PHOENIX -- Top officials in the Ducey administration are reaching out to the media -- and by extension, the public -- in a bid to undermine changes in water law being pushed by a Southern Arizona lawmaker.
Kirk Adams, the governor's chief of staff, said the legislation by Sen. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, contains some pieces that are unacceptable to his boss. Most notable is a provision that could result in developers -- primarily in Cochise County but not necessarily limited to there -- getting around 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 Adams said the real problem with SB 1507 and companion House legislation offered by Rep. Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, is what it does not have: A clear water conservation plan that would preserve the ability of Arizona 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, it would be Arizona that would be the first to have its water supply cut off.
The governor'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 her only on-the-record response was, “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,” he said.
“Water is of critical importance to the future of the state, Adams said.
“And it requires proactive management, proactive thought. And that's what the governor's bringing to the table here.”
Griffin, for her part, recognizes she has to deal with the governor who wields the ultimate power over legislation: his veto stamp. Ducey made it clear he would use it, vetoing 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 such ordinances -- ordinances that pretty much are irreversible.
SB 1507 would require supervisors to revisit those ordinances regularly. More to the point, it would take a unanimous vote to renew; anything short of that would make the requirement disappear.
That is something that some developers want.
Gov. Doug 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. And Ducey said 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, fall short,” Adams said Wednesday, saying 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.
As Ducey's office sees it, SB 1507 would say that there is more water available for development than actually is in the ground. That's because it effectively allows water to be “double counted.”
There also is verbiage in the plan that Buschatzke governor's office says could lead to the interstate sale of water.
But the big problem as far as the governor's office is concerned is what the bill does not do.
“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 “behind closed doors” 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.
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