Both Republicans and Democrats are backing measures in the Legislature that would enable Arizona to start measuring how much groundwater is pumped in unregulated rural areas where aquifers have been rapidly declining.
Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, introduced a bill this week that would give the state’s top water regulator the authority to require that measuring devices be installed on wells, and to require annual reports on water use. The bill would allow the state to require metering of wells in an area if the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources “determines it necessary for water management purposes.”
Kavanagh said he thinks the change is crucial to begin to address problems of excessive pumping in parts of the state where there are no rules limiting how much water is extracted.
“You already have people’s wells going dry, which is a tragedy. And you have some commercial operations that are pumping who knows how much water out,” Kavanagh said. “We need to know what’s going on.”
Fellow Republican Rep. Regina Cobb of Kingman is set to introduce a bill that would allow a county to declare a groundwater basin at risk and ask the Department of Water Resources to require meters on wells.
Democratic lawmakers have two other bills that would go further by requiring meters to be installed on large wells statewide.
At least six bills have been filed or are planned to strengthen groundwater rules and oversight in rural areas where there are no limits on pumping and where water levels have fallen dramatically.
The proposals follow an investigation by The Arizona Republic that revealed how unregulated pumping by expanding megafarms has been draining groundwater in rural areas, while homeowners and farming towns have been left with mounting costs as wells run dry.
Without data, state is ‘willfully blind’
Kavanagh said his proposal would be an initial step, and he would like to see bigger changes in the state’s groundwater rules.
“I believe the entire state should be an ‘active management area.’ But it’s not. I think we need to move in that direction,” Kavanagh said. “I believe everybody should have their current water supply protected from encroachment and draining by others, and I believe that anybody who wants to build a house or even a business should have assurance from the government that they’ll have a long-term water supply.”
Arizona established its system of regulating groundwater under the 1980 Groundwater Management Act, which created “active management areas” with limits on pumping and well-drilling in Phoenix, Tucson, Prescott and Pinal County. Other areas across the state were left unregulated.
Kavanagh said his legislation would enable state officials to collect data to make decisions on groundwater.
“Because to not collect the data is to stay willfully blind and watch Arizona go over a water cliff,” Kavanagh said. “My bill is simply trying to prevent willful blindness and force people to look at the impending tragedy that’s approaching.”
He said that’s why he limited the proposal to getting more information about how much water is being pumped, and by which entities.
“I think when the information is made known to everybody, it will be easy to do the reforms,” he said.
The steps that might come next aren’t clear, but Kavanagh said he thinks they could range from limiting the expansion of irrigated farmlands to halting the drilling of new wells or the issuing of more building permits in areas where the data show there isn’t sufficient water.
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Measuring flows critical for future
Sen. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, said she will introduce a bill within the next week that requires measuring of groundwater pumping from wells all in unregulated areas throughout the state.
The requirement would apply to parts of Arizona outside active management areas and “irrigation non-expansion areas.” Small wells that pump 35 gallons a minute would be exempt from the requirement.
“We have to know how much is being taken out and how much we have left,” Steele said. “We absolutely must know. We cannot protect our groundwater supplies if we’re allowed to pump to depletion.”
Steele cited The Republic’s investigation for bringing to light the problems some well owners are confronting as large farms drill deep wells and as groundwater levels drop.
“In great part thanks to your great reporting, people are beginning to understand how dire the situation is, and that we have to do things differently,” Steele said.
The Republic’s six-part series featured an analysis of water-level records for more than 33,000 wells, including some records going back more than 100 years. The analysis showed that water levels in nearly a fourth of the wells in Arizona’s monitoring program have dropped more than 100 feet since they were drilled, a loss that experts say is probably irrecoverable.
The investigation also documented the growing footprint of out-of-state companies and investment funds that have set up vast farms in Arizona to grow hay, corn, pistachios and other crops. The series revealed that the number of newly drilled wells has been accelerating and that the largest drops in groundwater have occurred in farming areas where there are no limits on pumping.
“I just see this as the single most important issue that we will deal with in Arizona for years to come,” Steele said.
She said the 1980 Groundwater Management Act is a good piece of legislation, but it has a major hole that needs to be addressed.
“It doesn’t work anymore,” Steele said. “It’s no longer adequate for today’s reality.”
As groundwater is depleted, Arizona is suffering losses that may not be recouped for thousands of years. The water in desert aquifers was laid down over millennia and represents the only water that many rural communities can count on as the Southwest becomes hotter and drier with climate change.
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Rep. Kirsten Engel, a Tucson Democrat, has also introduced three bills focusing on groundwater in unregulated rural areas. One of her proposals, like Steele’s upcoming bill, would require meters on all nonexempt wells statewide.
Under another bill, Engel wants to give state water regulators the ability to look at projected future water use — not just current water use — in deciding whether to create a new “irrigation non-expansion area,” where the state would prohibit farms from irrigating additional acreage.
Engel also introduced legislation that would expand existing rules to require all developers of subdivisions statewide, instead of just in urban areas, to be state-certified as having an adequate 100-year water supply.
Bills focus on what’s possible for now
Kavanagh said he would like to see those rules expanded statewide, but he doesn’t think the legislation will pass. He would also like to see groundwater managed throughout the state as it is inside the active management areas, or AMAs. But he said there’s no way such a change would make it through the Legislature now.
“That happens when all the wells start drying up,” Kavanagh said.
Kavanagh said he’s proposing to focus on what’s possible for now, and thinks his bill strikes the right balance. If the legislation passes, Kavanagh said he expects that Director of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke would begin to require measuring of groundwater pumping in unregulated areas where his agency needs more data.
While Kavanagh’s district is located in an AMA, he said he’s concerned that the state may soon be “watching the horrors unfold in rural areas,” with people increasingly suffering as water levels drops.
“The problems are already there. You already have people whose wells are going dry, who have to truck water to their homes,” Kavanagh said. “Nobody should be at risk of having their lifetime investment, be it their home or their business, suddenly worth next to nothing because they have no water in the desert.”
Alongside the bills that would strengthen the state’s groundwater rules, another piece of legislation focuses on securing more funding and staff for the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
Rep. Rosanna Gabaldón, D-Sahuarita, introduced a bill that would give ADWR an additional $6.1 million to hire more hydrologists, groundwater modelers and other staff.
Gabaldón noted that the department has had staffing cuts over the years. She pointed out that the agency is behind in preparing updated groundwater management plans for the AMAs.
“I’m hoping that they could bring in staff so they can complete those reports and be able to look at water use outside of the AMAs as well,” Gabaldón said. “It’s important that they have more staff so they can complete their tasks.”
Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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