away from the work of the people that have come before I came into office in protecting Arizona’s water,’’ he said at the time.
He added it would “encourage a patchwork of water ordinances throughout our cities and leave our water supplies in peril.’’
That view has not changed.
“This bill, in its current form, falls short,’’ Adams said, contending that provision and others “actually turn back the clock on water management and actually undermine consumer protections, particularly as it relates to adequate water supply and assured water supply.’’
That question of water rights in Pinal County addresses parallel issues.
“It does not have any conservation measures in there relative to keeping the levels of Lake Mead where they need to be to avoid shortages,’’ Adams said. And that, he said, is “forbearance.’’
Put simply, it allows those who have rights to draw water from the Colorado River to make a conscious decision to leave some of it in the river now, maintain “title’’ to it and keep the right to withdraw it at some later date.
They can do that now. But Buschatzke said the only way to make it work is with state oversight and enforcement.
He said the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, one of the users, has done that in the past, but in consultation with partners in California, Nevada and the federal government “and asking everyone else to just trust them,’’ including other Colorado River water users.
“There’s no public process that allows the people to weigh in on whether that reduction in use is legitimate or not,’’ Buschatzke said.
He said the governor wants not only a public process but also verification that the water being left in the river actually represents a decrease in what is being used, not just what they have the legal right to withdraw.