In Arizona, there are few statements truer and purer than the common refrain: Water is Life. It is a cruel irony, then, that the laws and policies that we have created to regulate water in our state are among the most complex in statute. Since before Arizona became a state, lawmakers have sought to protect water rights; and stakeholders who used that water have added, subtracted, and developed the complicated mix of water laws into its current form.
As we face the reality of the aridification of the Colorado River, emerging challenges to rural and urban groundwater management, and the growing water needs to support our population and economy, we must ensure that all stakeholders and policy makers can agree on the need for good-faith and honest discussions of water policy.
For far too long, attorneys, stakeholders, and water users have approached lawmakers and their constituents with a sort of benign contempt. They would insist that water law was too complicated or that touching one aspect of Title 45 would compound and ruin our delicately constructed water-policy framework. This Jenga-like approach enabled incumbent water users who stood to benefit from the current system to silence those who sought to make progressive change in water law for the benefit of all.
We face this scenario once again with the misinformation campaign surrounding the most controversial water legislation to move through the Arizona State Legislature this year: SB1660 (water; storage; effluent; credits). The bill, sponsored by Sen. Sine Kerr, R-Buckeye, at the request of Nestlé and other West Valley businesses, seeks to address the critical lack of wastewater infrastructure in our parched state and address a problem. Because current Arizona statute defines wastewater (effluent) as water that processes through a “sanitary sewer,” cities and private utilities that treat wastewater have a de facto monopoly on treatment and storage of this valuable resource.
As far as water law goes, the proposed legislation is relatively simple. It allows those companies to capture, treat, and store water used in their processes for re-use onsite.
This forward-thinking bill contains safeguards. For one, it prohibits any person or company from taking a single drop more groundwater than they are entitled to under the Groundwater Management Act. In addition, thanks to the advocacy of the Sierra Club and state Sen. Priya Sundareshan, D-Tucson, the proposed legislation improves aquifer health by requiring that these companies leave 25% of the water they store in the ground with no one having a right to pump it back out. It also requires these companies to obtain Aquifer Protection Permits issued by the Department of Environmental Quality and prohibits them from transferring or selling credits away from their facility.
Opponents of the bill have churned their arguments into a maelstrom of misinformation. They claim falsely that the bill will drain aquifers or that these companies are skirting obligations under the Groundwater Management Act. We can have an honest debate about whether cities and private water companies should have a monopoly on effluent or whether we should ask more of industrial water users looking to start a business in Arizona. Those are good debates to have! But mischaracterizing the legislation and attempting to scare legislators and the public with bad faith arguments and made-up policies will stop modernization of Arizona water law in its tracks.
I suspect that the debate around SB1660 is a preview of water debates yet to come. Arizona’s water resources are so tenuous that any attempt to deal with climate change, dropping groundwater levels, or rural water management will always impact another water user, and we need to assess the unintended consequences of any proposed law. If we are to address Arizona’s water challenges we need to come together, as we have in the past, to adapt our water policies to reflect the current realities. One way to move forward, together, is to embrace the opportunities of water re-use. SB1660 is a much needed first step in confronting our water crisis.
Lauren Kuby is a former Tempe City Councilmember and Arizona Municipal Water Users Association Board Member, and a current ASU Senior Global Futures Scientist.