Billion-dollar water authority expansion plan passes Legislature

Billion-dollar water authority expansion plan passes Legislature

Boats move along Lake Powell along the Upper Colorado River Basin Wednesday, June 9, 2021, in Wahweap, Ariz. Included in the infrastructure deal that became law last month is $2.5 billion for Native American water rights settlements, which quantify individual tribes’ claims to water and identify infrastructure projects to help deliver it to residents. On the Navajo Nation, the largest reservation in the U.S., the money could fund a settlement reached in 2020 over water in the upper Colorado River basin. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

A bipartisan water plan to expand the Water Infrastructure Finance Authority passed through the Legislature on Friday evening after months of grueling negotiation. 

The plan allocates more than $1 billion to WIFA over the course of three years for conservation and utilization of new sources of water like desalination. The final Senate vote was 25-1, with the lone ‘no’ vote coming from Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, who believes the state is spending far too much money this year. It passed the House 48-1, with only Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, opposed. 

“This is an amazing bill that took many, many months of negotiating,” said Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott. “Water is a difficult subject to work with. What they say about ‘water is for fighting’ is definitely true.” 

Lawmakers have been negotiating the bill since early in the session. Gov. Doug Ducey called for a $1 billion investment in water over the next three years in his State of the State address, and also for the creation of an Arizona Water Authority. However, lawmakers opted to beef up the existing Water Infrastructure Finance Authority instead of creating a new agency. 

The bill that passed so overwhelmingly had significant differences from a version that passed through committee on a party-line vote just yesterday. The final amendments to the bill included giving the legislative minority more input in appointing board members and the creation of a water conservation grant fund to pay for conservation projects. These changes mollified Democrats who worried the board was weighted too heavily toward Republicans and that the bill needed to include a conservation element. 

“Arizona is renowned for its strategic and aggressive planning, preparedness, and preservation of water. Despite having a population that is more than seven times larger than it was in 1957, Arizona consumes less water today,” a press release from Sen. Sine Kerr, R-Buckeye, stated. Kerr chairs the committee where this bill was heard and she’s been the point person on this bill for a long time. 

When the bill was heard in the House Natural Resources, Energy and Water Committee on Thursday, Rep. Andrés Cano, D-Tucson, said it didn’t reflect the months of negotiations between Democrats and Republicans on the makeup of WIFA’s governing board and on conservation measures. He said he couldn’t vote for more augmentation “if we’re not addressing the elephant in the room,” which is the state’s water shortage and the need for rural groundwater management.  

“We need solutions – real solutions – and this bill is not a real solution,” Cano said. 

However, Cano was pleased with the final product. 

“We need to learn to live with less, and we need to protect the precious water we have left,” he said. 

Cano talked about how, in 40 years, he would like to tell his children they started moving the needle on water. Other House members were similarly effusive in their remarks as they voted, thanking everyone who worked on the bill and casting the deal as a historic game-changer for the state. Rep. Sarah Liguori, D-Phoenix, said the fate of Arizona could hinge on how the state spends that money over the next six to 12 months. 

“I hope we continue to operate in good faith and that the funds in this bill be used wisely,” she said. “Our future, our kids’ future and their kids’ future depends on it.” 

The lack of conservation in the draft of the bill that was in committee on Thursday was one of the Democrats’ arguments against it. Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke, who is involved in negotiations to build a desalination plant in Mexico, told the committee that plant is likely six to eight years in the future. Pointing to this, Cano said setting money aside for the plant wouldn’t do anything for Arizona’s nearer-term water problems. 

Buschatzke replied that major augmentation projects have taken many years to come to fruition historically. He said Arizona should be ready to jump on the project, which could bring the state 200,000 to 250,000 acre-feet of water a year, since Nevada and California would also be vying for their chunk. 

“If a deal does come up, we need to be ready to pull that trigger or we might get left behind,” he said. 

Representatives of groups including the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation and the Salt River Project spoke in favor of the bill. 

“The legislation balances the water needs of existing communities with that of potential development in the future,” said Warren Tenney, executive director of the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association. 

“With the passage of this legislation, we are rising to one of the most consequential challenges of our time. We are securing Arizona’s water future. We’re protecting our water supply, strengthening our conservation strategies and ensuring that our future remains bright,” Ducey said in a statement