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Lawmaker blasts Gila Bend groundwater plan, says her bill offers local control instead

State water officials may create  a new groundwater management area. But Republicans and rural stakeholders say it’s the governor's way of double-crossing them. 

The Arizona Department of Water Resources announced last week it’s considering designating the Gila Bend basin as a groundwater active management area, or AMA, to mitigate steep water decline. It would be the first time the department has established an AMA since 1980, when lawmakers adopted the Groundwater Management Act.

But during a press conference at the state Capitol ahead of a public hearing regarding the Gila Bend basin, Republican Sen. Sine Kerr (R-Buckeye) said AMAs don’t protect the interests of rural Arizonans like herself. 

She also accused Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs of not working in good faith.

Kerr and Arizona Farm Bureau President Stefanie Smallhouse resigned from Hobbs’ water policy council in October in protest, claiming rural voices were not being taken seriously.

“The public display of collaboration amounted to only smoke and mirrors when it came to time to do the hard work,” Kerr said Tuesday. “Last week, the smoke dissipated and the mirrors cracked and this governor showed us how she truly intends to lead on water and that's through fear and intimidation.”

Kerr acknowledged that the Gila Bend basin needs more management, but she has worked with rural stakeholders like Smallhouse to craft a bill that would create less restrictive oversight. 

“Gila Bend is not Phoenix. It is not Tucson and it is not Prescott. Gila Bend is a sleepy little basin with farming at its heart. There is no urban sprawl there. In this basin, investments are made in growing food, not in growing houses,” Smallhouse said Tuesday.

Kerr’s Senate Bill 1221 would allow community members to establish protected groundwater basin areas, but unlike AMAs, which are managed by ADWR, they would be governed by an elected local council. 

Kerr acknowledged that in her proposed basin protection areas, agriculture would face water cuts. But the cuts would be made across the board, she says, and not targeted at agriculture, as she warns they may be if an AMA is approved.

Kerr accused Hobbs of ordering ADWR to create an AMA in Gila Bend, and claimed the governor “broke her word” and “abused her authority.”

Doug MacEachern, a spokesman for the water department, said in a text that Hobbs did not order the creation of an AMA in Gila Bend, but Kerr said she doesn’t believe that’s the truth.

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