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Water is for fighting: Partisanship increases in Arizona politics as groundwater drops

In Arizona, water used to be a bipartisan area of politics, albeit a contentious one. But partisanship and tension have increased as water has drained away.

Kathleen Ferris is a water policy expert of more than 40 years who helped craft Arizona’s monumental 1980 Groundwater Management Act.

“Everybody keeps saying that water is bipartisan, and in fact it's not. It's not anymore, let's put it that way. It used to be. You could say that back in 1980, when we passed the Groundwater Management Act, but you can't say that anymore,” she said.

Ferris believes Arizona’s prospects have darkened over the years, largely due to rural communities resisting conservation efforts.

“Willcox, for example, did not want any part of the Groundwater Management Act. And yet here they are today, desperate for help,” Ferris said.

The rivers that flow through the state are doing relatively well this year thanks to rain, but the big picture is more grim. Especially for groundwater, the state’s other primary water resource. 

Ideas for augmenting the state’s water supply have floated around the Capitol for decades — ideas like building a desalination plant, or even pumping water from the Mississippi River. 

Those options would not only be costly, but would require cooperation from other states or countries. Arizona is years away from seeing any such project come to fruition.

Biggest fight now is over groundwater

Democratic Sen. Priya Sundareshan (D-Tucson) says conservation is the bigger priority. 

“There may be a discussion about augmentation later, but if you're not conserving what you have and using it most effectively, I don't think it makes any sense to start talking about bringing in new water. You can’t put more water into a tub if it has leaky holes,” Sundareshan said. 

The biggest fight now is over groundwater, which accounts for more than 40% of the state’s water supply. 

“So, you have a split really, with Democrats supporting water regulation and trying to conserve and to protect water supplies, and you have Republicans really trying to pass laws to protect farmers and developers,” Ferris said.

The Groundwater Management Act established regulated zones known as Active Management Areas. There are six in the state, and within them, groundwater pumping is regulated and the aquifers are replenished. But, rural areas are largely left out. 

Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs’ administration canceled land leases that a Saudi Arabian subsidiary, Fondomonte, profited on for years, pumping groundwater for free in Western Arizona to grow alfalfa, which was exported to Saudi Arabia to feed livestock.

The case raised eyebrows about Arizona’s groundwater management and the unfettered pumping large companies can enjoy.

Most lawmakers agree that rural areas need an alternative to AMAs, but they don't agree on how to achieve that.

Republican Sen. Sine Kerr (R-Buckeye) explains that AMAs were mainly designed for areas with more than one source of water where there was anticipated growth, and that doesn’t apply to many rural areas.

“The AMAs would implement the assured water supply, 100-year water supply requirements, replenishment, all those things that would just really halt the growth and future success of our cities and towns in rural areas,” Kerr said.

She has proposed legislation that would createlocally managed rural groundwater protection areas. They would have fewer conservation restrictions and would not be controlled by the state’s water department like AMAs are.

Other lawmakers and even representatives of some rural counties say Kerr's plan would not be effective and may not even be possible to implement.

“There's enormous pressure from a lot of these areas to do something in a way that didn't exist in 1980,” Ferris said. “I think this is a smokescreen. It's like, ‘Of course we're going to do something. Look at this great law we're putting forward. Look what it does.’ And I think it is meant as a distraction.”

And Ferris accuses Republicans of trying to weaken conservation laws, using Kerr’s bill to help special interests.

Developers worry that restrictions on buildings based on water shortages will hurt business and growth for commercial and residential purposes.

Agriculture is responsible for more than 95% of the groundwater use in some basins. Farming organizations like the Arizona Farm Bureau worry that agriculture will be the first thing on the chopping block if Democrats implement pumping restrictions. 

“I think everyone supports ag to a certain degree. We all need to eat,” Kerr said.

She is a champion of agriculture, which is her family’s livelihood. 

“In most of our rural communities it’s agriculture that is the key economic driver in our rural areas. … Now, agriculture is stepping up and saying, ‘OK, we agree to be regulated, but we have to have certainty.’ We can’t just — just a clean swipe and a big broad water cut when, you know, we’re family businesses,” Kerr said.

Efforts for, and against, regulating agriculture

The two sides of the issue seem to disagree about how serious Arizona’s water shortage is. 

This year, Democratic Attorney General Kris Mayes launched an investigation into rural groundwater pumping and intends to file a lawsuit against large farms, accusing them of depleting groundwater in basins where residential wells are now running dry and fissures are opening up in the drier ground.

Mayes has hosted a series of town halls across rural Arizona and invited residents to share their concerns about groundwater pumping. At one town hall, she pointedly accused Republicans of blocking groundwater conservation at the state Legislature and pledged to try to pass a citizen initiative to establish conservation if lawmakers don’t make their own substantial reforms. 

Republicans then began a new committee dedicated to investigating Mayes, and accused her of politicizing and weaponizing her position.

Republicans on that committee argued that farms are exempt from prosecution under Arizona’s public nuisance statutes — even if there is some harm to the public.

Mayes said in response that she won’t stop her work and in fact hired a hydrology expert and sent out several investigators from her office. 

“People are watching their livelihoods be destroyed because [the Legislature] can’t get its act together. Because this place is dysfunctional because this place, and basically one or two legislators, are basically standing in the way of sane reforms,” she said in April.

The worst-case scenario is what happened in Rio Verde Foothills last year. The unincorporated community was cut off from its water supply by Scottsdale, as part of the city’s own drought management plan. 

Developers in AMAs must prove they have an assured water supply when they build six or more homes on a parcel of land. But “wildcat subdivisions” are a way around that water supply requirement. 

Developers selling the subdivisions split their land into smaller parcels and sell them one at a time. That happened in Rio Verde, where the community developed without proof that there was an adequate water supply to sustain the population. 

City, county and state officials struggled for months to come up with a solution. In the interim, Rio Verde residents’ property values tanked. People skipped doing their laundry, drove miles to haul water from obliging friends and family, and feared the approaching summer without running water.

Eventually, lawmakers reached a deal to restore water to the community.

Sundareshan suggests that Republican chairs of water committees in the Legislature are more willing to hope that drought will go away on its own.

“We see this as a crisis that's occurring right now with people whose wells are running dry and they [Republican legislators] seem to think that the status quo is OK, because the large-scale agriculture can access the water that they need,” Sundareshan said.

Kerr predicts groundwater conservation will advance through the legislature this year. But, considering the gridlock at the Capitol, others fear nothing will make it through. 

As lawmakers often say: water is for fighting.

Every Last Drop from KJZZ

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