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Agency to augment Arizona water supply would be exempt from public records law under Senate bill

A Senate panel voted Thursday to shut the public out of the key business of the state agency tasked with finding new water for Arizona.

HB 2014 authorizes the Water Infrastructure Finance Authority to enter into agreements to facilitate the construction of a project that would bring water from outside the state into Arizona. It also empowers the agency to negotiate deals with others to agree to purchase the water once it becomes available.

But what HB 2014 also would do is exempt all communications and information gathered related to water augmentation from all provisions of the state's Public Records Law. And the only time anyone could get information would be "on the consent of the authority.''

Chelsea McGuire, an assistant director of the agency, told members of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources, Energy and Water that the secrecy is necessary for WIFA to accomplish its goal of supplementing the state's water supply.

Lawmakers allocated $1 billion over three years. But Gov. Katie Hobbs, citing the current deficit, has proposed reducing this year's allocation from $333 million to just $33 million.

Sandy Bahr, president of the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club, told lawmakers there was mess that was left in the wake of the last time WIFA was trying to negotiate a behind-closed-doors deal.

"The Ducey administration tried to rush through a deal with IDE Technologies via WIFA,'' Bahr said, referring to efforts by the former governor to build a desalination plant on the Sea of Cortez in Mexico, with the water being pumped north to Arizona. He had hoped to have a deal inked before he left office in January 2023.

McGuire told Capitol Media Services after the meeting that it is not the intent to shield the entire process from the public.

What needs secrecy, she said, are talks with those with whom WIFA is negotiating to buy that future water. She compared it to the procurement process where the state seeks sealed bids. In those cases, the government wants the lowest cost. By contrast, any deal to sell water would be looking to bring in as much money as possible.

"When you've got a bunch of people bidding for a contract, their bid, their ability to pay, their needs, those aren't subject to public record until the end of the process,'' McGuire said. "That's what we're trying to do.''

Sen. Priya Sundareshan, D-Tucson, said she could not support the legislation with the current language that exempts various records from the Public Records Law.

"These are public funds. It's a public entity. We would like to keep open as much disclosure and public engagement as possible," she said.

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