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Hobbs under pressure to call special session on groundwater

Cactus in the foreground with a windmill in the background.
Ron Dungan/KJZZ
Most of Arizona's rural groundwater is unregulated.
Hear Camryn Sanchez with host Mark Brodie on The Show

Arizona lawmakers didn’t pass significant bipartisan policy on groundwater reform this year, but pressure is mounting. Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs may call lawmakers into a special session to address the issue.

The governor’s water policy council considered two concepts at a meeting on Tuesday: one aimed at protecting rural groundwater, the other focused on urban water use.

Over the weekend, the Legislature adjourned for the year — but Hobbs’ water policy advisor Patrick Adams insists something can still be done.

“If consensus can be reached on a rural groundwater policy solution, I am here today to tell you that Gov. Hobbs will consider calling a special session to enact this critical legislation,” Adams said.

For the rural groundwater plan, members aim to put protections on critically low basins and implement pumping restrictions with local input.

Members have been meeting on this for months, and a Republican-supported effort died narrowly on the last day of session. Still, the council thinks they’re close to a solution.

Councilmember and farmer Ed Curry says the problem needs to be solved quickly and needs to be a real check on heavy groundwater users.

“The main thing is that we do not want to reward the abuser of water. If we send that signal that we reward the abuser it will continue to be abused,” Curry said.

Curry applauded the governor’s team and the Republicans on the council for compromising and dedicating themselves to listening to one another.

“It’s very disappointing — I will say the same — that we get to the end of session, and we really haven't accomplished anything. But yet we have. … We’re so close,” he said.

Not all councilmembers say they’ve been included in the stakeholder meetings others mentioned.

Rep. Stacey Travers (D-Phoenix) said it seems like the legislation was written before everyone was asked to come to the table.

“Quite honestly, I think it’s kind of bullsh-t,” she said.

There was more consensus on the second plan the council addressed.

The urban plan consists of converting lands in protected areas from agricultural use to urban use, which should mean using less water.

Members agreed that an incentive program to entice farmers to give up their grandfathered, or held-over, agricultural groundwater pumping rights and a less-expansive urban pumping right are key for the future of water policy in urban areas where groundwater is already somewhat protected.

Those urban areas are known as AMAs, and the state Department of Water Resources has studied the potential effects of this ag-to-urban incentive program on the Phoenix and Pinal County AMAs.

In some cases, ADWR said converting land from ag-to-urban could result in one-fifth of the water use.

When Hobbs took office, one of the first things she did was put a moratorium on new housing subdivisions in parts of the Valley due to a report from ADWR which showed dwindling groundwater supplies.

Porter said that moratorium was the impetus for the ag-to-urban push, along with a number of other proposals — especially since a low housing supply is another pressing Arizona problem.

Although it’s generally understood that converting ag-to-urban saves water, some members urged caution. In some cases, it’s not as simple as it sounds.

A significant amount of the groundwater used in irrigated agriculture, for example, sinks back into the earth and serves to recharge the aquifer, meaning the net water loss is lower than it appears.

Agriculture in Arizona’s AMAs is also naturally decreasing over time without an incentive program, albeit gradually, Porter notes.

Hobbs vetoed a controversial bill — SB 1172 — on Wednesday afternoon. That’s the one that would have allowed ag-to-urban.

“The concept at the core of this bill — conversion of agricultural lands to lower water use development — is a policy that has broad potential benefits and is one that my Administration supports,” Hobbs said in her veto letter. “However, it is critical that the legislation be carefully crafted to ensure that the water conservation savings and consumer protections are guaranteed. It is clear that the unique data among Arizona’s Active Management Areas (AMAs) does not support universal adoption of this program across all four of the state’s initial AMA’s.”

Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at ASU, said the language of the ag-to-urban program needs to be airtight to avoid loopholes that could still allow a large volume of groundwater pumping that would negate any urban conversion benefit.

Another potential problem is whether anyone would take the state up on its offer. Sandy Fabritz is director of water strategy for mining company Freeport-McMoRan.

“This is a conundrum because we basically have two concepts, right? The ag-to-urban and rural groundwater management,” Fabritz said. “And in one case, it’s not quite ready, but we want to move forward. In one case, it's not quite ready, and we want to wait.”

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