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A groundwater protection bill advancing at AZ Capitol faces opposition from rural stakeholders

Last week, the state Senate passed a bill intended to give rural communities a chance to conserve their groundwater. But legislative Democrats and even some rural officials are at odds with Republicans over the best way to achieve conservation goals. 

The groundwater in every basin monitored by ADWR, apart from one, is rapidly declining. 

“It took thousands of years for the water to get there, and humans have figured out ways of withdrawing the water a lot faster than it replenishes,” Sarah Porter with ASU’s Kyl Center for Water Policy said.

But some rural Republicans like Sen. Sine Kerr (R-Buckeye) see Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs’s plans to conserve groundwater as an attack on rural communities. 

“Their disdain and disrespect for rural Arizona and especially the ag community could not be more apparent,” Kerr said at a press conference in January.

The bad blood dates back to last year, when Hobbs created a water policy council to examine, among other things, how to protect the state’s dwindling groundwater supply. 

Kerr and Arizona Farm Bureau President Stefanie Smallhouse walked away from the councilbefore its work concluded. Kerr said at the time Hobbs wasn’t taking the views of rural and agricultural interests seriously.

“The makeup of the committee — of the 34 appointed members, only two had ag representation,” Kerr said in October. “We know in our rural areas that groundwater users primarily are agriculture, and so, that sent a clear message right off the bat that agriculture’s voice was not a priority on the council.”

A decision by ADWR to consider creating a new water management designation for the Gila Bend basin further exacerbated Kerr’s relationship with the governor’s office.

Creating a new active management area, or AMA, would regulate groundwater pumping for conservation purposes in a basin experiencing some of the worst decline in all of Arizona.

Under current law, a community or ADWR can create an AMA. Only six exist now. The first five AMAs were established through the 1980 Groundwater Management Act, and residents of the Douglas area created the first ever “new” AMA through a vote in 2022.

Smallhouse warned that agriculture interests will bear the brunt of cuts in the name of conservation if a new AMA emerges in Gila Bend.

“Gila Bend is not Phoenix. It is not Tucson and it is not Prescott,” Smallhouse said. “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.”

The Hobbs administration denies the governor had any involvement in the department’s decision.

But Kerr claims the move is a direct attack from the governor.

“I do not say this lightly, this governor broke her word and violated our handshake of building trust and collaboration,” Kerr said.

Led by Republican Rep. Gail Griffin, long known as the gatekeeper of groundwater management bills at Arizona’s Capitol, lawmakers are considering a series of bills that clash with the recommendations made by the governor’s water council.

For her part, Kerr wants to create an alternative to AMAs, that would allow communities to create their own basin management areas, called BMAs. Kerr said the goal is “primarily keep it local and to have that accountability and to the people that will be, you know, governed and regulated under this.” 

That’s not so different from what the governor’s water council proposed, creating an alternative to AMAs and giving rural communities the power to manage local groundwater basins themselves.

But under Kerr’s proposal, communities would elect a board to determine water conservation policy. The governor’s council recommended having ADWR appoint local leaders to advise the agency,

Kerr says giving local leaders an advisory goal isn’t good enough, and leaves too much authority in the hands of bureaucrats at the state water department in Phoenix.

Kerr’s bill is supported by some powerful lawmakers, including Griffin, and has the support of Smallhouse and the Arizona Farm Bureau. 

But Democrats, and even some rural county lawmakers, withheld support. Mohave County Supervisor Travis Lingenfelter spoke against the bill on behalf of four rural counties:

“Not only will this legislation, by our read, not help our rural counties and cities, but it will actually make it worse,” he said.

While AMA’s aren’t perfect, Lingenfelter said they have more to offer when it comes to conservation than what Kerr’s proposed.

“When you look at what’s available in statute already the AMAs are far easier to form and provide far more protection even though it doesn’t provide us the local input that we’ve been seeking,” Lingenfelter continued.

Rep. Leo Biasiucci (R-Lake Havasu City), who represents Mohave County, said he doesn’t support Kerr’s bill in its current form.

The bill is also opposed by environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the Audubon society. 

And critics like Sen. Juan Mendez says Kerr’s bill makes it near-impossible to create a basin management area — under her proposal, a BMA could only go into effect if it had the unanimous support of every county supervisor that represents land that’s part of a basin.

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