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Guest opinion

Two legislative priorities for Arizona water

Somehow the Arizona Legislature must figure out a way to make it snow — heavily — over the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

About 40 percent of Arizona’s water comes from the Colorado River, which is primarily fed by Rocky Mountain snowpack. Sixteen years of drought combined with over-allocation of supplies have focused attention on a looming shortage declaration that may curtail deliveries of water to the Central Arizona Project, the source of Colorado River water for Maricopa, Pinal and Pima counties.

A permanent increase in annual snowfall would help.

Well, perhaps winter precipitation over Wyoming and Colorado is beyond the powers of the Arizona Legislature. Nevertheless, there are a few things our elected representatives can do in 2016 to help secure Arizona’s long-term water future.

Priority 1: Rebuild Arizona's top water agency

The Legislature’s top water priority should be to continue the rebuilding of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, whose budget was slashed nearly in half during the Great Recession, resulting in the loss of some 40 percent of staff.

ADWR is Arizona’s lead agency in water supply matters and our lead negotiator in discussions with our neighboring states, the federal Bureau of Reclamation and Mexico on managing the Colorado River. In addition, ADWR is responsible to protect precious groundwater supplies and provide water-planning assistance to rural areas, many of which lack the water security that Arizona’s larger cities enjoy.

In our water-scarce state, ADWR is arguably our most important economic development agency. Water is critical to every sector of our economy, including agriculture, mining, manufacturing, tourism and power generation. Without well-managed, long-term water supplies we cannot hope to attract new industries or even maintain our current economy.

Well-managed, long-term water supplies are also vital to our quality of life.

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Funding for ADWR currently comprises a scant 0.12 percent of the state budget. While last year Gov. Doug Ducey and the Legislature demonstrated a commitment to rebuilding the department by slightly increasing its budget, Arizona needs this commitment to continue at a level to enable ADWR to retain the best and the brightest water experts to defend Arizona’s rights to Colorado River water and make sure communities throughout the state have resilient water supplies.

Priority 2: Determine water rights to improve planning

Another water-related task the Legislature ought to take on is a housekeeping matter. In San Carlos Apache Tribe v. Superior Court, 972 P.2d 179 (1999), the Arizona Supreme Court invalidated numerous then-recent amendments to Arizona’s laws governing surface water rights. Those invalid laws are still on the books and the cause of nuisance and confusion in the state’s general stream adjudications, proceedings to determine rights to the surface water in two vast watersheds covering three-quarters of the state.

Arizona’s general stream adjudications involve thousands of parties and are contenders for the title of longest-running legal proceedings in United States history.

Since last year, a group of stakeholder representatives convened by the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Morrison Institute has been working to develop a consensus-based proposal for facilitating resolution of those proceedings. Bringing the general stream adjudications to an end — that is, determining the rights and priorities of surface water claims in our watersheds — is critically important. Until the parties know how much water they have and in what priority, uncertainty will reign, impeding timely water planning.

The Kyl Center’s stakeholder group is making progress. In the meantime, the group’s overwhelming consensus is that it’s time to amend our surface water laws to conform to the Arizona Supreme Court’s 1999 ruling. Removing the invalidated statutes will avert mistakes and headaches and should be non-controversial.

In 2015, we watched while our California neighbors endured one of the most severe droughts on record. Many Arizonans worried that water-rationing and drought-shaming were on our horizon, too. But Arizona’s legacy of courageous, forward-looking leaders committed to sound water planning has spared us from that kind of crisis.

Big challenges loom in Arizona

Still, there are big challenges looming ahead for Arizona, and legislative action will be needed to address them. While the 1980 Groundwater Management Act has ensured that groundwater is managed as a reserve supply in the most populous parts of the state, communities in other areas are witnessing rapid declines in the water table as new users move in and drill wells. Under Arizona law, the Legislature is the only body that can bring those areas under some form of groundwater management.

Likewise, legislative action will be required to expedite resolving claims in the general stream adjudications.

In the 20th century, Arizona’s leaders understood that when it comes to water planning, fear and inflexibility inevitably translate into inaction and missed opportunity. It took grit and bold, creative thinking to secure the cornerstones of Arizona’s water supply, including our allocation of Colorado River water, the Salt River Project, the Groundwater Management Act, the Central Arizona Project and the Arizona Water Bank.

We can’t reasonably ask the Legislature to make it snow. It is reasonable for us to demand that our lawmakers work proactively and collaboratively to continue Arizona’s legacy of sound water stewardship.

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Sarah Porter is the director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at the Morrison Institute.

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U.S. Geological Survey

Lake Mead showing the effects of drought in this file photo.


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