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Water overhaul bills would extend pumping, ease use limits

Long-awaited legislation overhauling Arizona’s water management policies includes proposals to waive some restrictions on overuse contained in a landmark 1980 state law.

Proponents called it a long-needed update, while an environmental activist said it just shifts a coming water crisis to the next generation.

The proposals introduced by Republican Sen. Gail Griffin of Hereford would allow over-pumping in some areas to continue 10 years longer than current law allows.

The proposal also reintroduces workarounds to water use restrictions for Cochise and Yuma counties that Gov. Doug Ducey vetoed in 2016.

Other provisions include a ban on water exports, studying desalination as a new water source and exemptions to current pumping rules for greenhouses.

The Republican governor and his staff have been working with lawmakers for months to craft the first major changes since the 1980 Groundwater Management Act. Griffin said Jan. 30 that Arizona water policy has long been ahead of California and other states and the new proposals continue that advance.

Sen. Gail Griffin (R-Hereford)

Sen. Gail Griffin (R-Hereford)

“We want everybody to know that Arizona is not sitting on our hands and doing nothing on water,” Griffin said. “We have sufficient water but we want to continue good water policy, and that’s what this bill does.”

One of the major proposals would benefit Griffin’s home county, Cochise, by making it easier for the county to ease requirements that developers show they have a 100-year supply of water. Griffin sponsored similar legislation in 2016 that was vetoed by Ducey.

She said in an interview that her county has plenty of water from the San Pedro River and the new law would encourage conservation.

“It adds additional requirements that are not even in active management areas but are good water conservation policies,” she said. “And it allows them to move forward in making a plan.

That explanation didn’t fly with Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter, who said the legislation removes important protections for the San Pedro River in Southern Arizona and the Verde River north of Phoenix.

“We’re already struggling to keep Sierra Vista from pumping the San Pedro dry, so this is a step backward,” Bahr said. “There’s really nothing in the package that helps rivers. There’s actually provisions that further the harm.”

The proposal eases an existing requirement that groundwater pumping operations meet “safe yield” requirements by 2025, extending it until 2035. It also strips the Central Arizona Project of the ability to raise a common defense to lawsuits by state entities and moves oversight of some water conservations districts from the state Land Department to the Forestry and Fire Management Department.

The proposal is contained in one overarching bill, while eight others break out individual items contained in the larger proposal. Griffin said she wanted to ensure that interested parties understood their individual concerns had been well thought out.

The maneuver does, however, make it easier to remove a specific provision.

A spokesman for Ducey, Daniel Scarpinato, didn’t immediately comment Jan. 30 on the proposal.

Bahr said her quick take on the proposal is that “it defers the keys issues with water to another day — it’s not really addressing them.”

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