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Legislative fixes to water crisis still elusive

House Speaker Andy Tobin (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

House Speaker Andy Tobin (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

House Speaker Andy Tobin said water legislation is at the top of Arizona’s priority list for next year, but a solution to the state’s impending water crisis is as elusive as ever.

Tobin introduced an omnibus water bill in the last legislative session, but it was held amid a flood of opposition from ranchers, farmers and rural residents, who viewed the legislation at a “water grab” from rural areas to fuel growth in urban areas.

After the bill stalled, Tobin appointed an ad hoc committee to study the issue, and the panel hosted a series of meetings in rural communities across the state. But Tobin said that, even after the meetings, fixes to the system remain difficult to find.

“If it’s not going to be this (legislation), what should it be? Very few folks have been able to step up and say, ‘Here’s water legislation,’” he said.

Tobin said he is still reviewing the committee’s final recommendations before cementing his plans for legislation next year.

The committee, which was made up of four state representatives, was charged with finding fixes to Tobin’s HB2338, which was designed to create regional water augmentation authorities.

Regional water augmentation authorities would be voluntary organizations formed by at least one governmental entity and a second that could be a private business that would provide a mechanism for communities to pool their resources to develop water supply projects.

The authorities would be able to acquire, sell, transport and deliver water, as well as hold, assign, or otherwise dispose of water rights, including long-term storage credits. They could plan, coordinate, construct, operate, maintain and own water projects, and in certain cases, exercise the power of eminent domain.

The opposition to the legislation continued through the five stakeholders meetings held this summer in Yuma, Flagstaff, Sierra Vista, Payson and Prescott. Public comments at the meetings were overwhelmingly against the bill and largely against the concept of augmentation authorities.

Republican Rep. Frank Pratt of Casa Grande, a member of the ad hoc committee and vice chair of the House Agriculture and Water Committee, which held HB2338 earlier this year, said after hearing from the public at the series of meetings, he told Tobin that he didn’t believe an omnibus bill was the way to take on the water crisis.

“To try to put together a one-size fits all or an omnibus bill in terms of water is extremely difficult,” he said.

Instead, Pratt advocated working to strengthen existing water systems, possibly by providing more funding to the Department of Water Resources. He said there may be parts of the legislation that could be taken up next year, but the public doesn’t support the bill as a whole, and many of the problems may be addressed without legislation.

“There were parts of it that I’m sure were good, but I’m not sure about the entire piece of legislation. So, we’ll probably look at certain parts of it and see if it needs legislation or if it can be done through existing agencies,” Pratt said.

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