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Ducey faces water policy dilemma in Cochise County case

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The fate of new development in Cochise County cities could depend on how Gov. Doug Ducey feels about creating exceptions to existing water supply laws.

On a 33-25 margin, the state House gave final approval Thursday to lifting a key barrier in the path of a Sierra Vista developer. SB1268 lets any city in that county or Yuma County opt out of a county ordinance which requires developers to show a 100-year supply of water.

A final Senate vote is needed before the bill goes to the governor.

The measure to loosen the rules comes against the backdrop of Ducey, in his State of the State speech, singling out water as a critical issue.

He praised prior state leaders for having the foresight to enacting the 1980 Groundwater Management Act, which requires some areas of the state to curtail use to balance what’s being pumped with what’s being recharged. The 2007 law allowing counties outside those “active management areas” to regulate groundwater use is a direct outgrowth of that law.

And Ducey said he has put together a group which is “charting the path forward,” including investigating new long-term sources for water and exploring additional conservation opportunities.

Gubernatorial press aide Annie Dockendorff said her boss would not comment on the legislation. But she said the governor is aware of the importance of what he decides.

“Ensuring the certainty and sustainability of Arizona’s water supply is of high priority for Gov. Ducey,” she said. “He will consider the legislation from that perspective when it reaches his desk.”

House approval, largely along party lines, was spurred by an impassioned speech by Speaker David Gowan who represents the area.

“This is our region we’re talking about,” he told colleagues. “We know our region.”

Gowan also took a slap at “environmentalist groups who want to lay waste to our region.” He chided them from filing prior lawsuits against Fort Huachuca over its use of water from the aquifer.

That, however, has nothing to do with the current litigation over the right of Castle and Cooke to construct its 7,000-residence Tribute development.

That fight involves the federal government suing to overturn a finding by the state Department of Water Resources that the area has a 100-year assured water supply, a requirement under the county ordinance for new construction. But if this bill passes and Sierra Vista opts out of the ordinance, the developers no longer need the certification.

That alarmed Rep. Rosanna Gabaldon, D-Green Valley.

“Homes may be built that may run out of water before their mortgages are paid,” she argued.

But proponents said there’s plenty of water in the aquifer. The only dispute — the one in court — is how much of that the federal government is entitled to claim to ensure water for the San Pedro River riparian area.

Gowan doesn’t see it that way.

“That water belongs to us when it’s underneath that ground,” he said. “This is private property we’re talking about.”

And Gowan said lawmakers from other areas of the state should not interfere with the region’s economic development.

“There is water there,” he said. “And we have enough to make sure we put people back to work and that other people who want a private home, who want private property have that ability.”

Rep. Noel Campbell of Prescott was the only Republican to break party ranks. He said the Legislature should let the lawsuit, now on appeal, play out before changing state policy like this.

3 comments

  1. Please encourage the Governor to veto this BAD BILL, SB 1268. Basically it will allow cities and towns in Cochise County to approve development without them having to prove a long term reliable year water supply. A similar bill also from Rep Gail Griffin, SB 1400, will sunset the requirement Cochise and Yuma Counties put in place requiring demonstration of 100 year supplies before development and force their boards of supervisors, by unanimous vote, to re-adopt these protections every 5 years. Adopting SB 1268 and 1400, particularly in the midst of a long drought, sends a clear signal that Arizona is not serious enough about managing its water to require secure supplies for new development. Sierra Vista and Cochise County have done a great job putting conservation and reuse programs in place. However, this does not mean we should allow approving developments without secure water supplies. These ‘Show me the Water’ type laws exist in most western states in some form and they only work when the requirement is enforced at the state level. No local government is able to sustain an ability to require developers to secure water before approving development….the political pressure is simply too great. To put this all in context however, it’s important to realize that only Cochise and Yuma Counties have acted to put these ‘Show Me The Water’ protections in place. There is no such program throughout most of the rest of rural Arizona. Within Active Management Areas (most of Maricopa, Pinal and Pima Counties as well as Prescott area and Santa Cruz County along the Santa Cruz River) a stricter law exists requiring a 100 year supply of ‘mostly’ renewable water supplies.

  2. The Governor needs to be the adult in the room on this one. For a state that has built a strong reputation on good water management to weaken water regulations and procedures designed to ensure developments have sufficient water for their future residents, and at the same time have healthy, attractive environments, would be contrary to everything that the State has done on water to date. Mr. Governor, tear down this bill!

  3. It’s not “regional development,” Speaker Gowan — who do you speak for, developers or the people of Arizona? — when you run down the supply of the irreplaceable ingredient most vital for human habitability: water. If Cochise County is depopulated, the result of its running out of water, it will be hard — no, it will be impossible — to develop. Try developing caliche sometime. You use language in a loose way, which may be a consequence of your misunderstanding the elected role that you occupy, that is, you believe you must yammer on because your voice is the most important in the House. It’s just not so. Think before you speak, please, sir. Think before you speak.

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