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Bill to dilute state water code goes to Ducey

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Gov. Doug Ducey is going to have to decide whether he wants to dilute provisions of state water laws.

On a 16-12 margin Wednesday the Senate gave final approval to SB1400, which requires counties that have their own water-requirements for developers to review them every five years. But it would take a unanimous vote of the board of supervisors to rescind the ordinance.

The potentially more far-reaching measure, SB1268, would allow any city within either county to unilaterally exempt itself from the requirements. It was approved on a 17-12 vote.

Both measures now await action by Ducey, who has said in speeches that ensuring Arizona has adequate water is important.

The fight has its roots in the historic 1980 Groundwater Code.

It led to establishment of five “active management areas” around the state in the Phoenix, Pinal, Prescott, Tucson and Santa Cruz areas that have regulations designed to reduce groundwater pumping. And a key tool is a requirement for a showing of a 100-year “assured water supply.”

An amendment to that law allows counties to have similar mandates, with Cochise and Yuma having opted in.

Castle & Cooke, which hopes to put in a 7,000 home development in Sierra Vista, got such certification of assured water supply from the state Department of Water Resources. But a trial judge ruled that DWR acted improperly and did not consider the competing claims to the water, notably from the Bureau of Land Management, which is concerned about the water supply for the San Pedro River.

The Court of Appeals is considering the ruling.

But it will not matter what that court decides if SB1268 becomes law, as it would permit the Sierra Vista council to simply declare that development within its borders is not subject to the assured water supply requirement.

Sen. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, the sponsor of both measures, read letters detailing all the city and county have done to conserve water. And SB 1268 lists specific conditions a city would have to meet to exempt itself from the county ordinance, ranging from having a plan for reuse of reclaimed water to requiring low-water use plants in public rights of way.

One of those letters came from Tom Finnegan, past president of the Fort Huachuca 50, a military support group.

“It is vital to the city to be able to make planning decisions that will ensure Sierra Vista can meet the needs of Fort Huachuca for the coming years,” Griffin said he wrote.

But Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, said anything that increases water pumping in the area actually endangers the future of the fort, making it a target the next time the Department of Defense goes through a base realignment and closure process.

“And if there’s concern about having a lack of affordable housing, I think there’ll be plenty of affordable housing in Cochise County if this goes through because I think Fort Huachuca will be at grave risk of reducing its presence or leaving entirely,” he said. Farley also noted the current drought conditions.

“To choose this time to say that you don’t have to show an adequate water supply to put in a new subdivision is exactly the wrong timing,” he continued. “We could put our economy in southern Arizona at risk if we put this bill through.”

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