Groundwater regulation new conflict in water management


Farmers and Gov. Doug Ducey say they are willing to change their stance against government oversight and regulation to protect the state’s dwindling water supply – and they’re willing to let the largest water users write the rules.

This shift in thinking comes as the Legislature convenes Jan. 13 and lawmakers will likely have to address what to do with a growing demand for water, just one year after they passed the Drought Contingency Plan, which doles out water from the Colorado River. 

Now, the new urgency is managing Arizona’s groundwater. 

In areas in Arizona where groundwater is unregulated, any landowner who can afford it can drill as much and as deep as they wish, take as much water as they want and are not required to report their usage to the state. But their water must be for a “beneficial use,” per statute, which includes agriculture.

But that usage in these areas, which sit outside of areas where groundwater usage is tracked and regulated, known as active management areas, has gone unchecked by the government for decades. Nobody knows exactly how much groundwater is left or how long it will last.

Doug Ducey
Doug Ducey

This growing problem is prompting discussion between water stakeholders in the Legislature and in those areas, who are working to ensure there is enough water to grow responsibly and sustainably for generations.

That, coupled with projected shortfalls in the Colorado River and longer, hotter and drier summers, people living in these areas are worried and are asking the government to step in.

The problem has caught the attention of Gov. Doug Ducey, who has cultivated a legacy as the deregulation governor. Ducey said he’s concerned about reports of a dwindling supply in these areas and is willing to approve regulations water users in these places want.

“I am open minded to regulations that protect and steward our water future,” Ducey said. “I’m concerned about some of the reports that we have received, and we’re working to provide the best possible policy going forward, both from the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Bureau of Reclamation, and some of the decisions that they make on behalf of the state water management future.”

Ducey said late last year that “positive growth” in areas bring challenges to allocating water responsibly and that the situation is nuanced and Arizona’s water feeds agricultural products that ship around the world.

“Agriculture is a big industry,” Ducey said. “We have not only family farms, but we have people that come in with some corporate farming. If those products are exported to the benefit of Arizona, that’s one thing – water is different.”

His open mindedness takes the form of working closely with the Department of Water Resources and the establishment of the Governor’s Water Augmentation Innovation and Conservation Council following the passage of the Drought Contingency Plan in January 2019.

Through that and through several stakeholder committees organized by the Legislature, Ducey and lawmakers are letting people who use the most water in unregulated counties come up with solutions that work for them. Once those solutions are found, the state is expected to craft laws that will make implementing those processes, which build on long standing water policy, easier.

Enough Water

The state’s 1980 Groundwater Management Act was shepherded by former Gov. Bruce Babbitt and it restricted irrigation on new farmland in urban areas and required builders there to show a 100-year water supply before making new subdivisions, among other efficiency standards. Since its passage, it’s been trumpeted as a historic piece of policy that pushed the state to conserve water where it was growing the most: Phoenix, Prescott, Pinal, Tucson and Santa Cruz management areas.

Areas like La Paz County and Mohave County, which are currently being examined by Legislative committees, weren’t included at the time.

Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute, said that while she thinks there is enough water to go around, the real issue is about where the state is growing. 

She said the state should continue to grow where water supplies allow, like what the Groundwater Management Act intends.

‘Land of the free’

Managing that growth will have to be community-centric, Porter said, as some places might not be able to afford, or might not find feasible, more expensive solutions. Ducey and the Legislature say they are aiming to work with water stakeholders, usually powerful business interests, to hash out the hard work and set precedent for how other areas of the state facing similar problems should move forward.

Ducey said his staff is working with ADWR to find these solutions, which those involved in water stakeholder discussions say will differ by county because none of them use water the same way or take them from the same sources proportionately.

But for now, ADWR’s hands are tied because in order to suggest or implement any new regulation in these areas, it needs to document how much water these megafarms are taking and how much water is left. The department is working to provide a model to committees that study groundwater usage in Mohave and La Paz counties.

Regina Cobb
Regina Cobb

Those committees, which include members of local government, mining, farming, business and agriculture stakeholders, are chaired by Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, and Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu city. The groups, which do not include conservationists, plan to meet sometime during the 2020 legislative session to review ADWR’s data and again after the coming legislative session to suggest legislative fixes.

Cobb has said in the past that because these are the interests who use water the most in these communities, they, collectively, have conservation in mind. She characterized the committees as “kind of like DCP for groundwater in each of the communities.”

The committees will consider what residents and water stakeholders in those counties have already asked for: more regulation, expansions of active management areas, other irrigation non-expansion areas and to tax groundwater or to require everyone to meter usage and charge users accordingly.

Cobb said these counties have no real mechanism to regulate water usage and have become a target for hedge fund groups that effectively mine water.

“[Farmers] want to be the land of the free,” Cobb said. “The problem is now they see that by not having any restrictions at all, we have opened ourselves up to vulnerability – we’re vulnerable to all of the water mining companies coming in. So, when they’re looking at that, [farmers are] saying, ‘I want it open for me, but I don’t want it open for everybody.’”

House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, said when she threw out the idea of metering wells at a community meeting “it wasn’t very popular.”

“People who own land believe the water rights belong to the property underneath,” she said.

Complicating any solution politically is the fact that one of the larger operations is using Arizona groundwater to grow hay to ship to Saudi Arabia to feed cattle there. In the meantime, some area residents report that their existing wells have gone dry, forcing them to drill even deeper.

“We have to stand up to that,” said Fernandez who has been one of the key legislative players in shaping Arizona water legislation. She said there should be some way to distinguish between families that live in the area and corporate farmers, “people who don’t have a vested interest in the area.”

“But who makes that decision?” she asked.

Capitol Media Services contributed to this report. 

If we build it they will come, but they are already here.


Everywhere I go, no matter what time of day, I seem to be stuck in traffic. Phoenix is growing but our roads are not. When my four kids and I drive through town, we play a game to try to count how many different state license plates we see on the roads. Typically, we see 3 to 5 out-of-state plates any place we go. If we don’t do anything about our current infrastructure it’s going to be like living in California here soon and not in a good way.

We are now in an age of climate refugees and a large corporations coming to Phoenix because we don’t have a lot of the severe natural disasters destroying our City like floods, hurricanes, tropical storms, mudslides, earthquakes, and drought. We are going to continue to be a magnet for people and businesses relocating even though it is getting hotter here than ever before.

Melisa Camp
Melisa Camp

This is especially true when coupled with the fact that we have a strong housing market and booming job market. Statistically speaking, yesterday Arizona Regional Multiple Listing Service, or ARMLS, had the lowest number of active listings I’ve ever seen in 11 years of being an agent. We’ve got shrinking inventory. Lack of affordable housing. Not enough building happening to support our growth.

This September, I have a vision of bringing stakeholders and decision makers together to have a day of thoughtful planning and conversation about the future of our city and state. Through cross-pollination, interdisciplinary problem solving, and good old common sense I’m hoping we can address some of the climate and growth issues that we all share.

Smart Growth touches everything: water use, jobs, urban infill, transportation, walkability, etc., and we can use it to bring parties together instead of dividing us. Phoenix can build a resilient housing market and economy but it’s going to require strategic partnerships and communication between key stakeholders.

Historically, I’m learning there was a stigma attached to the term ‘Smart Growth’, and it was made out at that time to be a political issue. It’s so not political and I will debate anyone who wants to argue otherwise. It is about not waiting too long to react to known problems and problem mitigation. It does not matter where you live, what religion you identify with, male or female, young or old. It affects everyone and we can do better together.

One of the best examples right now of Smart Growth gone wrong is Queen Creek. It grew so fast that there is constantly a traffic backup in the middle of fields no matter what time of day. Beautiful city but wasn’t well planned for as quickly as people started moving there.

How we choose to develop Arizona today will affect future generations, how we do business, where we live, work, and play. With careful planning and innovation we can make Arizona’s future resilient while reducing environmental impact, saving money, and creating jobs. I highly encourage anyone interested to make time to attend this event and be a part of the solutions.

The Smart Growth Summit will take place Sept. 25 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Burton Barr Library auditorium. We strongly encourage participants to ride the light rail and vote No on Prop 105 to halt light rail construction and expansion. More information and registration can be found at: http://SmartGrowth.eventbrite.com

Do you have a smart growth success story? We would love to feature you as a speaker during the working lunch provided by headlines sponsor SRP. Contact Melisa Camp at [email protected] for more information.

Melisa Camp is a Realtor® and resident of Phoenix.

State population grows on wave of newcomers

People of color group walk follow direction leader

Arizona added enough residents in the 12 months ending July 1 to rank its growth the fifth highest in the nation.

New figures from the U.S. Census Bureau put the state’s population at 7,016,270. That’s 1.6 percent higher than the same period a year earlier.

Only Idaho, Nevada, Utah and Washington grew faster. Florida’s growth rate matched Arizona.

But it’s not because Arizonans are reproducing faster than residents elsewhere. In fact, the Census Bureau says the state added just 85,634 residents that way, at a rate slower than the national average.

Then there was the fact that 57,553 people died in the same period, for a net natural increase of just 28,081, or less than 0.4 percent.

What’s driving growth is that people are moving here from elsewhere. And one out of every five of those 79,316 new residents actually came from another country.

Economist Tom Rex of the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University said the Census Bureau numbers are “nothing surprising.”

He said the 107,628 net year-over-year increase for the latest 12 months is virtually identical to the gain between 2015 and 2016.

It is a little higher than annual population gains in 2014 and 2015. But that’s not saying much.

“Population growth in the state remains considerably below the historical norm,” Rex said.

“The peak was 190,100 in 2006,” he said, right before the Great Recession. In fact, the number of people Arizona added this past year is less than the figure for every year from 1992 through 2008.

Arizona’s growth rate, while above the national average, was not enough to actually move the state up in the national rankings.

It remains at No. 14. And given that No. 13 Washington is growing even faster, the odds of overtaking that state, whose population tops 7.4 million, are not good for the foreseeable future.

Less clear is whether the state’s growth rate will lead to more political influence in Congress.

Arizona currently has 9 seats in the 435-member U.S. House. And if you were to divide the state’s population into the national figure, it comes out at close to 9.9.

Looking at it another way, if the House were being reapportioned this year, states are entitled to one representative for about every 750,000 residents.

But it’s not quite that simple.

Even the tiniest states, like Wyoming with about 580,000 residents and Vermont at nearly 624,000, are entitled to one representative. Only after the legal requirements for those smaller states are taken into account does the government do the calculations for how many House seats the other states get.

The new figures find that two states have actually lost population in the past year: West Virginia and Louisiana, fueled largely by people moving away.

But even among states with a net increase, the picture is more complex.

For example, New York remained No. 4 in overall population by adding about 13,000 residents. But that hides the fact that 190,000 more New Yorkers took off to find homes elsewhere than came into the state from other states. And that figure was so high it did not offset the fact that the state got 130,000 new international immigrants.

Illinois also found itself in the same situation.

Arizona’s western neighbor also had a net outflow of domestic migration, with 138,000 more people leaving for other states than the other way around. But California more than made up for that with nearly 165,000 new residents from other countries.

Tax credit program answers need for affordable housing

Civil engineer and worker discussing issues at the housing construction site (Stock photo/Deposit Photo)
Civil engineer and worker discussing issues at the housing construction site (Stock photo/Deposit Photo)

In the same way as the Covid pandemic has negatively impacted the Arizona economy and many families’ personal finances, the past year has placed even more pressure on the state’s housing market – in particular, the need to build more affordable rental housing.

Even before the pandemic, about 120,000 people were moving to Arizona each year. Such exponential growth means that our state needs to build an estimated 240,000 new rental units this decade. What would have been a major challenge under favorable pre-pandemic economic conditions has now become a behemoth task. With property owners struggling under the various eviction bans enacted to protect renters from losing their homes – and in many cases facing non-payment or reduced payment of rent for the past 10 months – the capital to build new affordable housing rental homes has become more challenging to secure.

If Arizona’s population growth continues at the same furious pace, the law of supply and demand dictates that rents will keep rising. More people and higher rents will create an even greater demand for additional affordable housing, a need the market cannot possibly hope to meet under present circumstances.

Fortunately, there’s a solution for the Catch-22 outlined above – an innovative public-private partnership idea known as the Arizona Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program. Our organization, with help from a bipartisan group of state legislators and stakeholders, nearly got this measure passed in 2020, before the pandemic cut the session short. The legislation is modeled after a federal program that originated with President Ronald Reagan in 1986 and has been expanded by presidents of both parties in the decades since. The federal version of tax credit program has supported the building of nearly 3 million units of affordable housing nationally – including 47,000 in Arizona.

State tax credit programs for low income housing have already passed in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and 23 other states. These “booster programs” to build affordable housing have created massive momentum wherever they  have been enacted. As just one example, Colorado’s state low income housing program has created about 5,000 new affordable housing units since 2015.

Courtney Gilstrap LeVinus
Courtney Gilstrap LeVinus

We will be back at the state Legislature this year with two identical bills: SB1327 sponsored by Sen. David Gowan and HB2562 sponsored by Rep, Regina Cobb. These bills mirror last year’s legislation, which passed the House with 45 of a possible 60 votes. The Arizona proposal leverages the same stringent regulatory parameters as the federal program, which issues tax credits to state and territorial governments that in turn use a competitive process to distribute the credits to developers. This can be implemented in Arizona without creating a new layer of government, given that the Arizona Department of Housing already manages this process through its Qualified Allocation Plan. Additionally, new state tax credits can be targeted toward the communities that need them most, including urban and rural areas, the homeless, military veterans and schoolteachers.

Under the present pandemic conditions, with renters and property owners feeling enormous financial pressure, and with the need to build more housing and more affordable options, the time for this practical solution is now. Statewide, we need to build about 3,000 new affordable housing units and about 4,500 new workforce housing units each year until 2030. That will not happen without some creative thinking and a motivational tool that helps grow developer interest in building rental housing at all price points and across all demographics. To the extent that developers continue to plan to build amid the pandemic, many property owners face financial challenges, given that land, labor and material costs are the same for building “affordable units” as they are for market-rate apartment homes.

A state level low income housing tax credit program would better level housing supply and demand while freeing the marketplace to do its work. The program has worked for almost 40 years now, through six presidential administrations and innumerable market ebbs and flows. Especially while Arizona finds itself still struggling with the pandemic, the tax credit program will help us help thousands of families put roofs over families’ heads and create jobs to spur our economy.

Our housing market needs solutions right now. Low income housing tax credit program is ready to go, and we know it works. Let’s hope the Legislature and Gov. Ducey agree and vote to get it done. 

Courtney Gilstrap LeVinus, is president and CEO of Arizona Multihousing Association.