Hearing on Tobin’s comprehensive water plan delayed to address myriad concerns

Hank Stephenson//February 18, 2013

Hearing on Tobin’s comprehensive water plan delayed to address myriad concerns

Hank Stephenson//February 18, 2013

House Speaker Andy Tobin (Photo by Josh Coddington/Arizona Capitol Times)
House Speaker Andy Tobin (Photo by Josh Coddington/Arizona Capitol Times)

As Arizona’s population has expanded, the state’s water supply has been quickly dwindling and without action, the state will face shortfalls that could cripple its ability to grow or even endure.

Everyone, from environmentalists to developers and ranchers, agrees that the problem is massive. But agreeing on how to ensure Arizona has an adequate water supply for future generations is much more difficult.

House Speaker Andy Tobin of Paulden has been working on the issue for years. In his final term in the House, he is determined to offer up a plan that attacks the problem, guarantees enough water for future generations and is acceptable to stakeholders.

But the fruit of his effort so far, HB2338, doesn’t quite meet those qualifications.

The bill was scheduled for a hearing in House Agriculture and Water Committee on Feb. 12. But due to pressures from counties, ranchers, farmers and conservationists, Tobin requested the bill be held while he continues to work on the plan.

The bill is scheduled for a re-hearing in the same committee on Feb. 19.

Tobin acknowledged the plan isn’t perfect, but said the state can’t continue its inaction and allow the state to go dry.

“If not this bill, what bill? If not now, when? That’s the problem,” he said.

The bill would create Regional Water Augmentation authorities to help local communities develop water supplies and water supply infrastructure to meet growing needs. The RWAAs would be voluntary organizations formed by at least one governmental entity and private groups to provide a mechanism to pool their resources to develop water supply projects.

The bill would require a $30 million allocation from the state general fund this year. But the problem is much broader and would require more than $3 billion in infrastructure investments in the next 50 years, according to a study by the Water Resources Development Commission, which backed the RWAA plan.

Tobin said the bill has stalled because rural interests are worried they will be left out of the plan, as they have been left out of previous infrastructure development. He said there may be a way to carve out exemptions for certain municipalities to ease their worries, or push more money toward the rural areas, to ensure they are treated fairly.

“They would like to see more of the money going to rural (areas) because rural has been left out of water (policy) forever. It comes down to the age-old adage that urban areas got all their water while (rural areas) didn’t get theirs. And they have a point, but I still have to get 31 and 16 votes (in the House and Senate),” he said, noting that not all rural areas are against the proposal.

Tobin said the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association and Arizona Farm Bureau are concerned the RWAAs would allow for water grabs from rural areas to urban areas, and asked him to hold the bill. Bas Aja, executive vice president of the Cattlemen’s Association, did not return calls for comment.  Joe Sigg, government relations director for the Arizona Farm Bureau, declined to discuss the bill.

Even the House Agriculture and Water Committee chair, Republican Rep. Brenda Barton of Safford, said she doesn’t think the bill is perfect.  But she added that with such a massive problem, you have to start somewhere.

She said she has heard concerns from the County Supervisors Association of Arizona that the bill would create a new government authority with too much power — especially with the eminent domain authority — and county supervisors worried that they would have no say in the formation of the authorities. The bill only requires supervisors to be notified about the formation of the authorities, but it would not require their approval.

“I have concerns too, but I know we need to do something about our water issues,” Barton said.

Conservationists worry the authorities would take from rivers and streams to fuel urban growth.

Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter, said the powers granted to the authorities are broad, and the requirements to set up the RWAAs are too lax and could lead to insider deals between local politicians and business interests that don’t protect the water supply.

She said the partnership between a single governmental entity and a private enterprise, from which RWAAs could be formed, could lead to developers having more control over water supplies, and consumers having less say in how those supplies are used.

“If you’re relying on big, deep pocketed private entities to do it, then you’ve effectively further privatized something that is essential for life,” Bahr said.

The RWAAs would have the authority to acquire, sell, lease, exchange, occupy, manage or possess or otherwise dispose of real and personal property needed for water supplies or RWAA projects. The authorities would be allowed to acquire, hold, assign, or otherwise dispose of water rights, including long-term storage credits. They would be able to acquire, sell, transport and deliver water, and would accept capital contributions from private entities. They could plan, coordinate, construct, operate, maintain and own water projects, and in certain cases, exercise the power of eminent domain.

“The way this is structured it seems to have a lot less accountability to the public and the kind of transparency that we absolutely need with any kind of water deal. We’ve had enough of the water deals negotiated among a few interests,” Bahr said.

She said the real problem with the bill is that it pushes more of the same policies that Arizona has used in the past, and to actually address the problem, the state needs a paradigm shift toward conservation to ensure its needs don’t dwarf the available water supply.

“It doesn’t promote conservation, it doesn’t look at keeping functioning rivers and streams, it focuses on how we can fund moving more water around,” Bahr said. “It’s time for Arizona to take a step back and question that mentality that says we’ll just build as much as we want and figure out a way to move water from someplace else.”