Governor Ducey recently signed important legislation that updates how Arizona’s longstanding “use it or lose it” water policy is applied. That’s good news for Arizonans, our economy and the environment. Under the new law, HB2056, water right holders such as ranchers and farmers can intentionally and voluntarily leave their water in a stream without fear of losing their water rights through forfeiture or abandonment. While that may sound commonsense, it’s a significant shift in how our state has approached water rights.
This new law helps clarify longstanding and complex issues around water use in Arizona. Arizona’s forfeiture law provides that in some cases a surface water right may be forfeited after five years of non-use. There has been uncertainty about how and when this law applies, creating risks—or in some cases perceived risk—that a surface water user choosing to conserve water may forfeit valuable water rights. The new law makes it clear that conserving water, as part of an approved conservation plan, doesn’t constitute forfeiture or abandonment.
It might seem counterintuitive that there was ever a policy that potentially discouraged anyone from using less water, but that has been the reality. And that policy may have made sense many years ago, when the scarcity of water in Arizona’s rivers was not the concern it is now. But today, we have a clearer picture. We know that climate change and aridification are putting pressure on our state’s water supply, and that we need to figure out how to do more with less water. The new law adds a provision aimed at shifting incentives away from “use it or lose it,” and instead gives water users increased flexibility to pursue innovative water conservation measures. It reflects the fact that those who conserve and efficiently use their water should be rewarded, not penalized.
Under the new policy, which was sponsored by Representative Gail Griffin, individual water users will be able to voluntarily divert less river water onto their property through efficiency and conservation measures—without fear of forfeiting their water right—if they file a water conservation plan with the Arizona Department of Water Resources. That will ultimately help boost water conservation, free up water supplies for other essential uses, and help support flowing rivers in the state. We’ve heard from plenty of farmers and ranchers who want to be part of the solution. This new legislation gives them the opportunity to gain flexibility in their operations and support healthy rivers and waterways without hurting their own business and livelihoods.
When it comes to water, collaboration and consensus-building have been key to developing policies and solutions that are durable and which meet the water challenges of the day. They were critical to the successful passage of the Drought Contingency Plan. And the passage of HB2056 also makes clear that water can be a political winner, even during challenging and painful times for our state. The fact that this bill passed unanimously through the state Legislature—with the support of farmers and ranchers, communities and conservationists—shows how our shared need for clean and reliable water can bring us together to make progress.
This news is worth celebrating—but we cannot take our eye off the ball. It is critical that we keep up the momentum and continue to update Arizona’s water policies to meet the needs and realities of our current moment. And HB2056 is proof positive that we can do just that.
Kim Mitchell is the senior water policy adviser at Western Resource Advocates and former hydrologist at the Arizona Department of Water Resources. Haley Paul is policy director at the National Audubon Society in Arizona. Both organizations are members of the Water for Arizona Coalition.