$200M for water shortages likely to pass

A low-level irrigation ditch is fed fresh water from the Colorado River, August 27, 2019, in Casa Blanca, Ariz.(AP PhotoMatt York)
A low-level irrigation ditch is fed fresh water from the Colorado River, August 27, 2019, in Casa Blanca, Ariz.(AP PhotoMatt York)

The Legislature is set to pass a $200 million proposal to fund areas without a proper water supply.   

The money would help meet long-term demands and financially assist in the creation of water supply and conservation projects.   

The proposal, which is part of the FY2022 budget, passed the Senate June 22 on a party-line 16-14 vote and the House still had not considered it as of press time.  

It narrowly passed the Appropriations committees in the Senate and House on May 25 as Democrats and Republicans on those panels agreed something needs to be done about the state’s nearly 21-year drought, but Democratic lawmakers opposed the bill because they said that it may do little to properly address the drought, and in some cases may be used to speed up the depletion of resources already in short supply, such as groundwater. 

As a desert region with an already limited water supply further drained by climate change, Arizona has been working to resolve the lack of water. In 2019, the state enacted the Drought Contingency Plan, which outlines how Arizona and other Colorado River basin states will divide the limited water that’s now available.   

The plan conserves water in reservoirs such as Lake Mead and Lake Powell and funds various groups for leaving water within them.   

The Associated Press recently reported, however, that Lake Mead has hit a record low water level since its creation in the 1930s, a decline expected to continue until November.   

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has said it’s expected to issue the first-ever shortage declaration that prompts water reductions in Arizona and Nevada, creating a further need for legislation.   

The Legislature’s answer to meet Arizona’s long-term water demand is legislation to establish the Drought Mitigation Board and the $200 million Drought Mitigation Revolving Fund.   

Rep. Randall Friese, D-Tucson, said in the May 25 House Appropriations Committee hearing he was curious as to whether there was a way to monitor the board that would receive the funds. Friese said that the board could “spend money as they see fit without review.”   

The committee’s chairwoman, Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, said that while there was no established review for the fund, she would be open to a review of recommended expenses for the board in the future.  

Rep. Aaron Lieberman, D-Paradise Valley, said that while the fund was a step in the right direction, it did not directly solve the underlying problem.   

Lieberman then directly took note of issues he had both with the bill and the water treatment, citing issues such as water pumping that the bill did not adequately address.   

“Unfortunately this bill isn’t doing anything to bring some accountability along with the significant investment,” Lieberman said.  

Cobb said people “can always say it’s not enough and vote no, but it’s something so I vote yes.”   

The bill was narrowly passed by the House Appropriations Committee 7-6, with Republican Rep. Jake Hoffman, R-Gilbert, joining five Democrats in opposition.   

Senate Democrats also questioned the bill’s credibility in the Senate Appropriations Committee, where it passed on a partisan line of 6-4.   

Sandy Bahr, director for the Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter, spoke in opposition of the measure.  

“While it is true many parts of the state do not have sustainable water supplies based on current or projected uses as the bill indicates, the fund does nothing to address the underlying issues contributing to that,” Bahr said.  

Bahr similarly cited unfettered groundwater pumping and connections between ground and service water as points of concern. Bahr also said she believed that the proposal should have been a stand-alone bill so it could be debated and evaluated on its own merits.  

3 utility regulators block Arizona’s path to clean energy

Energy towers on an  electric sky background. 3D rendered image.

The Arizona Corporation Commission on July 30 missed a historic opportunity to put Arizona on a path toward a cleaner, healthier and more prosperous future by failing to strengthen the state’s antiquated energy rules.

Unfortunately, Commissioners Boyd Dunn, Justin Olson, and Lea Marquez Peterson lobbied against a bi-partisan energy proposal – endorsed by Chairman Bob Burns and Commissioner Sandra Kennedy – along with a broad coalition of NGOs, business, faith and community groups to modernize Arizona’s rules on clean energy and energy efficiency. Collectively, support was demonstrated by thousands of customers and businesses.

The result was adjournment of the meeting with no clear path forward.

Amanda Ormond
Amanda Ormond

Most egregious is the failure not to extend and expand options for customers to save energy and lower utility bills through energy efficiency. Energy efficiency in Arizona has more than delivered on its promises to reduce costs, create jobs, strengthen our economy and ensure we have cleaner air and water, which leads to healthier communities. By not supporting extension of the current energy efficiency standard today, all Arizonans will see higher utility bills at a time when pocketbooks are already stressed because of the COVID-19 crisis.

Sandy Bahr
Sandy Bahr

Chairman Burns and Commissioner Kennedy proposed bold steps to reform the Commission’s  ineffective resource planning and procurement process. If adopted today, their proposal would have established a robust process with significant stakeholder participation, a bidding process that will ensure fairness and encourage competition among energy suppliers, and careful consideration of the state’s energy needs would have been adopted.

The bipartisan proposal from Burns and Kennedy called for:

  • Utilities to generate 50% of their energy from renewable sources by 2030
  • Utilities to be 100% carbon-free by 2050
  • Extending the Energy Efficiency Standard to 35% by 2030
  • More transparent and accountable long-term resource planning process

It also included important interim benchmarks to ensure utilities could not shelve their clean energy plans for years, or even decades, and called for support for a just and equitable transition for communities impacted by power plant closures and mining pollution.

Rules were under consideration for two years, with 10 public meetings, thousands of comments filed, and hundreds of hours of engagement by stakeholders. The July 30 meeting was the last opportunity this year for this elected and appointed commission to pass clean energy rules in 2020, due to the length of the rules process.

Amanda Ormond is director of the Western Grid Group and former director of the Arizona Energy Office. Sandy Bahr is director of the Sierra Club, Grand Canyon Chapter

9th Circuit rules Obama’s withdrawal of Grand Canyon land for mining legal

A federal appeals court has rebuffed efforts by mining interests to reopen a huge area around the Grand Canyon to new uranium mining.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected arguments by the National Mining Association and allied groups that it was illegal for Kenneth Salazar, the Interior Secretary in the Obama administration, to withdraw about 1 million acres around the park to new mining claims for 20 years. The court said while there may be differences in opinion on what danger the mining poses to the water supply, that did not make the withdrawal either arbitrary or capricious.

Judge Marsha Berzon, writing for the unanimous three-judge panel, also said Salazar and his department did not violate requirements for the federal government to promote multiple uses of public lands.

Marsha Berzon
Marsha Berzon

“Interior engaged in a careful and reasoned balancing of the potential economic benefits of additional mining against the possible risks to environmental and cultural resources,” said Berzon, an appointee of President Clinton. “This approach was fully consonant with the multiple-use principle.”

And the appellate court said the Interior Department met its legal requirement to consider the potential impact of its actions on local governments. That included a resolution passed by the Mohave County Board of Supervisors against withdrawing the land from new claims.

But Berzon said simply more is not required.

“In particular, the consent of state and local governments to a withdrawal is in no way required,” she wrote, saying the National Environmental Policy Act “does not confer veto power on potentially affected state or local governments, each with its own economic interests.”

Sandy Bahr, lobbyist for the Sierra Club in Arizona, acknowledged that the ruling comes as the Trump administration is weighing whether to narrow the off-limits area or rescind Salazar’s designation entirely.

But Bahr said any such move could not be unilateral, with Trump and his administration having to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act “and justify doing so.”

“We will oppose it and challenge it if he moves forward with rescinding it,” she said.

Mining Association spokeswoman Jamie Caswell said her organization is disappointed by the decision.

“We are reviewing it further to determine any future actions,” she said.

Large quantities of uranium was first discovered near the national park in the late 1940s. Production surged in the 1980s and 1990s with a spike in prices.

A rainbow in the Grand Canyon as seen from Near Mather Point on the South Rim. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture)
A rainbow in the Grand Canyon as seen from Near Mather Point on the South Rim. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture)

But Berzon said that the collapse of the Soviet Union and decommissioning of many nuclear warheads pretty much halted mining in the area.

All that changed in 2007 with another price spike, she said. But in 2012, reacting to concerns about the impact of mining radioactive materials, Salazar proposed withdrawing about 1 million acres from new claims.

The mining interests sued. After being rebuffed in 2014 by a federal judge in Arizona they took their case to the appellate court.

Berzon said there were concerns about the potential impact of a large-scale increase in mining.

“Uranium mining has been associated with uranium and arsenic contamination in water supplies, which may affect plant and animal growth, survival, and reproduction, and which may increase the incidence of kidney damage and cancer in humans,” she wrote. And Berzon noted that multiple reports “all acknowledged substantial uncertainty regarding water quality and quantity in the area, the possible impact of additional mining on perched and deep aquifers, and the effect of radionuclide exposure on plants, animals and humans.”

The result, she said, was a “measured approach” by the department, saying that keeping new mining from starting for 20 years will allow for additional data on things like groundwater flow paths and the contribution that mining makes to radiation.

Berzon said legal challenges to decisions like those made by Salazar can be overturned by courts only in cases where they are “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with the law.” And the judge said courts give great deference to the actions of an agency and uphold them “if a reasonable basis exists for its decision.”

In this case, she said, there is reason for the court not to overturn what Salazar did.

She said there was evidence that additional uranium mining could pose a risk of concentration. That included an analysis of more than 1,000 water samples within the region which found that 70 sites exceeded federal contaminant levels for heavy metals.

And samples from 15 springs and five wells indicated uranium concentrations exceeded standards.

Berzon acknowledged that some analysts within the Interior Department disagreed with the risk.

“But the existence of internal disagreements regarding the potential risk of contamination does not render the agency’s ultimate decision arbitrary and capricious,” the judge wrote. “Scientific conclusions reached by the agency need not reflect the unanimous opinion of its experts.”

The appellate court also backed the finding that the area is of “profound significance and importance to Native American tribes.” And the judges said nothing in law requires the Interior Department to limit protection to smaller carve-outs rather than preserving larger areas which have multiple cultural and historic sites.

Berzon agreed with arguments that existing laws and regulations might mitigate the impact of uranium mining on environmental, cultural and visual resources, as well as wildlife and human health. But she said the final environmental study “does not suggest that simply enforcing existing laws and regulations would suffice to meet the purposes of the withdrawal.”

Clean energy ballot measure could close nuclear plant

These structures store spent fuel. Officials say Palo Verde has enough space to store used fuel indefinitely while the federal government decides where to place a permanent national storage facility. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Griselda Nevarez)
These structures store spent fuel. Officials say Palo Verde has enough space to store used fuel indefinitely while the federal government decides where to place a permanent national storage facility. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Griselda Nevarez)

About 50 miles west of downtown Phoenix, three massive concrete domes, spaced side-by-side on a 4,000-acre plot of land, dominate the skyline.

The Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station is the nation’s largest power producer, serving 4 million people across the Southwest and providing about 35 percent of Arizona’s electric power, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

If the Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona initiative appears on the ballot in November, voters will decide the plant’s future. The initiative calls for 50 percent of Arizona’s electrical energy to come from renewable sources, mostly solar and wind, by 2030. Nuclear power would be hit hardest among sources of power in Arizona, because Palo Verde could not operate at levels low enough to satisfy the initiative’s requirements. Supporters have less than two months to gather enough signatures to qualify the initiative for the ballot.

At a news media tour of the plant in April, reporters donned head-to-toe protective gear to guard against radiation before entering one of Palo Verde’s three nuclear-containment buildings. The reactor was undergoing refueling, a process that repeats every 18 months.

Inside the sweltering concrete dome, a central pool containing the nuclear reactor gave off a bluish tinge. The jumpsuit-clad refueling crew sat aboard a metal contraption moving slowly above the pool, dragging fuel assemblies – rectangular stacks of pallets containing uranium – by a rope through the water.

Every six months, one of the containment buildings goes through a month-long refueling process. Palo Verde plans these outages for the fall and spring, when Arizona and Southern California need the least electricity for heating and cooling, spokesman Alan Bunnell said.

Turning the reactor on and off isn’t as easy as pressing a button – it involves weeks of preparation. That’s one of the reasons the plant would have to shut down completely if the ballot initiative passes, said Jack Cadogan, senior vice president of site operations. Solar energy sources would generate so much power during the day in Arizona that there wouldn’t be enough room on the grid for nuclear.

“We would have to shut Palo Verde down during the day every day,” Cadogan said. “But that’s not how nuclear plants really work. Nuclear plants can’t just be shut down and then started up again.”

California has a similar problem, he said. Its solar energy sources produce so much excess electricity that it pays Arizona to take the excess power. But if Arizona must switch to 50 percent renewables, it no longer will be able to take California’s extra power. That means both states probably will have to spend billions developing technology to store solar energy, he said.

“The only reason (California’s) electric bills are not double of ours, I think, is because they have not tackled the storage issue,” Cadogan said. “But this mandate would force us all to tackle it all at once. And there’s going to be a lot of customers that are going to be hurt, especially lower income customers.”

Rodd McLeod, a spokesman for the Clean Energy Initiative, took issue with Arizona Public Service’s assertion that the requirements of the initiative would force them to close the plant. He was skeptical about APS’ argument that Palo Verde would no longer be economically viable, since utilities from other states own part of the plant.

“If the Palo Verde plant closes, it’s going to be because APS decides to close it,” McLeod said.

Supporters of the initiative, including Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter, say that the long-term benefits outweigh the immediate costs.

“Here in Arizona, solar is a great resource that we have that we should be utilizing more of,” Bahr said. “And I think the public gets that, the voters get that, and they’re very supportive of it. That’s why the utilities are trying so hard to create confusion and to create fear and try and undermine it.”

Because generating nuclear energy produces radioactive waste and involves mining and processing uranium, a nonrenewable resource, nuclear isn’t classified as renewable. However, APS calls the Palo Verde plant the nation’s largest source of clean-air energy because it doesn’t emit carbon.

For the initiative’s backers, though, that’s not enough.

“From the perspective of someone who wants clean, sustainable, renewable energy, nuclear power doesn’t cut it,” Bahr said.

Supporters of the Clean Energy initiative must get nearly 226,000 valid signatures of  registered voters by July 5 to get it on the November ballot. Backers include the Arizona Asthma Coalition and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Dirty air, weak enforcement hurt Arizona during COVID-19


In the middle of any crisis, Arizonans expect our leaders to use every tool at their disposal to do what is best for our communities. But as the coronavirus pandemic impacts all Arizonans, President Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency is taking quite an opposite approach, using our nation’s efforts to combat COVID-19 as an excuse to issue an unprecedented suspension of its enforcement of environmental safeguards and continuing its rollback of important standards.

Right now is the worst time to relax standards and the enforcement of these vital protections. A recent national study used data from more than 3,000 counties and determined that air with higher levels of particulate pollution, including soot, dust, smoke, and other air toxins, is associated with higher death rates from this dangerous virus. To be clear, unchecked air pollution will only exacerbate the severity of COVID-19.

Instead of protecting Arizonans, who are already subject to poor air quality, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, is abdicating his basic responsibility. The Phoenix metro area has significant air quality issues, ranking seventh worst for ozone pollution and annual particle pollution among cities across America, per the recently released American Lung Association “2020 State of the Air” report. Tucson also faces challenges – in 2018, its air pollution violated federal ozone standards for the first time. People in Yuma and Pinal County are also significantly affected by unhealthful air.

Sandy Bahr
Sandy Bahr
The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality’s enforcement of our nation’s bedrock environmental laws locally is also at issue as it has reserved fines and other penalties for only the most severe cases. Take Johnson Utilities, for example, which was sued by ADEQ in 2019 for $100 million in penalties over its water-quality violations. This is despite the fact that the company has been the most cited utility by the state since 2017, with more than 300 complaints filed.

Further, a lack of enforcement puts the very health of our most marginalized communities at risk. Communities of color are more likely to live near pollution sources, and bear more of the burden of poor air quality. In Phoenix, ozone-related pollution disproportionately impacts low-income areas. With lax enforcement, those most vulnerable stand to lose even more.

Reducing pollution in our communities must be a high priority. I have friends in my Phoenix neighborhood who have asthma and other respiratory issues and I’ve seen first-hand how poor air quality makes that worse, plus I know it takes years off our lives. That is why I have fought to reduce dangerous ozone and particulate pollution and improve air quality, so we all have healthy air to breathe. Now, with data linking air pollution to increased susceptibility to COVID-19 complications, there is added importance of this work, as well as heightened concern for those who are most at risk and their loved ones. In the middle of a public health crisis, our leaders need to stand with us in this fight for cleaner air.

As the EPA walks off the field entirely, our federal representatives must speak out against these dangerous actions. I am asking our representatives in Congress and Senators Martha McSally and Kyrsten Sinema to hold the Trump administration accountable for failing to follow the science and protect our health and environment. In the middle of this life-threatening outbreak, Arizona needs our leaders to do just that: lead.

Sandy Bahr is director of the Sierra Club Grand Canyon chapter.

Ducey firm in belief cotton farming should continue in desert

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, right, chats with Gila River Gov. Stephen Rae Lewis Friday at the formal inauguration of a recharge product and cultural display on tribal grounds. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, right, chats with Gila River Gov. Stephen Rae Lewis Friday at the formal inauguration of a recharge product and cultural display on tribal grounds. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

Gov. Doug Ducey said Friday he sees no reason for farmers to give up growing cotton in the desert, even with the ongoing drought situation.

Ducey told Capitol Media Services he believes there’s plenty of water for everyone. And he rejected any suggestion that Arizona needs to cut back on water for agricultural use – about 70 percent of what the state consumes now – if the state is continue to grow.

The governor’s comments came after he attended a ceremony on the Gila River Indian Community to formally inaugurate the tribe’s managed aquifer recharge project.

That project is related at least indirectly to the newly approved drought contingency plan. According to tribal officials, storing more water underground will allow it to not only replenish its aquifer and increase its reliance on pumped groundwater rather than rely on its allocation of water through the Central Arizona Project.

And that, in turn, allows the tribe to leave some of its allocation in Lake Mead, already anticipated to drop to a level next year that will reduce Arizona’s share of river water, to prevent the lake from dropping even further and triggering even more cuts.

Even without the drought, Arizona is in the desert. And the state averages only about eight inches of rain a year.

Ducey said that shouldn’t deter farmers from continuing to plant cotton. He said that water deals going back years create “a balance between agriculture, development and, of course, respect for our tribal nations.”

As to whether that balance needs to change, Ducey said he wants “to leave the discussion on some of the specifics to the actual subject-matter experts.”

“But Arizona’s been a proud cotton state in the past,” he said. “And I believe we can be one going into the future as well.”

That, however, still leaves the question of whether there is enough for the state, whose population now exceeds 7 million, can continue to grow with such a high percentage of its water being consumed by crops.

“There will always be more to do on water in Arizona,” he said. But Ducey also cited figures from the state Department of Water Resources that overall use in Arizona is slightly less than it was in the 1957, when the state’s population was about one million – and not just on a per-capita basis.

Agency spokesman Doug MacEachern said some of that is due to farmers becoming more efficient with their irrigation practices. But MacEachern said that there also is less farming in the state.

“We’re still able to enjoy a great quality of life in Arizona,” the governor said.

Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, who was at Friday’s event, said he shares the governor’s belief that there’s no need to tell farmers they should not be growing cotton.

Anyway, he said, the desert climate is at least part of the reason that cotton grown here commands higher prices. And that, Shope said, is because farmers can control not only when plants are watered but how much goes on it.

He told of visiting a lawmaker from Alabama who is a cotton farmer outside of Huntsville “who gushed over what we’re able to do here.”

For the moment, the voices promoting farming appear to have the upper hand in Arizona.

During the recent debate over the drought contingency plan, Sandy Bahr, chapter president of the Sierra Club, told lawmakers that one element of the plan should be to at least encourage farmers to convert from thirsty crops like cotton and alfalfa to more sustainable plants. And she bemoaned the fact that there is nothing in the plan that actually deals with conservation.

Ducey’s response was to sign an executive order forming a council “to analyze and recommend opportunities for water augmentation, innovation and conservation. The council’s first report is due July 1, 2020.


Environmentalists seek protections for dry riverbeds

Pictured is a dry wash near State Route 89 between Congress and Prescott, one of thousands of ephemeral streams now under the regulatory control of the state since recent changes to the Clean Water Act have narrowed federal oversight. PHOTO BY MARTIN LABAR/FLICKR
Pictured is a dry wash near State Route 89 between Congress and Prescott, one of thousands of ephemeral streams now under the regulatory control of the state since recent changes to the Clean Water Act have narrowed federal oversight. PHOTO BY MARTIN LABAR/FLICKR

The future is murky for many Arizona rivers and streams now that changes to the Clean Water Act have narrowed federal oversight. Yet with no map or list delineating where state control begins, the number of vulnerable waterways in Arizona is immense.

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality plans to seek legislation next year that would create a state program for monitoring water quality, and is working to identify the rivers and streams under its control since June. However the department acts will have wide effect on water in a desert state.

More than a dozen environmental groups issued a letter this month outlining what they hoped would be included in the new policies. The 17 signatures included the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and local chapters of the Audubon Society, none of which were invited to partake in the stakeholder discussions the department has hosted over the past six months.

For Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Arizona chapter, the waters most at risk are ephemeral streams – the desert washes and dry riverbeds that come to life after rain. Though the streams don’t flow year-round, some environmental advocates say they are important to groundwater recharge and wildlife.

“When you lose Clean Water Act protections, there’s a lot that goes with it,” Bahr said. She wants to see more respect and understanding in Arizona for the role of ephemeral streams — “for what really amounts to most of our waters.”

Sandy Bahr
Sandy Bahr

Ephemeral streams were deemed protected by the Clean Water Act in 2015 when the Obama administration classified them as “Waters of the United States,” along with traditional waters like rivers, tributaries, lakes and ponds. The current rule rescinded that status.

Both the Obama and Trump-era changes attempted to reduce confusion in the original Clean Water Act, according to Cynthia Campbell, a former water quality manager at ADEQ and now a water adviser to the city of Phoenix. Both rules also set off a series of court challenges, with the 2015 rule immediately stayed in Arizona.

“We have yet to see either rule in effect,” Campbell said. “So I think the answer to the question, ‘Which one of these rules provides more clarity?’ has yet to be seen.”

At issue now is how to sort ephemeral streams from rivers and streams that flow part of the year, but not in response to rain, which are known as intermittent tributaries and are still included in the Waters of the United States. The difference could mean regulations on pollution, farming and construction, or little to none until Arizona issues its own rules.

But the state doesn’t have the stream-flow data needed to make those distinctions. An estimated 80% of waterways in Arizona were unclassified as of August.

Ecologist Juliet Stromberg said she’s concerned about how the redefined Clean Water Act will affect the desert rivers she has studied in her career. 

“(E)ven the smallest and driest ephemeral streams have important functions, such as maintaining diversity of plants during extended drought,” she said in an email to the Arizona Capitol Times.

Waterways like the Hassayampa River and Cienega Creek have ephemeral stretches, she said, but “are part of the network that connects the mountains and mountain tributaries to the desert lands and large desert rivers below.”

State leaders have supported the Clean Water Act changes as a way to manage Arizona’s unique waters with local knowledge. Still, the challenges surrounding implementation have slowed that effort.

Federal agencies “provided limited guidance and tools to assist states in applying the new rule,” ADEQ spokeswoman Caroline Oppleman said in a written statement, adding that several parts of the new rule were “not clear.”

“This ambiguity is an obstacle in understanding which waters remain under Clean Water Act jurisdiction and in developing a state program,” she wrote.

To tackle that uncertainty, ADEQ has led a series of discussion groups among 20 stakeholders that include experts in water policy, industry representatives and environmental advocates. Yet Bahr, of the Sierra Club, was dismayed to learn the meetings were closed to the public.

Stefanie Smallhouse
Stefanie Smallhouse

“They want everyone to speak freely,” she said. “Our concern is well, what is it that’s being said that, you know, you wouldn’t want the public to hear?”

Oppleman said the department is having early-stage discussions with individuals and groups outside the stakeholder meetings, and is reaching out to other agencies, neighboring states and tribes for input. 

“ADEQ will continue to gather extensive public input throughout the legislative and formal rulemaking process,” she said.

The litigation and changing definitions of the Clean Water Act have also created uncertainty for landowners and industry professionals. Without guidance on which waters are ephemeral, they can’t know if they need a permit to farm or build near a stream.

Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy, said she and other stakeholders have discussed the need for clear rules in their meetings with ADEQ.

“It’s been for a very long time, very difficult for those entities to know what to do,” she said. The search for data, toolkits and soon a draft rulemaking is “a lot better than continuing in the dark.”

The Arizona Farm Bureau is one group that supports looser regulations for ephemeral streams. Water quantity and quality are vital to farming, said President Stefanie Smallhouse, but a permit shouldn’t be necessary to plow or plant crops near every desert wash.

“If you’re requiring a permit for a waterway that doesn’t have any water in it, then you’re regulating land use, not water quality,” she said. 

Recently, the department has tested a screening tool that will help determine whether a permit is required for a given stream or water body. Agency leaders plan to meet again with stakeholders in October and begin the legislative process next year. The final program for surface water quality may not be implemented until 2023.

EPA funding cuts expected to impact Arizona air, water programs

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality expects reductions in grant funding from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, but a lack of specifics have impeded planning.

The Trump administration announced a reduction of $2.6 billion in the EPA’s proposed fiscal 2018 budget in March, a plan that is now making its way through Congress. One of the most significant potential cuts is a shrinking of state and tribal grants. These grants historically have made up a substantial portion of the ADEQ budget, close to 10 percent last year.

In response, the ADEQ has included a proactive $1.2 million reduction to grant-funded air and water quality programs for its fiscal year 2019 proposed budget.

However, in the budget proposal the ADEQ asserted that it has not been made clear to them which EPA programs will be cut and by how much. Though the agency has sketched out a few potential cuts, final decisions can’t be made with the current lack of information.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in a public statement that the new EPA budget would support agency priorities, while respecting taxpayers. However, the cuts drew wide criticism from environmental activists and liberal politicians.

Sandy Bahr
Sandy Bahr

“It’s very unwise for the Congress to be making such big cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency when we have so many important issues to address,” said Sandy Bahr, spokeswoman for the Sierra Club-Grand Canyon Chapter.

Already on the chopping block in Arizona are a variety of grant-funded air and water quality programs. Among the highest potential reductions are a $400,000 cut to the Surface Water Quality Improvement Planning program and a $190,000 cut to the Facility Emissions Control program.

Other programs that were identified include Air Improvement Planning, Groundwater Protection, Surface Water Protection and Safe Drinking Water.

Many more could be at risk, according to a new report from the Environmental Defense Fund. The nonprofit says that in addition to serious reductions to air and water quality programs in Arizona, funds for several others like the Nonpoint Source Pollution Management program will be cut completely. This program addresses run-off pollution from a variety of sources from roads to farms.

Bahr’s previous concerns that the ADEQ lacks necessary funding have been compounded by the potential for a new round of cuts.

“The ADEQ primary mission is protecting public health and the environment,” said Bahr. “Additional cuts will mean less protection for air and water, but also delaying action on air quality and water quality that affects our health.”

ADEQ declined to elaborate. “All of this information at this time is a draft,” said Caroline Oppleman, ADEQ public information officer. “We are looking to obtain more details… which at this time is not available.”

However, the agency stated in the proposed budget that EPA funding reductions could have serious consequences.

“The reductions, if enacted, will impact funding of ADEQ’s labor force, our pass through funding to local government organizations and the amounts dispersed to private sector organizations who help us accomplish our mission.”

Flow of water in desert brings life to Arizona’s economy


Water is life. Its management is a state trust responsibility. In Arizona’s arid environment, rivers, streams, and springs are vital to sustaining a diversity of plants and animals and are tied to the well-being of human communities and our state and local economies.

Sadly, unsustainable water use over the past century has dried up the vast majority of Arizona’s rivers, and our remaining flowing rivers are at significant risk, especially in the Upper Verde and the San Pedro rivers, which are threatened by surface water diversions, groundwater pumping, drought, and climate change. Arizona’s $21 billion-dollar tourist economy relies on healthy rivers and riparian habitat for wildlife watching, boating, hiking, hunting and fishing, and sightseeing, all of which will be harmed by continued diminishing flows in our rivers.

Sandy Bahr
Sandy Bahr

Despite this, concerns about flowing rivers have not even been on the table in the governor’s backroom invitation-only water meetings or with legislators. Instead, the focus has been on a power struggle between the Central Arizona Water Conservation District and the Arizona Department of Water Resources and how Arizona can temporarily avoid taking shortages on Colorado River water by leaving more water in Lake Mead. Even the discussions about the Colorado River itself do not include the need to consider the health of the river. What is wrong with this picture?

First, it ignores what is unique about Arizona. Despite its aridity, our state hosts wonderful, diverse desert rivers. If you have ever viewed these rivers from above, you have seen what a green ribbon of life they represent. Second, it focuses too much on what people and investors from other parts of the country think about Arizona rather than responsibly planning ahead for Arizonans. Third, it seeks to maintain a boom-bust economy, when we need a state that understands that vibrant 21st century economies—and the physical and mental well-being of our citizens—include establishing legal protection for our rivers.

Studies by federal and state agencies report numerous challenges to our water supply that threaten our future economy, our lifestyle, and our environment. The time to address these challenges is now. We must honestly assess if we can continue to afford to base our state’s economy on excessive growth and water-intensive uses without significant reform.

Growing numbers of countries are taking a forward-thinking path that places conservation of environmental/ecological flows in rivers at the center of water management practices. Maintaining Arizona’s rivers and streams is something that is fundamental to the future of our state, its economy, and its citizens. Ecological flows and living rivers are not distinct from or in competition with human uses, but rather, human uses rely on healthy flows in rivers and streams. This is recognized in two bills introduced this session, SB1475 and HB2581, which unfortunately did not get hearings. Water is life, including our economic life.

— Sandy Bahr is director of the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club.


The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.

GOP lawmaker looks to add restrictions to voter initiatives

A Fountain Hills lawmaker is seeking a new restriction that could make it more difficult for voters to propose complex changes in state law.

The proposal by Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, would limit future ballot measures to “one subject,” with a requirement that be spelled out in the title. More to the point, it would allow a court to void any portion of a voter-approved measure not mentioned in the title.

Kavanagh said he is simply trying to extend to voter-crafted measures the same rules that apply to laws proposed by the Legislature.

But it comes after voters in 2006 approved Proposition 206 which hiked the state’s minimum wage from $8.05 an hour to $10, with automatic escalator clauses that will take the figure to $12 by 2020.

After its approval, business interests asked the Arizona Supreme Court to void the measure, pointing to another provision which requires most companies to provide workers with at least five days of sick and personal leave.

Sen. John Kavanagh (R-Fountain Hills)
Sen. John Kavanagh (R-Fountain Hills)

The justices swatted down that argument, saying that constitutional provisions that limit legislation to a single subject do not apply when the proposal comes from voters. That means initiative backers are free to propose new statutes with a full garden of ideas in a single measure, even if they are unrelated.

Kavanagh contends that practice amounts to “logrolling.” In essence, the idea is to keep voters from having to “hold their nose” and support something they do not like in exchange for getting something they want simply because it is being offered in a single take-it-or-leave-it measure.

“We need to separate different issues,” he said.

Tomas Robles, who chairs the group that got voters to adopt the minimum wage hike, has a different take on SCR 1001.

“Anytime the Legislature is trying to reduce the power of what our vote can accomplish, it’s a bad thing,” he said. And he called any effort to undermine the ability of citizens to propose their own law “dangerous.”

Robles also pointed out this isn’t an isolated effort by the Republican-controlled Legislature to curb initiatives.

Last year alone lawmakers erected several new hurdles in the path of initiative organizers. These include a prohibition on paying circulators based on the number of signatures they receive to allowing judges to disqualify petition drives if there has not been “strict compliance” with each technical requirement.

Kavanagh, for his part, said fears that the change will stymie the initiative process are unfounded. He said the Legislature, which operates under a similar constitutional constraint, still manages to craft measures that become law.

But Sierra Club lobbyist Sandy Bahr said that fails to acknowledge a key difference in the process.

Lawmakers can get paid staffers to draft measures to have them considered; citizens need to not only hire outside legal help but then spend time and money gathering the signatures to put them on the ballot. And having to break issues into multiple petition drives, she said, simply doubles the cost.

What that leaves as a reason, Bahr said, is that lawmakers want to make it more difficult for voters to propose and enact their own laws — especially ones that are not in sync with the thinking of the Republican majority.

“They don’t like when the people pass measures that really are contrary to what they would do,” she said. And Bahr called the motive behind Kavanagh’s measure “pretty transparent, especially in light of the minimum wage issue.”

Bahr said there’s one good thing about what Kavanagh has proposed.

As a constitutional amendment, it could not take effect unless and until it is approved at the ballot. And Bahr said that gives groups like hers a chance to explain to voters why they should reject what he is proposing.

Governor’s Office immersed in drought talks, water policy do-over

Gov. Doug Ducey (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Gov. Doug Ducey (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Gov. Doug Ducey is all in on Arizona efforts to stabilize water levels in Lake Mead.

The governor and his staff are playing an integral role in bringing Arizona water interests together to reach an internal state agreement on the drought-contingency plan.

The Governor’s Office’s heavy involvement in the process comes after Ducey had high aspirations of making strides on water policy during the 2018 legislative session, but his push for far-reaching water reform quickly dried up.

As he campaigns for a second, four-year term, Ducey has committed to completing a drought-contingency plan to leave more water in the Colorado River in order to conserve water levels on Lake Mead. The drought planning comes as the federal Bureau of Reclamation predicts a shortage could happen on the lake as soon as 2020.

Although he is still campaigning for a second term, Ducey appears poised to win re-election.

Ducey sees his role in the drought talks as protecting Arizona’s water interests. He has also been in communication with Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke over the drought-planning discussions. The Department of Interior has been heavily involved in drought-contingency plan negotiations between the states, said Kirk Adams, Ducey’s chief of staff.

“Our state is growing. We‘ve been a leader on water management for decades, and we’re in a position where we’ve brought our constituencies together to talk about the plan going forward,” Ducey told the Arizona Capitol Times in an October interview.

The Lower Colorado River Basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California and the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming are negotiating water conservation agreements as water levels in Lake Mead continue to decline. The states released draft agreements to implement drought-contingency plans in the Upper and Lower Basins to boost water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the Colorado River’s largest reservoirs.

But putting together a plan to detail water cutbacks for Arizona is a complicated balancing act of spreading out the shortage impacts among municipalities, various agriculture districts, developers, Native American tribes and other groups that depend on water deliveries from the Colorado River that will inevitably be lessened.

A steering committee made up of more than 35 members aims to hammer out details of the proposed drought plan this month. If all goes according to plan, the Legislature would sign off in early 2019. The plan would then go to Ducey for approval.

While the Governor’s Office is playing a critical role in the talks — two Ducey staffers sit on the steering committee — representatives for the executive branch are not dictating the terms of the drought-contingency plan, Adams said.

“Ultimately, this is not a decision that can be forced upon the water community by the Governor’s Office,” he said. “This will require the water community to give and take with each other to make this happen. If we were to say the Governor’s Office demands that you do X, it would fail.”

Ducey took flak from key lawmakers and conservation groups for conducting a series of closed-door meetings on a water policy overhaul last year. He did and still does think Arizona should speak with one voice on water, which further strained the relationship between the Central Arizona Project and the Department of Water Resources.

But the process in which Arizona water interests are negotiating the drought-contingency plan this year is notably different from last year’s behind-the-scenes approach led by the Governor’s Office.

For one, CAP and DWR, clearly recognizing the severity of the situation in Lake Mead, are working hand-in-hand to move along drought-planning talks. Key lawmakers such as Rep. Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, and Sen. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, were tapped to sit on the drought-contingency plan steering committee.

But Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club, criticized the drought-planning process as lacking transparency.

“I think the way the governor and the governor’s representatives are going about this is almost as bad as last year,” she said. “This drought-contingency steering committee does have meetings that are in public, but the discussions are happening in these smaller meetings that aren’t open to the public.”

No Sierra Club representatives sit on the steering committee. Bahr also criticized the steering committee for focusing solely on the drought-contingency plan and not talking about other conservation efforts.

Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University, said the behind-the-scenes conversations are necessary to have honest negotiations that position the parties closer to an agreement.

“You probably don’t cut deals in a room with 40 people at the table and 200 people in the audience,” she said. “It’s not where you actually cut the deal. That’s where you announce the deal.”

The steering committee has bimonthly public meetings.

It’s also hard to pinpoint what would happen if Arizona can’t come to a deal on where cutbacks would occur, Porter said.

She hopes it doesn’t come to that, but if it does, Porter said she thinks the other Western states and water users would recognize Arizona’s earnest attempts to come to agreement.

“If we weren’t successful, my hope would be that the other states and water managers would give Arizona credit for having made very sincere efforts and would try to figure out some kind of interim management arrangement,” she said.

Meanwhile, the states’ 2007 agreement that established shortage allocations among the Lower Basin states and guidelines for operation of the two lakes under low-reservoir conditions still stands, she said. The parties are set to renegotiate those guidelines in 2020.

Ultimately, Adams said the reason Ducey and the Legislature didn’t make any prior progress on water reform was because of the steep learning curve lawmakers faced on water issues. Now, legislators and the public are far more educated and engaged on the issue, which bodes well for getting lawmakers to sign off on the drought-contingency plan, Adams said.

Adams said he is “cautiously optimistic” about where the negotiations currently stand.

But he also said there is one cardinal rule when it comes to water: “Thou shall be flexible.”

Gubernatorial candidates tout drought plans

Water flows through this canal Saturday, June 27, 2020, in Laveen, Ariz. Central Arizona has been booming — more people, more houses, more need for water. There’s also a long-term drought, and less water to buy from the Central Arizona Project canal system. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

As election season heats up, politicians and activists are voicing their opinions on how elected officials can work together toward a solution to the drought plaguing the state.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake says she is committed to a three-step plan to tackle the drought, according to a spokesperson. This plan includes conservation, water swaps and leases, as well as managing current resources. She said she plans to increase the storage capacity of the Salt and Verde rivers, lining and covering canals, creating more wells to better capture groundwater and building desalination facilities for brackish water.

As for long term solutions, Lake says she plans to seek a new, sustainable source of fresh water. Her spokesperson said Lake is “committed to exploring every possible opportunity to do so and pushing to secure unified action with our federal, state and international partners.”

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Katie Hobbs, the current secretary of state, laid out a multi-step plan on how she would resolve the drought. This plan is called Resilient Arizona.

“The water crisis we’re facing today is the result of years of elected leaders kicking the can down the road, and now requires immediate and discerning action from Arizona’s next governor,” Hobbs’ spokesperson said.

Hobbs has said she plans to create a task force of experts, which she plans to call the Water and Energy Innovation Initiative. She also has said she plans to modernize the Arizona Groundwater Management Act, which was passed in 1980. In doing this she said she hopes to improve water access to rural communities by creating locally tailored water conservation and management programs. These programs would be state funded and supported.

Hobbs also said she plans to expand water reuse efforts in Arizona. She said she wants to utilize the Water Infrastructure Finance Authority (WIFA) to expand water reuse in the state. She said she will give grants to Arizonans to help them utilize these reuse efforts. Finally, she says she plans to utilize “tens of millions of dollars” from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality to ensure water is clean and safe to consume.

The Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter in Arizona works to protect national parks, forests, wildlife habitats and bodies of water, including tackling the drought.

Grand Canyon Chapter Director Sandy Bahr said she prefers the term aridity to drought, because drought implies a temporary issue. Bahr predicts that Arizona’s dry conditions will be a permanent issue. She said droughts, flooding and wildfires are caused by climate change. Bahr called climate change a public health emergency that will make living in Arizona more expensive and more deadly for humans and wildlife.

She encouraged residents to “embrace the desert lifestyle,” saying acres of green turf are not sustainable in the Sonoran Desert. Bahr also encouraged Arizonans to urge their local members of Congress to focus on advocating for water conservation.

“We’ve seen the number of Republicans who are advocating for environmental protection take a dive,” she said. “At the Arizona Legislature, you can’t get a climate bill heard, let alone passed, and then the only ones that pass are the ones … where they don’t talk about climate change.”

Though Bahr’s hopes of getting Republicans to support action against climate change have dwindled, conservative environmentalists are beginning to take a stand. The Western Way, an organization that describes itself as “conservative stewards of the western environment,” aims to convince people of all political backgrounds about the environmental benefits of sustainability. The Western Way hopes to see Democrats and Republicans working together on environmental related policies.




Hobbs vetoes bill to regulate renewable energy

Calling it a potential barrier to renewable energy, Gov. Katie Hobbs vetoed legislation Monday which would have imposed new requirements on solar and wind generating plants.

HB 2618 contained a list of what cities, towns and counties could adopt in zoning standards, site-specific conditions and permitting requirements on such facilities.

Potentially more significant, it would have required owners to not only have a decommissioning plan in place but also to post a bond – essentially insurance – to cover the costs if the company goes bankrupt or otherwise tries to walk away. And it would even mandate restoring and re-establishing soils and vegetation using native seed mixes.

It also included requirements for liability insurance to protect the community from any financial obligations due to injuries or other damages caused by the plant.

Rio Verde, Senate, House
Rep. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford

Rep. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, said counties already have some oversight of such projects. What this would do, she said, is provide some basic standards.

The governor, however, said all that is too much.

“HB 2618 encourages an inconsistent statewide patchwork of regulations for renewable energy projects and would have a deep chilling effect on renewable energy development in Arizona,” Hobbs wrote in her veto message. “It creates additional regulatory confusion for businesses, negatively impacting Arizona’s ability to attract, retain, and grow a renewable energy ecosystem in our state and create good-paying jobs for everyday Arizonans.”

Other measures rejected by the governor on Monday include:

– Requiring that school board members have unrestricted access to administrative facilities and staff without having to first get permission from the district superintendent. Hobbs called it “an overcorrection for an issue that is occurring in a limited number of school boards across the state.”

– Expanding the ability of taxpayers to get dollar-for-dollar credits for contributing to organizations that provide scholarships to have students attend private and parochial schools, in this case, for foster children. Hobbs said taxpayers already are diverting $272 million a year away from the general fund and she will not support expansion.

– Allowing private companies access to information from the state Department of Revenue on taxpayers in the name of helping return lost property. The governor said that is “an abuse and misuse of public records.”

– Permitting the Department of Environmental Quality to have its own legal counsel. Hobbs said the agency already receives “effective and efficient legal representation from the attorney general.”

The veto of HB 2168 came at the behest of the Interwest Energy Alliance composed of major developers and manufacturers of large-scale renewable energy projects.

Lobbyist Stan Barnes said his industry is not opposed to some oversight, including assurances that there are plans for what happens at the end of the life expectancy of a plant. But Barnes said Monday he asked Hobbs to veto the measure because the legislation piled on new requirements above and beyond what local communities already can do.

Sierra Club lobbyist Sandy Bahr, testifying against the bill had a similar outlook.

Sierra Club, ADEQ, Bahr, ozone, pollution, NO, NOx, EPA, Maricopa County, carbon-hydrogen bonds, Covid, heart attacks, strokes, asthma
Sandy Bahr

“We think it includes overly prescriptive decommissioning requirements for these entities,” she said. And Bahr said counties already have broad zoning authority.

“Why the Legislature continues to single out solar and wind is beyond me, especially when this is an industry that provides over 8,000 jobs in Arizona and is about a $16.1 billion investment,” she told lawmakers.

Bahr also said there is an inconsistency in lawmakers saying they want to protect communities against having abandoned solar and wind farms when they specifically preclude counties from imposing similar requirements on sand and gravel operations. And she called the state cleanup requirement the weakest in the West.

Sen. Priya Sundareshan, D-Tucson, saw similar contradictions and said she could not support the “extra hurdles” being imposed only on renewable energy projects.

“This bill is unfairly singling out and targeting solar and wind power producers for requirements of decommissioning standards without similarly providing those standards for other types of power production, namely oil and gas and coal,” she argued during Senate floor debate on the issue. In fact, she tried to amend HB 2618 to include those facilities, only to have the proposal rejected after Republican supporters were told that Griffin did not support the change.

“Decommissioning is a very important topic,” Sundareshan said. But she said it is equally important to include other any other form of power production “that does leave a mark on our landscape.”

Griffin did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

House, Senate panels pass wildfire relief amid debate on climate change

In this photo provided by Joseph Pacheco, a wildfire is seen burning in Globe, Ariz., on Monday, June 7, 2021. (Joseph Pacheco via AP)
In this photo provided by Joseph Pacheco, a wildfire is seen burning in Globe, Ariz., on Monday, June 7, 2021. (Joseph Pacheco via AP)

Legislative panels gave initial approval Wednesday to a $100 million plan for fighting fires and their effects, but not before the discussion strayed into the question of climate change and whether humans are responsible for the heat and drought conditions that result in huge blazes.

The measures approved by House and Senate committees on natural resources include $75 million to most immediately fight the dozen or so active fires and prepare for the aftermath, including flooding and repairs. The package also includes nearly $25 million for “wildfire mitigation,” most of that to create 72 crews, each of 10 inmates, who would go out and reduce hazardous vegetation, mostly in areas around communities.

David Tenney, the state forester and the agency’s director, told lawmakers the additional dollars would provide a five-fold increase in the state’s current ability to clear about 4,000 acres a year.

Tenney also briefed lawmakers on the prospects for 2021 becoming one of the worst fire seasons in state history, saying that 896 blazes so far this year have charred 289,000 acres.

Last year, at the same time, only about 62,000 acres were lost. Ultimately fires consumed 900,000 acres in 2020.

But Tenney sidestepped questions from Sen. Kirsten Engel, D-Tucson, about how much of this he believes is due to climate change — particularly any caused by human activity.

“Obviously, there’s people with strong feelings on both sides of that issue,” he said.

“We recognize at our agency whether it’s man-caused or nature and not a lot we can do about it, bottom line is we’re in the middle of a really bad drought and things are drier than we’ve ever seen them,” Tenney continued. “So, conditions have changed.”

But he said it’s not just the heat. There’s also the drought.

“Then add in the population of Arizona has double or more in my lifetime, which means more people that want to get out of the heat and get into our forest, which means more people shooting at exploding targets and more people dragging chains and more people blowing tires and more people throwing out a cigarette butt or leaving a campfire unattended,” Tenney continued. Add to that the “timber wars” of decades earlier when there was no forest thinning

“So fire danger has increased for many reasons,” he said.

Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club, told legislators they should not approve this funding without also dealing with the underlying issues of the climate. That includes reducing emissions, including those coming from gasoline-powered vehicles.

She said virtually all of Arizona is in a drought condition, with more than half of it classified as extreme drought. Last summer was the hottest on record, Bahr said, and Lake Mead is at the lowest level since it was initially filled.

“But there is complete inaction by the legislature and the governor,” she said.

That provoked a kickback from several Republican legislators.

Rep. Frank Carroll of Sun City said climate change is just something that happens over the eons. Sen. David Gowan of Sierra agreed.

“We have ups and downs and you see it through our history,” he said. And Gowan derided claims that the climate is warming, noting there were stories in news magazines in the 1970s mentioning “global cooling.”

“Since you can’t get it right, we call it ‘climate change’ now,” Gowan said.

“There’s no debate among scientists,” responded Rep. Aaron Lieberman, D-Paradise Valley.

“There might be some debate among maybe some politicians,” he continued. “But the notion that we don’t know that climate change is real, that Arizona isn’t the third warmingest state in the country, that Phoenix and Tucson aren’t in the Top Five, is really scary to hear because it completely flies in the face of science.”

And Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, said it would be wrong for legislators to deal only with the the fires and the after-effects and then give up.

“I understand fires in the desert are no joke,” he said.

“And I truly believe making people whole after a fire is a laudable effort,” Mendez continued. “But if that’s all we do with this special session, then this whole endeavor will be a sad joke.”

Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, said he’s willing to consider where climate change fits in on the question of fires. But he said the causes and effects are not that simple, citing efforts by environmental groups to curtail cattle on public lands.

“Is there going to be an acknowledgment on the other side that things like grazing are a part of the answer to some of this stuff?” he asked. And Shope said that various environmental efforts that have curbed long-practiced policies of farmers, ranchers and others have simultaneously resulted in an “exponential rise” in fires.

One thing that could slow final approval when the measures go to the full House and Senate on Thursday has to do with the ability of ranchers to tap into the funds.

“It’s important to get cattle back on the land,” said Stephanie Smallhouse, a rancher and president of the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation. But she said that can’t happen if ranchers don’t have the money to restore burned fences and reconstruct water supplies.

But Sen. Lisa Otondo, D-Yuma, pointed out that there is only so much money in the package, most immediately in responding to the fires and then to protect communities from future flooding.

“This bill is to address what is happening today and stop it, immediately, and get boots on the ground,” she said. It also can help advance dollars for communities that may eventually be able to get federal grants.

“I want to be sure that this doesn’t become a slush fund,” Otondo said. So the senator said she will seek a $10 million cap on how much cash can go to landowners.

Sen. Sine Kerr, R-Buckeye, whose family owns a dairy farm, told colleagues they should not minimize the effects of ranching on Arizona and Arizonans.

“Everything we eat comes from the land,” she said. “And the land depends on us.”

But there are others looking for a piece of the financial pie.

Chris Wanamaker, Pinal County manager, spoke about viewing the area east of Superior. He wants funding for a rain gauge and a stream flow gauge.

“That can give the town some advance warning when floods or rain starts coming,” he told lawmakers. Wanamaker said those devices can be set to send out warnings at pre-set levels, even sending out emails and text messages.

Then there’s the question of stopping some of the potential destruction when the monsoon rains come, carrying not just water but debris and ash into urban areas.

“They can take out power lines, take out sewer lines, water lines, any other kind of infrastructure,” said Tami Ryall, grants administrator for Pinal County.

Lawmakers, advocates blast ‘misguided’ Grand Canyon fee hike plan

grand-canyon-confluenceArizona lawmakers and advocates are condemning proposed fee increases at the Grand Canyon and 16 other parks, a move the National Park Service said is badly needed to fund billions of dollars in backlogged maintenance projects.

The proposal, which was unveiled this week, would create a new peak-season entry fee that would at least double fees at the Grand Canyon National Park, which had more than $350 million in deferred projects at the end of last year.

While advocates and lawmakers agree that park maintenance needs to be funded, they worried that higher fees would make the park unaffordable for some and would “devastate our small businesses” by driving away tourists. Many were upset with the way the fee hikes were announced and the short public comment period, saying the Park Service should work with Congress on a more permanent solution.

“I think everyone who has been to the Grand Canyon remembers that first view… It is just awe-inspiring,” said Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter. “We shouldn’t limit that to just people who have more money.”

Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott, said there “is no question” the National Park Service needs to tackle its maintenance backlog, but that what is needed is “a clear strategy from the Park Service that reduces wasteful expenses and works with Congress.”

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in a statement announcing the new fee proposal that “the infrastructure of our national parks is aging and in need of renovation and restoration” and that the increases “will help ensure that they are protected and preserved in perpetuity.”

Under the plan, fees would be raised at the 17 largest national parks, which account for 70 percent of all entrance fees in the park system. The increases would boost fees from just under $200 million in fiscal 2016 to an estimated $268.5 million.

Regular season fees would be largely unchanged, but “peak season” fees – May through September at most parks – would rise from $30 per car to $70 per car at the Grand Canyon and the majority of the others. Peak season fees for motorcyclists and per person at the Grand Canyon would double from the current $25 and $15, respectively. Admission would still be free for seniors, those under 16, the military and other special groups.

The parks would keep 80 percent of the money collected with the remaining 20 percent to be used at other parks in the system.

In the Grand Canyon, deferred maintenance reached $353 million last year, the largest part of a $565 million backlog of “necessary” work at 22 sites in Arizona.

The Grand Canyon projects last year ranges from repairing historic landmarks to evaluating park buildings for energy efficiency, from fixing roads and walls to ridding park of buildings with hazardous materials.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, said in a statement Tuesday that “Zinke would rather take money directly out of the pockets of hardworking Americans instead of coming up with a serious budget proposal for the National Park System.” He pointed to the administration’s proposed fiscal 2018 budget, which would cut the Park Service by 12.9 percent.

In a statement, U.S. Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Sedona, called the fee hike proposal misguided, which will not only discourage Americans from visiting and learning “about our nation’s great history” but also “devastate our small businesses.”

One environmental group said it’s hard to determine what impact the fees will have because the process is being rushed.

“We haven’t seen any sort of market review or analysis,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “We don’t know whether or not this is going to price people out of the parks or what, or at least they haven’t published that information.”

Ruch added that the deferred maintenance numbers cited by the Park Service appear to be “somewhat inflated.”

Emily Douce, the director of budget and appropriations for the National Parks Conservation Association, said the one-month public comment period – it closes on Thanksgiving Day – is not long enough to seriously evaluate the plan.

“There have been raises in fees before,” Douce said. “But it was a much longer and more extensive process with a longer comment period, and more local meetings – something we aren’t seeing this time.”

Douce said a better solution is in Congress right now. The National Park Service Legacy Act of 2017 would create stable funding “for the high-priority deferred maintenance needs of the Service.”

Whatever the solution, Bahr said it should not cost visitors the beauty of national parks.

“We don’t want parks to be unaffordable for the average person,” Bahr said. “The parks need some love and care, but that should be funded, just as other things are funded, through the budget process in Congress.”

Lawyer: No one hurt yet by law restricting voter initiatives

The attorney for two top Republican lawmakers is laying the groundwork to quash a legal challenge to new hurdles they erected to voters creating their own laws.

During a preliminary hearing May 25, David Cantelme did not address whether the Legislature exceeded its constitutional authority by requiring those who propose initiatives to be in “strict compliance” with each and every election law. That is a significant change from current law which requires only “substantial compliance,” a standard that allows the public to vote on measures despite technical violations.

Instead, Cantelme told Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Joshua Rogers he believes there’s a legal flaw in the case by challengers, a flaw he contends bars the judge from considering their request to block the law from taking effect.

“If they haven’t suffered an injury, a real, palpable, discrete injury, they don’t have a case,” he said. And Cantelme, who represents Senate President Steve Yarbrough and House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, said there is nothing in the record so far that shows the various challengers will be harmed if they’re forced to have to live under the strict compliance standard.

Attorney Roopali Desai
Attorney Roopali Desai

But attorney Roopali Desai who represents challengers, objects to the fact that Cantelme wants to question her clients, ahead of the hearing, some of whom are people who have been involved in past initiatives.

Cantelme wants to ask them about future plans, an issue he said goes to the question of whether they actually would be harmed if the strict compliance standard takes effect as scheduled on Aug. 9.

Desai, however, told Rogers she sees something more sinister in what Cantelme is arguing.

“The (Republican-controlled) Legislature is going to try to get into facts relating to the strategy and details with respect to the who, what, when, and details of initiatives that the plaintiffs are not required at this stage to have to (disclose),” she said. “It would be completely inappropriate for the Legislature to get into those sort of political, strategic issues that they otherwise would not have access to.”

After the hearing, Cantelme did not dispute that he wants to ask the challengers about their future plans.

“I get to ask them what is appropriate for the case,” he said, refusing to be more specific.

Among the plaintiffs in the case is Matt Madonna, former regional president of the American Cancer Society. His organization was behind a successful ballot effort to ban smoking in public places.

Sandy Bahr is chapter director of the Sierra Club, which has been involved in various ballot fights including a ban on leghold traps on public lands and creating an optional system of public financing for state and local elections.

And the Animal Defense League helped get voter approval of a ban on “gestation crates” for calves and pigs.

Desai said all the plaintiffs do have an interest because she believes having to live under the strict compliance standard will make the initiative process more expensive. For example, she said, if innocent mistakes can have every petition voided, organizers may decide they don’t want to use volunteers.

“So you may have to move to an all paid-circulation effort because at that point you can be more assured that every ‘i’ is dotted, every ‘t’ is crossed,” she said.

“People should be doing that anyway,” Desai continued. “But you don’t spend millions of dollars on an initiative and think to yourself, ‘This is going to get thrown out for some minor defect.’ ”

The lawsuit is only one side of the effort to kill the new law.

A separate referendum drive has been launched to prevent the law from taking effect. If backers gather 75,321 valid signatures of registered voters before Aug. 9, the measure remains on “hold” until voters decide in November 2018 whether to ratify or reject what lawmakers have enacted.

Rep. Finchem bill proposes electronic signatures for ballot measures

Rep. Mark Finchem
Rep. Mark Finchem

A proposal by a Southern Arizona lawmaker could make it easier for groups to propose their own state laws and constitutional amendments.

But Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, said that’s not his goal.

Finchem said the current process of having to verify hundreds of thousands of signatures on initiative petitions within days of their being turned in has effectively broken the system. The result, he said, is creating a nearly impossible hurdle for the county recorders who have to complete that task.

The last-minute crunch also means less time for initiative foes to examine the petitions and try to challenge their validity through litigation.

His solution: Allow initiative organizers to collect signatures online.

The idea is not unique. State lawmakers approved a similar system for candidate petitions years ago.

But prior suggestions to expand that to ballot measures have gone nowhere amid concern by some – largely Republicans – that it is too easy for special interests to bypass the Legislature and take proposals directly to voters.

Finchem does not dispute that allowing online petitions would remove some of the hurdles that initiative organizers now face. That includes the need to hire paid circulators.

But he said anything that eliminates having people in the streets gathering signatures for often-complex measures actually could help screen out some of the proposals. Finchem said would-be signers would have the time to actually read the full measure themselves as opposed to listening to a circulator’s 20-second description, a description he said is unlikely to shed light on all a measure would do.

The proposal, HB 2021, drew praise from Sandy Bahr, lobbyist for the Arizona chapter of the Sierra Club.

More significant, Bahr and her organization have been involved in putting multiple measures on the ballot when they said lawmakers did not act, ranging from a ban on leg-hold traps on public lands to an optional system of public financing for statewide and legislative candidates.

She said the measure would end the “double standard” where lawmakers decided it’s perfectly OK to gather nominating signatures for themselves electronically but have so far made it off-limits to initiative drives.

Bahr said the change also could result in fewer legal challenges to ballot measures like the kind that kept voters this from considering a ban on “dark money” anonymous campaign spending. It got knocked off the ballot in part because foes subpoenaed petition circulators; when they did not show up in court, all the signatures they gathered were disqualified.

No circulators means no such challenges to signatures.

The change, if approved, comes as the hurdle to get measures on the ballot, determined by the number of people who voted in the last gubernatorial election, just increased sharply. It now takes 237,645 valid signatures to propose a change in state law; a constitutional measure needs 356,467.

Finchem said he’s no fan of ballot measures.

He derided the recently approved Proposition 126 as creating “policy at the ballot box.”

Finchem said few people actually read the text of the measure to permanently ban taxes on services, relying instead on explanations offered by petition circulators who he said never explained that eliminating such a levy probably also eliminated any chance of ever getting rid of the state income tax. And Finchem said he saw it himself when he was approached to sign that initiative petition.

“They would give me this description that I knew was just patently incorrect,” he said.

All that, he said, could be minimized with an online signature-gathering process where both the legally required 100-word description and the full text are available for voters to peruse at their leisure.

This all relies on ServiceArizona, an online web site operated by the state Department of Transportation. While that is mostly known as a place to renew vehicle registrations, submit change of address and get replacement driver licenses, it also is linked to the Secretary of State’s Office. That means people can register to vote or change their party registration on the site.

It is that electronic link between the two agencies that now allows people to “sign” online candidate petitions at the Secretary of State’s web site, with their identity and voter registration automatically verified electronically. HB 2021 would simply extend that to ballot measures.

Finchem said this change also would lead to real-time reports of how many verified signatures have been submitted, important information for both initiative supporters and foes as they approach the early July deadline in even-numbered years.

Bahr pointed out that the legislation also would affect referendum drives, where voters seek to repeal something that lawmakers adopted. That’s precisely what happened this year with Proposition 305, which overrode the 2017 decision by the Legislature to expand who could get vouchers of tax dollars to attend private and parochial schools.

She said an online process would be particularly helpful in those situations, as the necessary signatures — 118,823 for future years — have to be gathered within 90 days of the end of the legislative session. And that, Bahr noted, often is in the summer when the Arizona heat makes personal signature-gathering more difficult.

Finchem is under no illusion that an online process would eliminate paper petitions or even paid circulators. And nothing in his measure mandates online signatures.

But Finchem said any signatures gathered – and verified – electronically means county recorders will have fewer signatures on paper to have to review and verify.

Trial on citizen initiative restrictions gets underway

The consultant who has helped with most of the recent initiative drives testified Wednesday a new state law will impair the ability of Arizonans to craft their own laws.

Andrew Chavez told Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Sherry Stephens that it is not unusual for petitions to be challenged for technical errors. He said this could be something as simple as a signer failing to insert a full city and state address to even putting the date of the signature outside the small box where it is supposed to go.

Andrew Chavez
Andrew Chavez

Chavez said until now that trial judges have generally resolved those disputes in favor of allowing the measure to go on the ballot. That’s because the Arizona Supreme Court has concluded that initiative petitions to propose new laws need be only in “substantial compliance” with all election requirements.

But Chavez, whose AZ Petition Partners provides paid circulators, said the mandate approved by the Republican-controlled legislature in HB 2244 will require “strict compliance.” And that, he said, likely will force judges to disqualify petitions with these kinds of technical errors.

What makes that important, he told Stephens, is that will require circulators to gather far more signatures than needed as a “cushion.” And the more signatures a petition needs, the more expensive it will be.

How much?

Chavez said he charged $700,000 to collect signatures last year — under existing law — for a group that put a measure on the ballot to legalize marijuana for recreational use. He said just the change to strict compliance will increase that price tag by up to 30 percent, money he said that many non-profit and volunteer groups do not have.

Sherry Stephens

His testimony is significant because foes of the new law hope it will convince Stephens that lawmakers acted illegally in changing the standard.

Part of the case being presented by their attorneys goes to the legal question of whether the legislature has the right to change the standard.

But they cannot make that case unless they can first prove to Stephens that they have standing to sue because they will be harmed if the change is allowed to take effect as scheduled on Aug. 9. The testimony from Chavez was meant to provide the legal basis for that.

It was not just Chavez who contends the new law will make future initiative drives more difficult.

Sandy Bahr

Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club, said she already is working with other groups to put two measures on the 2018 or 2020 ballots.

One would make it easier for people to register to vote. The other would outlaw so-called “trophy hunting” of wild animals.

“This would be very harmful to a fundamental right that we have to initiate law,” she said.

“It will make it more difficult, it will make it more expensive.” Bahr said.

She said more initiatives will likely fail.

The Arizona Constitution gives voters the right to propose their own laws. More to the point, attorney Roopali Desai, who is representing challengers to the new law, told Stephens that right exists “independently of the legislature.”

Roopali Desai

“This provision is in the constitution for a very important reason,” she said. “It is in the constitution because the people of Arizona believe their right to legislate is co-equal to that of the legislature, and not subordinate to that of the legislature. And that is the premise our entire case is built on.”

What that means, she said, is that right “should be leniently applied with respect to initiative efforts that are undertaken by the people.”

Desai cited a series of changes in state law that exist because voters approved at the ballot after the legislature refused to act. These include creation of an optional system of public financing for statewide and legislative candidates, having an independent commission draw legislative and congressional districts rather than politicians, and creation of a statewide minimum wage.

She also said that women got the vote in Arizona in 1912 — before it was required by a change in the U.S. Constitution — because of a voter initiative.

Desai said they had to go to the ballot because they were “unpopular at the legislature.” And she pointed out to Stephens that the Voter Protection Act, approved at the ballot in 1998, specifically precludes lawmakers from repealing or making significant changes to the laws voters have enacted.

“It is their agitation with this significant right where they cannot come in and amend or repeal laws that are passed by the people that drove them to pass HB 2224 that essentially limits the right of initiative by making it more difficult to achieve ballot access,” she said.

Attorney David Cantelme, representing GOP legislative leaders defending the law, told Stephens that the claims of harm are exaggerated.

He said all petition organizers and circulators have to do is follow the Arizona laws which spell out what is required to put a measure on the ballot. And Cantelme noted that HB 2244 says petition drives that use the form crafted by the secretary of state’s office are presumed to be valid.

But he also argued that the plaintiffs in this case, including Bahr, have no standing to sue because they cannot show they have been harmed by the new law, as nothing they have proposed for the ballot has been kicked off because of the strict compliance standard.

Desai countered that all the plaintiffs not only have been involved in prior initiative drives but also are weighing future ones, giving them a legitimate — and legal — interest in the new requirement.

Bahr said her organization is working with other challengers like the Arizona Advocacy Network and the Animal Defense League of Arizona. Others challenging the law include the Friends of the Arizona School Boards Association, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona, and Matthew Madonna who was regional president of the American Cancer Society, which was behind a successful ballot effort to ban smoking in public places.

Whatever Stephens rules is unlikely to be the last word: Whichever side loses is expected to seek Arizona Supreme Court review.

U.S. Supreme Court keeps ban on uranium mining at Grand Canyon


In a major victory for environmental groups and the Havasupai Tribe, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rebuffed a bid by mining interests to overturn a 20-year ban on extracting uranium from about a million acres around the Grand Canyon National Park.

The justices, on their first day back from the summer recess, refused to consider a claim by the National Mining Association that allowing the U.S. Department of Interior to make such unilateral decisions violates the right of Congress to decide the use of such public property. The justices gave no reason for their action.

Monday’s move leaves intact a 2017 ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that Kenneth Salazar who was Interior Secretary in the Obama administration, had the right to take the action in 2012. The appellate court said while there may be differences in opinion on what danger the mining poses to the water supply, that did not make the withdrawal either arbitrary or capricious.

Judge Marsha Berzon, writing for the unanimous three-judge panel, also said Salazar and his department did not violate requirements for the federal government to promote multiple uses of public lands.

Marsha Berzon
Marsha Berzon

But the implications from Monday’s decision are far broader than whether uranium mining around the Grand Canyon will be off limits through at least 2032. Timothy McCrum, the attorney for the mining group, told the justices that their action – or inaction — also would affect the availability of hundreds of millions of acres of federal lands for mineral and other development.”

The decision drew praise from various groups that intervened in the case to keep the ban intact, including the Havasupai Tribe.

“The mineral withdrawal is a necessary way to protect the land and the water that our people and our village depend on,” said tribal Chairwoman Muriel Coochwytewa in a prepared statement.

While the legal arguments have run out, Monday’s ruling may not put the issue of mining near the canyon to rest.

Earlier this year, the Department of Interior, now under the Trump administration, published a list of 35 minerals considered “critical to the economic and national security of the United States.”

And in July the Department of Commerce launched an investigation into whether the “quantity and circumstances of uranium ore and produce imports into the United States threaten to impair our national security.” That followed a conclusion by the agency that uranium production, which had met 49 percent of U.S. requirements in 1987, had fallen to just 5 percent.

That latter investigation in particular could lead to a requirement that at least 25 percent of the uranium needed in the United States come from domestic sources.

“That could potentially open up places around Grand Canyon,” said Sierra Club lobbyist Sandy Bahr as there is additional pressure on the administration and Congress to overturn the 20-year ban, something that apparently remains a legal possibility.

Mining association spokesman Connor Bernstein acknowledged as much, saying that “unwarranted” withdrawals like this of public lands from mining endanger mineral supplies, and not just uranium.

“Our import dependence for key mineral commodities has doubled over the past two decades,” he said. “As it is the U.S. is 100 percent import dependent for 21 key mineral resources and more than 50 percent import dependent for an additional 29 mineral commodities.”

Bernstein said public health has to be the top priority.

“The question is, can we have balance,” he said.

And the association also is counting on the change in administration.

“This administration is looking at all these issues with a fresh set of eyes,” said Bernstein.

Uranium was first found near the park in the late 1940s. As prices spiked in the 1980s and 1990s, production surged.

But Berzon, in last year’s ruling, said the collapse of the Soviet Union and decommissioning of many nuclear warheads pretty much halted mining in the area.

There was another price spike in 2007. But Salazar, reacting to concerns about the effect of mining radioactive materials, proposed withdrawing about a million acres from new claims.

The mining interests sued. After being rebuffed in 2014 by a federal judge in Arizona they took their case to the appellate court.

Berzon, a President Clinton appointee, said there were legitimate concerns about the potential impact of a large-scale increase in mining. That starts with the mining process contaminating water supplies with both uranium and arsenic, chemicals she said which may affect plant and animal growth, survival and reproduction. And Berzon noted that multiple reports “all acknowledged substantial uncertainty regarding water quality and quantity in the area, the possible impact of additional mining on perched and deep aquifers, and the effect of radionuclide exposure on plants, animals and humans.”

The result, she said, was a “measured approach” by the department, saying that keeping new mining from starting for 20 years will allow for additional data on things like groundwater flow paths and the contribution that mining makes to radiation.

Berzon said it would be one thing if Salazar’s decision was “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with the law.”

But she said courts give great deference to the actions of an agency and uphold them “if a reasonable basis exists for its decision.” And Berzon said that evidence was there.

For example, she said an analysis of more than 1,000 water samples within the region found 70 sites where contamination from heavy metals exceeded federal standards. And she said samples from 15 springs and five wells indicated uranium concentrations exceeded standards.

Berzon acknowledged that some analysts within the Interior Department disagreed with the risk.

The appellate court also backed the finding that the area is of “profound significance and importance to Native American tribes.” And the judges said nothing in law requires the Interior Department to limit protection to smaller carve-outs rather than preserving larger areas which have multiple cultural and historic sites.

Berzon agreed with arguments that existing laws and regulations might mitigate the impact of uranium mining on environmental, cultural and visual resources, and wildlife and human health. But she said the final environmental study “does not suggest that simply enforcing existing laws and regulations would suffice to meet the purposes of the withdrawal.”

Water board election a dry topic for most voters

Colorado River August 19, 2007 Photo by Central Arizona Project
Colorado River
August 19, 2007
Photo by Central Arizona Project

Candidates for the Central Arizona Water Conservation District board aren’t running for the sexiest elected office in the state. They aren’t likely to be the subject of many headlines locally, let alone nationally. They aren’t going to attract millions in campaign contributions. They aren’t paid. And they aren’t going to be on stage with political superstars.

They are, however, going to be responsible for ensuring 1.5 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River gets to central Arizona. One acre-foot of water, or the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land to a depth of one foot, works out to 326,000 gallons. That means the CAWCD, which governs the Central Arizona Project, a 336-mile system of channels, pipelines and pumping stations that move water, has been entrusted with about 489 billion gallons of water for more than 5 million people living in Maricopa, Pima and Pinal counties – or about 80 percent of the state’s population.

Yet the board elections have never quite managed to capture the widespread attention of voters.

Terry Goddard, who was elected to the board in 2012 and is up for reelection in November, said the CAWCD is part of a complicated puzzle that isn’t for everyone.

“At the risk of being over-simplistic and trite, water is a dry topic,” he said.

Goddard is one of three incumbents running for reelection this year, including current CAWCD Board President Lisa Atkins and Heather Macre.

There’s no quicker way to put an audience to sleep than to delve into the intricacies of water policy, Goddard said, but voters are increasingly waking up to the issue.

Goddard said part of the problem underlying the dearth of attention paid to the CAWCD board is that complexity. But the other part is the human tendency to take water for granted.

“Like air, you assume water’s always going to be there,” he said. “You turn the tap and it’s always going to flow. So, it’s hard to generate a lot of popular concern until that day that the water doesn’t flow.”

Goddard said the stakes have risen dramatically in recent years as the state and region face a drought.

When a shortage is declared – Goddard said when, not if – the first reductions will come from non-tribal agricultural interests under the Central Arizona Project. He said people have known that for years and carried on assuming the officials in power would handle it like they always have.

That assumption is grounded in the state’s strong water policy, Goddard said, but there will be panic when that day comes unless the general public gets more information now.

Kathleen Ferris, senior research fellow at the Kyl Center for Water Policy, said water may be the fundamental reason Arizona will survive, or not, but it’s competing with so much else: education, taxes, topics more familiar or immediate to a wider audience.

Arizonans don’t have a future here without water, she said. But there’s still a lot of work to be done to help the general public understand just how critical the state’s water needs are.

In previous election cycles, staff at the Central Arizona Project often fielded calls from curious voters. What can you tell us about candidates for the Central Arizona Water Conservation District board, they’d ask.

The board didn’t feel comfortable telling them anything, according to its lobbyist, Jeff Gray. It can’t risk giving the appearance of favoritism, or to be seen as electioneering. So board staff would urge them to call officials in Maricopa County, or wherever else board candidates were from. The open seats in this election cycle are for Maricopa County candidates.

County officials were left in the same conundrum as CAP, and would often refer voters back to the board.

And so it went the back and forth, leaving voters searching for answers without reliable information about a little known, but not insignificant, down-ballot election.

This year, the outlook for voters has slightly improved.

The Citizen Clean Elections Commission, at the CAP’s request, has included information about board candidates on their website for the first time.

It’s a start, and a welcome sign for those who’ve always watched the board elections closely in a state where voters are increasingly inundated with reports of Arizona’s ongoing drought and bleak water future.

Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club, said people know water is important, and they’re concerned when they see it on their ballot.

They rely on people they trust to help them pick suitable candidates.

But Bahr also had a simple suggestion for voters trying to pick five candidates out of a pool of 14 – Google them.

“I think it’s important for people to understand how important it is that this body is required to operate in the public eye. They’re elected, so there’s a way to hold them accountable,” she said. “But that only works if they actually do it.”

Ben Giles contributed to this report.

Water policy push dries up for Ducey

Hikers make their way along the banks of the Colorado River in Black Canyon south of Hoover Dam, Sunday, April 14, 2013, near Willow Beach, Ariz.  (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Hikers make their way along the banks of the Colorado River in Black Canyon south of Hoover Dam, Sunday, April 14, 2013, near Willow Beach, Ariz. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Gov. Doug Ducey drowned under his own ambitions this legislative session.

Ducey made gains on several  issues — most notably K-12 education funding — this session, but his plans for far-reaching water reform quickly dried up.

After conducting months of closed-door meetings on a water policy overhaul last year, Ducey also lacked significant legislative support for his proposals that faced some resistance from the beginning.

With a goal of the state speaking with one voice on water, the Governor’s Office came up with a list of water priorities, including the creation of  a “Colorado River Conservation Program,” enhanced groundwater metering and increased oversight of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District.

“At the beginning of the session, expectations were high,” said David Iwanski, AZ Water Association director. “By the end of the session, they were zero.”

After significant build up, Ducey didn’t put forth any legislative recommendations this year, but that didn’t stop lawmakers from taking matters into their own hands. But Ducey’s administration said the legislation lawmakers introduced lacked key provisions to protect the water level at Lake Mead and fend off future water shortages.

During any session, there are priorities and issues that fall to the wayside, Ducey said. But he has high confidence that progress will occur on water policy next year. Ducey is up for re-election this year.

“Whenever we finish a legislative session, we don’t have everything done that we would like to have done,” Ducey said. “There’s always going to be more that we want to accomplish.”

Some lawmakers, like Rep. Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, initially took issue with Ducey’s water policy process. He contrasted Ducey’s process to that of former Gov. Bruce Babbit who, nearly four decades ago, convened a years-long stakeholder process to craft what would be known as The Groundwater Management Act of 1980.

Conducting meetings in secret and not including more lawmakers was not an effective way to do water policy, Bowers said of Ducey. But closer to the start of session, the chairman of a House Environmental Committee was more involved in water policy discussions.

Not including lawmakers in the decision-making process from the beginning played a role in killing Ducey’s water priorities this session, said Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club.

“If you’re going to take something to the Legislature, you need to talk to the legislators,” she said.

But those paying close attention to water issues this session weren’t surprised nothing panned out this year, she said.

The governor’s methodology in developing the proposal was off from day one, Bahr said. The stakeholder meetings weren’t open to the public, which was his first mistake, she said.

In response to the governor’s actions, Bowers and Sen. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, introduced a slate of their own water bills.

The omnibus legislation would have allowed counties to vote to get rid of water supply laws and limited the Central Arizona Project’s ability to negotiate interstate agreements. The legislation also would have required legislative approval for transporting water out of state, creation of a new water management area and called for a desalination action plan.

What some predicted would be a major battle this legislative session fell to the wayside because Ducey didn’t think Griffin and Bowers’ legislation went far enough. Some of the legislation also included provisions that would have weakened groundwater laws — measures Ducey vetoed last year. The lawmakers’ bills ended up going nowhere.

“If we had said we’re going to do x, y and z this session something would have probably happened more quickly, but we didn’t want to cram it through,” said Ducey spokesman Daniel Scarpinato. More work was needed for lawmakers to fully understand the issue, he said.

The Governor’s Office got a late start on the issue, which made addressing a major rewrite of the state’s water laws difficult to achieve this session, Scarpinato said. The stakeholder process butted up against the start of session, he said, dismissing criticisms that Ducey’s meetings did not include a diverse group of stakeholders.

Meanwhile, long-term planning for Arizona’s water resources has become ever more important for the state and its neighbors. The Bureau of Reclamation predicts there is a 50 percent chance of water shortage in Lake Mead by 2020, with the the chance of shortage conditions growing more likely in later years.

Water policy has been a contentious issue as of late because of high tension between CAP and the Department of Water Resources. Ducey’s proposals didn’t help. CAP called the governor’s proposals political and feared they would strip some power from its elected board.

But last month, the two groups pledged to put aside their differences and work together to complete the Drought Contingency Plan — an effort to stabilize water levels in Lake Mead.

Meanwhile, Bowers and Griffin started a listening tour to hear about water issues across the state. And Ducey has no plans to give up on overhauling the state’s water policy.

Iwanski is hopeful that Ducey stays true to his word, and addresses water issues soon.

“We hope that it continues to be a priority,” he said. “We really do need to put and keep water issues as a legislative priority because those challenges are immediate.”

Water policy remake stirs fight unlike others in state history

Lake Pleasant, located approximately 42 miles northwest of central Phoenix, serves as a reservoir in the Central Arizona Project. Photo courtesy of Central Arizona Project.
Lake Pleasant, located approximately 42 miles northwest of central Phoenix, serves as a reservoir in the Central Arizona Project. Photo courtesy of Central Arizona Project.

There’s no way to avoid using this common Arizona phrase: Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.

Today, more than ever, that old saying rings true.

With Republican Gov. Doug Ducey convening water giants into meetings this summer, it’s become all the more apparent that major water players in Arizona, namely the state’s water department and its canal system, the Central Arizona Project, are at odds.

And historically it’s not uncommon for water policy to be contentious here. It’s a scarce resource, and Arizona is a desert that’s been experiencing drought for more than a decade.

Still, to see the two entities publicly butting heads is novel, water experts say. And CAP sees the effort as blatantly political, with one elected office going after a duly elected board of directors.

But those who have been around awhile believe it will all be worked out in the end for the betterment of the state’s water users, like Arizona has in the past with water policy.

“It’s always fighting and conflict. It’s never pretty,” said Kathleen Ferris, an attorney who has been involved in water policy for more than 40 years. “The key is to force the agreement and the compromise. The Governor’s Office has encouraged people in this process to take a statewide view. At some point, I hope people will.”

Arizonans like to ding our Western neighbor, California, for having water cutbacks during recent dry years, boasting the state’s proactive water planning for putting us in a favorable spot.

But that current advantageous position didn’t come without skirmishes, much like the most recent iteration of water wars.

David Iwanski, director of the AZ Water Association, has been working on water issues in the state for 30 years. And he said there’s a long history of contentiousness on water policy that usually takes a “dump truck full of political leadership” to be resolved. He’s confident it will happen again this time.

“You always start with contention, and you end up with collaboration. We’re all Arizona water users. We’ll take care of each other eventually,” he said.

Central Arizona Project under construction in 1984 near Coolidge. This is a portion of the Fannin-McFarland Aqueduct and includes installation of check structure 32 (checks control and regulate the flow of water in the system). Photo courtesy of Central Arizona Project.
Central Arizona Project under construction in 1984 near Coolidge. This is a portion of the Fannin-McFarland Aqueduct and includes installation of check structure 32 (checks control and regulate the flow of water in the system). Photo courtesy of Central Arizona Project.

Where we’ve been

To take it way back, the process that eventually led to the building of the Central Arizona Project took more than five decades of intense battles both within the state and outside it to come to fruition.

U.S. Sen. Carl Hayden advocated for the canal project for the majority of his time in Washington (really, for the majority of his life). He found disagreement from all sorts of folks, from governors to industry to federal officials.

He announced he wouldn’t run for Senate again in 1968, the same year Congress finally approved legislation that created CAP.

In historian Jack August’s book “Vision in the Desert,” which recounts Hayden’s role in water policy, August describes Hayden’s “uncanny ability to organize disparate groups behind an idea or program” as one of the keys to his success. Certainly, his work on water illustrated this ability, August argues in the book.

Fast forward a bit: The Groundwater Management Act of 1980, an Arizona law often cited as ahead of its time that helped prevent over-pumping of water, had its fair share of dust-ups, too.

During that time, Ferris, a young attorney, led a state committee of water stakeholders who worked on what eventually would become the landmark legislation. But the groups didn’t fall into line willingly. Cities diverged from farmers and mines.

Then-Gov. Bruce Babbitt, a Democrat, brought in the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Cecil Andrus, at one point to levy a threat against the warring parties. In an oral history given to CAP, Babbitt details how Andrus told water folks here that he would kill CAP if the state didn’t reform its groundwater laws.

“And I would periodically call him up and say, ‘Cec, give me some leverage, threaten to kill it and I will go out in public and condemn you as interfering in our business and telling you to stay out of our affairs.’ At the same time I would go back into the group and say, ‘OK, you hear him, he just might do that,’” Babbitt said.

The groundwater process took several years of debate among stakeholders, at public hearings and then ultimately at the Legislature. And Ferris said it all came together because of strong leadership from Babbitt. Without someone in charge, pushing the process forward, stakeholders lose focus, she said.

“Without that sort of hammer, if you will, water people just tend to talk forever and nothing gets done,” Ferris said.

Where we are

Now, Ducey is the hammer in this generation’s water policy efforts. His office convened the water meetings and chose who would be involved, in a process that hasn’t yet been open to the public.

The major idea underlying the discussion is the need for the state to “speak with one voice” on water policy, according to the Governor’s Office.

Kirk Adams (Photo by Ellen O'Brien/Arizona Capitol Times)
Kirk Adams (Photo by Ellen O’Brien/Arizona Capitol Times)

“We feel like it’s important that this generation of leaders, because it’s been that long, take another deep dive in this and see if there are things that we can improve,” said Ducey chief of staff Kirk Adams, who is leading the meetings.

In these meetings, it’s become clear the state, through the Department of Water Resources, is not pleased with CAP. Over the past couple years, the disagreements between the two entities have become increasingly heated, from a claim that CAP has sovereign immunity as an arm of the state to an alleged water “sale” where the department said CAP negotiated beyond its authority.

Among the CAP-related provisions discussed at the meetings:

  • Changes to the way the elected CAP board is structured.
  • Laws to make it clear the Department of Water Resources is the primary entity responsible for conserving water in Lake Mead.
  • Affirm through legislation that CAP doesn’t have sovereign immunity.
  • Prohibit CAP from contracting for federal lobbying services.
  • Require a financial audit by the state’s auditor general every three years.

The meetings are expected to result in a package of legislation that should move through the Legislature in the 2018 session. The six-month meeting process is much more condensed than the 1980 groundwater talks.

Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University, said the state has a history of addressing water problems before they become urgent, something this process continues.

And the meetings have revealed there’s a need for clarity on who’s in charge on water in Arizona, something Porter said is critical for the state’s success with other Colorado River users.

“It can look either puzzling or like gamesmanship if we are not speaking with one voice. It’s OK for us as a state to show that we don’t have unanimity in terms of management decisions,” she said, adding that the state needs to look predictable to those who call the shots on water in Arizona and other states.

For the Ducey administration, the water meetings provide a way to have a generational, legacy impact on water policy. Major discussions of this sort haven’t really happened since the 1970s, Adams said. And the conflicts between DWR and CAP show why an intervention was needed.

“You can’t have, in our view, an entity as well-intentioned as (CAP) may be, going down a different track than the rest of the state. And state government is the only entity that has the ability to speak for all of the water stakeholders in the state,” Adams said.

CAP vs the world

CAP sees the meetings as a politically motivated power grab. The organization sent a statement saying water issues require nonpartisan approaches in order to be successful.

In the statement, CAP spokeswoman Crystal Thompson said that all of the governors who have led Arizona since CAP was created have managed water issues non-politically by demanding stakeholders deliberate policy disagreements “until a consensus is reached for the benefit of all.”

“Unfortunately, Governor Ducey has chosen to approach Arizona’s current water challenges with an overtly political action that bears little resemblance to this time-honored formula,” Thompson said.

CAP wants Ducey to “open up the process and lead a genuine effort of principled cooperation and open discussion that has been the hallmark of Arizona gubernatorial leadership for more than 50 years.”

Jim Holway (Photo by Philip A. Fortnam)
Jim Holway (Photo by Philip A. Fortnam)

Jim Holway, CAP’s board vice president, said the current water battle feels different than things he has been involved in since the 1990s here. Usually, water stakeholders get together, each with their own viewpoints, but politics doesn’t typically enter the conversations, he said.

“What I find unusual and I think unfortunate and inappropriate is the degree to which the current argument has become personalized,” Holway said. There’s been an “intentional propagation of malicious misinformation” against CAP this time around, he said.

The public beating up on one specific entity, CAP, is “outside the normal,” he said.

CAP agrees that the water resources department is the primary entity tasked with speaking for the state on water policy, Holway noted. And he agrees with the idea of speaking with one voice, but not in a way that stifles debate and input.

Lawmakers aren’t all pleased about the process, either. Rep. Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, recently sent an email to all his fellow lawmakers calling on them to cautiously approach these water conversations and not make any commitments to specific policies before fully understanding the issues involved.

In his email, Bowers noted that the 1980 process took multiple years and involved plenty of public debate. The governor’s meetings have turned water policymaking on its head, Bowers wrote. He said water policy should have unanimity in order to be most effective.

“Your humble servant is asking you not to allow water to be politicized by pitting party against party. It has always been like Switzerland,” he wrote to lawmakers.

Bowers said in an interview that not including rank-and-file lawmakers so far and trying to conduct the meetings in secret isn’t right. And while he believes the disagreements between CAP and the Department of Water Resources should be worked out, the way it’s being handled now isn’t ideal, he said.

Rep. Rusty Bowers (R-Mesa)
Rep. Rusty Bowers (R-Mesa)

“I just think what (the Governor’s Office is) doing is wrong. It’s not the way you handle water policy. We’ll work it out, then here’s the cabbage, here’s the cow. If you want to figure out who’s going to eat who, then you go right ahead. That’s not how we’re going to do water policy,” Bowers said.

For those who weren’t invited to participate in the governor’s meetings, like the Sierra Club-Grand Canyon Chapter’s Sandy Bahr, the process is typical — hearing from selected voices in government, industry and agriculture without much input from the environmental community.

The process hasn’t been inclusive or transparent, she said.

“It’s just more of the same in a lot of ways, except worse,” she said.

The fact that the water resources department and CAP are fighting makes her question whether the state can actually put together something positive on water. And it sends a bad message to neighboring states, who both collaborate and compete with Arizona on water issues, she said.

“To me, it’s like they’re dancing around the real issues,” Bahr said. “Focus on the problem. The problem is that there is only so much water to go around. We’re looking at a future with less water. So how about if we all work together on problem-solving that, and in the meantime figure out ways to keep some water flowing in our rivers as well. It seems silly to spend a whole bunch of time on changing the structure and the authority of CAP.”

Where we’re going

Tom Buschatzke
Tom Buschatzke

Water resources director Tom Buschatzke said it’s necessary to address these authority issues with CAP in order to mend the relationship and work on other, bigger challenges, like managing Colorado River water.

“I think it is a watershed moment in policy for the state of Arizona. … I think it is critically important we resolve that relationship,” Buschatzke said.

The problems that led to this point for the two entities didn’t bubble up overnight, and the solutions for those problems won’t be quick and easy either, he said.

“We will be able to mend those fences with (CAP). It’s going to take an effort to do that. But I think we will be professionals in our jobs and we will find a path forward to work together once we have our roles clearly defined again,” he said.

Holway also believes the relationships between CAP and the state and other water players will be mended because it has to be.

“In the end, those entities are going to have to get along,” Holway said. “There’s going to have to be a process by which trust has been rebuilt.”

Ferris said the relationship between CAP and DWR has “really disintegrated” from where it used to be, and she pointed to CAP “stretching its authority” as one of the culprits.

“I don’t think it’s healthy, but I don’t think it’s the end of the world either,” Ferris said of the fractured relationship.

But she’s hopeful — “more hopeful than I’ve been a long time” — that working through the conflicts and putting protections into law will prevent future calamities, she said.

Porter said she thinks funding cuts to DWR during the Great Recession may have played a role, allowing CAP to step into a more active role while the department was understaffed. The department has seen modest funding and staffing increases in the past few years.

How the two entities got to this point is understandable because of the “new normal” of potential shortages on the Colorado River always looming, she said. But the problems are “definitely surmountable,” Porter said.

Most of the water experts who spoke to the Arizona Capitol Times agreed: These water issues will be worked out eventually, leading to a compromise everyone can love and hate. It’s too important for them to fall apart, they said.

“These are meaty, weighty things that will be in the best interest of Arizona to deal with,” Ferris said.


The who’s who in Arizona’s water future

Gov. Doug Ducey called water stakeholders together for meetings designed to have the state “speak with one voice” on water issues. Two groups focus on Colorado River and groundwater issues, and fed information to a “plenary group” of major players who will decide what policies and legislation to put forward.

Here’s who’s involved in the plenary group:

  • Kirk Adams, Governor’s Office
  • Richard Adkerson, Freeport-McMoRan
  • Mark Bonsall, Salt River Project
  • Don Brandt, Arizona Public Service
  • Tom Buschatzke, Arizona Department of Water Resources
  • Ted Cooke, Central Arizona Water Conservation District
  • Kathy Ferris, Kyl Center for Water Policy
  • Bill Garfield, Arizona Water Company
  • Maureen George, Mohave County Water Authority
  • John Graham, Sun Belt Holdings/Valley Partnership
  • Pat Graham, The Nature Conservancy
  • Joe Gysel, EPCOR Water
  • Glenn Hamer, Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry
  • Michael Hunter, Arizona Legislature
  • David Hutchens, Tucson Electric Power
  • Jim Lane, City of Scottsdale
  • Stephen Lewis, Gila River Indian Community
  • Hunter Moore, Governor’s Office
  • Mark Smith, Yuma County
  • Jim O’Haco, Arizona Cattlemen’s Association
  • Paul Orme, Pinal County Agriculture
  • Dennis Patch, Colorado River Indian Tribes
  • Craig Sullivan, County Supervisors