My work is keeping me up at night these days. I’m very concerned because the groundwater that rural Arizonans rely on for drinking and their livelihoods is at serious risk. I’m very concerned because the natural water-fed outdoor spaces I have enjoyed since I was a child are at risk of disappearing. Decades of drought and unregulated groundwater overpumping are threatening life in rural Arizona as we know it. In my work I have heard urgent calls for help from rural Arizonans get louder and louder over the past few years. Up to now our Legislature has ignored them. It’s time we give them real and workable answers.
My parents moved my five brothers, my sister and me to Arizona in the early 1970s when my father took a job with the state. Soon after we arrived, my dad and older brothers were taking me all over the state to hike, camp, hunt, and fish. Places nourished by water like the Verde Valley and the White Mountains were always cherished destinations. Today, four siblings still make Flagstaff their home, and I spend time with family there and in places like the West Fork of Oak Creek whenever I can. It’s been inspiring to follow my brother Mark’s service as a Coconino County Superior Court judge and cheer on my brother Mike’s over 350 career wins as the Coconino High School boys basketball coach. I guess you could say that I am based in Phoenix but strive to stay grounded in “greater Arizona.”
I’ve worked in and around Arizona public policy since the late 1980’s, much of it proudly on behalf of for-profit companies. Since focusing on water policy eight years ago, I’m more concerned than ever about the future of greater Arizona. Unless we improve our water policies, Arizona’s air, land and water will not sustain our communities and many special outdoor places in the future.
We need to face the reality that Arizonans living outside the state’s biggest urban areas face mounting risks from extreme heat, wildfires, and drought. In 80 percent of the state’s land area, many property owners’ water supply is at risk because the groundwater they rely on is unprotected. Regardless of how long a property owner has relied on well water for a home, farm, or business, a big industrial or agricultural water user can drill new wells on adjacent land and pump as much groundwater as they want with no restrictions. It doesn’t matter if that pumping forces a neighbor to spend thousands of dollars to deepen their well or causes a neighbor’s well to run dry. Both scenarios are playing out in several areas right now and land owners have no recourse. Unrestrained groundwater pumping also threatens irreplaceable resources like the Verde River and springs in the Grand Canyon.
This rule of “the deepest well wins” in rural Arizona is unsustainable and unacceptable. It rewards the interests of a few wealthy interests – often a newly arrived private corporation with plans to use large quantities of limited groundwater supplies without full consideration for the needs, interests, and future of all other water users in a community, including small pre-existing farms.
Water is the lifeblood of ecosystems, wildlife and special places that sustain our communities and nurture our souls. Our goal should be to ensure reliable water for everyone now and in the future. Sound water management is essential for protecting property values and sustainable economic development.
The good news is that we now have a solution to help rural Arizona communities. H.B. 2661, Rural Management Areas (RMAs), introduced by Rep. Regina Cobb, would allow rural counties whose groundwater is at risk to opt into a system of locally driven groundwater management. The county board of supervisors would appoint an RMA council composed of local residents to develop a plan to conserve and manage groundwater, which would be submitted to the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources for approval and then be eligible for state funding and technical assistance. This balanced, locally driven approach is unanimously supported by the boards of supervisors in Yavapai, Coconino, La Paz, and Mohave counties.
Developing a balanced and sustainable plan will undoubtedly be hard for some water-stressed areas. We need to ensure that farms and ranches can grow food and fiber sustainably even though water supplies are dwindling in the Colorado River Basin. Drier conditions will require investments to upgrade irrigation infrastructure, improve efficiencies, promote soil health and regenerative agriculture, and incentivize growing economically viable and lower water use crops such as guayule. Different communities will have different approaches; there is no one-size-fits all solution. And that’s the point of the RMA bill: Rural communities ought to be able to steer their own futures.
While water issues may seem unique and complex, in many ways they are not so different from other issues that we address with credible information; inclusive, transparent processes; and rules that reflect a community’s values. I’ve thought about these similarities recently while reflecting on how the public service careers of my two Flagstaff brothers compare to my work in water. With wisdom and integrity, Judge Mark applied the community’s values as embodied in law to a wide variety of people and complex situations. Coach Mike held all basketball players accountable to follow the team’s rules, even the star player, upholding a community value that the win-loss record must be secondary to the educational experience of all student athletes.
Managing our water resources is not fundamentally any tougher than administering justice or educating student athletes. Now that my brothers are both retired while I’m still working on water, our family conversations are turning more often to the topic of leaving a legacy of vibrant land and waters in greater Arizona. I find hope in the rising call of rural Arizonans for state groundwater legislation and strong public leadership in rural communities. Now it’s time to see the same kind of leadership in the Legislature. It’s time for state leaders to entrust rural groundwater management to the rural Arizonans whose lives and livelihoods depend on it.