Panel takes step to secure water supply in Pinal County

Andrew Nicla//November 15, 2019

Panel takes step to secure water supply in Pinal County

Andrew Nicla//November 15, 2019

(Photo by Ellen O'Brien)
(Photo by Ellen O’Brien)

In the face of a report that says Pinal County is going dry, a small group of Arizona lawmakers took the first step in helping assure the county has enough groundwater for decades to come and avoid a potential shortfall.

Rep David Cook, R-Globe, chaired a panel of lawmakers on November 13, which voted to appoint three Pinal County water stakeholders to head a group of government, utility, agriculture, development, tribal and local organizations tasked to create a better framework to allocate groundwater and balance competing interests.

This process is new territory for Arizona, which is grappling with the realities of sustainable balancing continued economic growth while facing dwindling water supplies. Lawmakers asked the three architects of the group to be bold, knowing that they will fully support their proposals if needed in the Legislature.

The lawmakers were also joined by Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke. Last month, ADWR released a new groundwater model that projects Pinal County won’t have enough water to meet the expected demands of projected growth.

ADWR projects that demand to be 10% more, or just over 8 million acre feet than the county can provide. An acre foot can, generally, provide for the needs of two or three families for a year.

The report finds that while  there’s a lot of water to work with, too many people want too much of it.

Cook said he doubts the accuracy of ADWR’s projection and that it didn’t account for many factors, such as new wells and changes in usage that could have changed the end result.

In order to better understand and prepare for eventual shortfalls, Cook and the committee voted to form the group to look into “everything from conservation to the model itself.”

Once that group is assembled and develops a better understanding of the issue, it will tell the committee what needs to change to make sure the county has enough water to meet projected demand.

“They need to have a local group, a buy-in from developers, to Realtors, to the business community,” Cook said. “All of these people need to come together. That way they’ll be educated on what the best pathway forward for Pinal County is.”

Pinal County Supervisor Stephen Miller, retired Arizona Water Company executive Bill Garfield and Global Water Resources Director of Water Resources Jake Lenderking are pulling together the group to create a new long-term water management plan.

Pinal is part of one of the state’s five active management areas. Those areas were created by a series of policy changes, including the state’s Groundwater Management Act of 1980, which requires builders there need to show a 100-year water supply before developing new subdivisions.

That act has been hailed as a historic piece of water policy that allowed the state’s cities to continue sprawling while using less water than it would have before. Because of the regulations in these active management areas and county-level conservation plans that have become more stringent, according to ADWR, the state has cut its dependence on groundwater from 5.2 million acre feet in 1955 to 2.8 million acre-feet in 2017.

But the law left groundwater supplies in some areas, like Pinal, largely unregulated and now water users are being pressured more than ever to set up better, longer-term management practices.

Since the Central Arizona Project was completed, the state has cut its dependence on groundwater from 69% in 1955, to 40% in 2017. But Pinal County will have to rely exclusively on groundwater and farmers there will have to fallow about 30% of their land in order to make the recently negotiated Drought Contingency Plan work.

Deciding who gets access to how much water will change the county’s economy, which sees nearly $2.3 billion from farms and related businesses.

Miller, Lederking and Garfield spoke with the Arizona Capitol Times after the House Ad Hoc Committee on Groundwater Supply in Pinal County hearing. The group they assemble will aim to, ideally, develop a better system to distribute and assess groundwater assurances, how agriculture will sustain itself given cuts to their Central Arizona Project water supply, issues surrounding entitling for development, changes in existing use and how subdivisions plan to grow.

But what will make that work easier is making sense of a model Miller and company claim is flawed.

“We’re going to redrill our wells maybe two or three times over the course of 100 years, and if water tables are lower, we’re not going to drill a shallow well. The model isn’t necessarily wrong … I don’t think there’s a realistic shortfall in our future.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story included a line that mistakenly attributed an opinion on the ADWR water projection as the position of department officials. That line has been deleted.