Advocacy groups are making efforts to revive rural groundwater legislation that’s languished in the Legislature this session – the same fate it has suffered for several years running.
The current proposal would establish a new regulatory framework that’s less rigid – and could allow for more local control – than existing tools, including the Active Management Area system. But it and previous proposals have failed to get a hearing in the House or Senate.
Last week, a group of southern Arizona residents sent a letter to lawmakers and officials urging them to move the proposals forward. And this week, a coalition of environmental groups put out a poll indicating there’s widespread support for more groundwater regulation.
A poll commissioned by the Water for Arizona Coalition and published on May 2 found that more than three-quarters or Arizonans support the idea of Local Groundwater Stewardship Areas (LGSA) – the new framework proposed by parallel bills introduced in the House and Senate.
“The data resulting from our statewide poll reinforces what we already know: Arizona voters are engulfed in an existential water crisis and expect their lawmakers to take action to protect this essential resource,” Chris Kuzdas, a leader of Water for Arizona, said in a news release accompanying the poll announcement.
An April 24 letter signed by more than 100 residents who live in the Willcox Basin area also urged support for the bills.
“Without any groundwater protections in place (as is the case in much of rural Arizona) there is a literal ‘free for all’ where only those with the deepest pockets and the deepest wells will survive,” the letter states. “It is time to stop the depletion of the Willcox Basin and put measures in place to sustainably manage our precious groundwater throughout all of rural Arizona.”
Steve Kisiel, the first signatory on the letter, said he’s hoping the message can help get the gears moving in the state Capitol.
The idea for writing the letter came out of discussions after a failed ballot measure last year that would have created a new Active Management Area for the Willcox Basin. In nearby Douglas, voters approved a new AMA, but in Willcox the plan was rejected by a vote of about 2,500 to 1,500.
Kisiel thinks an LGSA would get a different reception.
“We think it addresses a lot of the main concerns that a lot of folks have,” he said.
This year, at least, extraordinary measures would need to be used to revive the LGSA proposal. Mirror bills in the House and Senate didn’t get a hearing by the committee deadline earlier this year. But the plans could come back as an amendment tacked onto another proposal.
The reason the proposals haven’t come to the floor in the Legislature illustrates the politics of the proposal, which don’t break neatly along party lines.
Democrats have traditionally supported efforts to expand water regulation and top Democrats, including Gov. Katie Hobbs and Attorney General Kris Mayes, have vocally supported rural groundwater regulation. But the two bills in the Legislature this year are sponsored by Republicans: House Majority Leader Leo Biasiucci, R-Lake Havasu City, and Senate Majority Leader Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City.
“I and my colleagues at the Legislature need to rethink and reform laws to better-protect our water,” Biasiucci said in the statement put out by Water for Arizona.
But the GOP is divided on water issues, and the chairs of the Natural Resources, Energy and Water committees have traditionally disfavored any additional regulation.
Rep. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, the committee chair in the House, has declined for years to hear rural groundwater management legislation. When former lawmaker Regina Cobb – a fellow Republican – introduced bills that would have created Rural Management Areas, a similar proposal to the LGSAs, the measures never moved forward in Griffin’s committee.
Sen. Sine Kerr, R-Buckeye, has worked largely in lockstep with Griffin.
Both Griffin and Kerr are veteran lawmakers and didn’t face much difficulty in last year’s elections – Griffin cruised to victory in her district by a wide margin and Kerr ran unopposed. It’s far from clear that either feel political pressure to act on groundwater regulation.
But Paul Bentz, the pollster who conducted the survey for Water for Arizona, said the numbers show that a majority of Arizonans of all political stripes support the LGSA proposal: 65% of Republicans, 92% of Democrats and 81% of voters without a party affiliation.
“It is a reminder to any of those folks who are standing in the way that they’re on the wrong side of this issue among the overall electorate, as well as among their base,” he said.