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Lawmaker aims to maintain Douglas water rights, others worry it could hurt groundwater conservation

A Republican lawmaker wants to make sure that nothing changes for water users in the Douglas basin, where residents recently voted to  protect and manage groundwater. But some lawmakers expressed concern that GOP proposals go against the protections voters approved.

Stricter regulations on the basin’s dwindling groundwater supply, approved by voters in 2022, will take effect in January 2027. Before those conservation requirements are in place, Rep. Gail Griffin (R-Hereford) is pushing legislation she says will keep the status quo for some in the region who’ve operated under different rules that were designed to preserve irrigation.

At the first meeting of the House Natural Resources, Energy and Water Committee, Griffin brought up three bills to address Douglas’s water management. She says the issue was brought to her by residents of the area. 

The bills have emergency clauses, so if they are signed into law, they’ll go into effect immediately.

More than 95% of the water in the Douglas basin is used for agriculture. 

The first of Griffin’s bills passed through the hearing with bipartisan support, though Democrats said they weren’t sure why it's necessary. It gives water users an extra few months to apply to keep grandfathered rights — an established right to pump water.

“We think this will further delay getting this AMA (active management area) on track to limiting groundwater pumping and don't see why if the 15 months was OK for other active management areas why it wouldn’t be adequate for this one,” Sierra Club lobbyist Sandy Bahr said in opposition to the bill.

An “adequate water supply” is already required for many developments in the Douglas basin because some municipalities, like Douglas, have their own adequate water supply ordinances. That’s a little bit different than an “assured” water supply, which is what active management areas require from developers. Griffin’s second bill would allow developments to go forward without assured supply, if they’ve already shown “adequate” supply.

Bahr cautioned that assured and adequate water supply requirements are not the same and shouldn’t be treated as such. 

The bill passed out of committee, but didn’t have support from any Democrats.

The Arizona Department of Water Resources is tasked with restricting the amount of water users can pump. Griffin’s final bill would let users pump to the amount of their highest annual groundwater withdrawal from all the previous years they’ve been pumping, and prevents the  Department of Water Resources from restricting them.

“This would functionally end the authority to increase conservation related to agricultural water use in future management plans, because those water duties won't be tied to the management plan,” ADWR representative Ben Alteneder said.

Rep. Alexander Kolodin (R-Scottsdale) said water is an area of “social control” and added that he’d hate to incentivize voters to create more active management areas.

Rep. Tim Dunn (R-Yuma) noted that pumping groundwater is expensive and farmers do it as needed for the benefit of their crops.

The bill failed to advance from committee on a 5-5 vote.

The ballot measure establishing the active management area, Proposition 422, passed by just 500 votes. Residents of the area made an effort to undo the measure’s passage, but were unsuccessful.

“Many of the people  were misinformed or uninformed when the vote came and there was a number of people that were unhappy with the passage of the active management area and want to put it back on the ballot,” Griffin said. 

The Douglas active management area is the first “subsequent” management area ever created, meaning it’s the first one voters asked for. 

Arizona now has six active management areas. Five were established at the same time and  have existed for years. Douglas is an indication to some legislators that voters could be on track to create multiple new active management areas soon.

Griffin's proposals would affect not just the Douglas active management area, but any new groundwater management areas that voters approve in the future. 

Camryn Sanchez is a field correspondent at KJZZ covering everything to do with state politics.