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.