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Panelists highlight disparities between Arizona's urban, rural groundwater management

Record drought throughout the Southwest has taken a toll on the Colorado River, and put greater emphasis on other water supplies. KJZZ News hosted a panel discussion Wednesday in Tempe on Arizona’s groundwater situation.

The lack of regulation in the state’s rural areas is a big concern. KJZZ received hundreds of questions related to groundwater from audience members in advance of and during the event.

Groundwater accounts for about 40% of Arizona’s overall supply. And it’s been closely regulated in the state’s urban areas since 1980. Phoenix water director Troy Hayes says the city has been able to leave groundwater largely untouched.

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“So when they enacted the Groundwater Management Act in 1980, essentially Phoenix took that to heart and started to convert its resources to renewable surface water," said Hayes.

But failure to enact a statewide management plan has left most of Arizona’s rural areas unregulated. There’s been recent controversy over using large amounts of groundwater to grow alfalfa in La Paz County to ship back to Saudi Arabia.

Some panelists at the discussion, which was moderated by The Show's Mark Brodie, expressed frustration over the inaction on this issue by the Arizona Legislature. Holly Irwin chairs the La Paz Board of Supervisors.

“At the time when the groundwater act was enacted. You know, we were left without restrictions. And they knew they were going to have to go back at some point and fix that. Well, it hasn't been done. And now we're seeing the effects of it," said Irwin. "Forty years down, 40 years-plus down the road.”

Supply is one part of the state’s water challenge. But as Kathleen Ferris with the Kyl Center for Water Policy says, demand may be an even bigger factor. She cited a recent Bureau of Reclamation study that highlighted the impact of population growth.

"We're going to have to rethink how we use water, we're going to have to have adaptation measures, we're going to have to control how we grow and where we grow," Ferris said.

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News director Chad Snow joined the KJZZ newsroom in 2016.