September 11, 2023 — Arizona’s Attorney General, Kris Mayes, has expressed concern over the regulation of the state’s rural groundwater supply. In a letter sent on April 27, 2023, to Tom Buschatzke, the Director of the Department of Water Resources (ADWR), Mayes pointed out the department’s obligations under A.R.S. § 45-412(C) to periodically review areas not within an Active Management Area (AMA). Despite evolving groundwater conditions over the years, she wrote that only two evaluations of potential new AMAs in the Upper San Pedro Basin have been conducted in the past 40 years. The Attorney General seeks clarity on other related studies and any reasons for non-compliance.
Mayes also highlighted the growing trend of hedge funds and similar entities purchasing land near the Colorado River, possibly intending to transfer water rights away from the river. She cited ADWR’s approval of a water transfer from GSC Farm LLC in Cibola Valley to Queen Creek in September 2020 and the introduction of Substantive Policy Statement No. CR 11 that governs such transfers. Mayes believes ADWR needs to assess the cumulative impact of these transfers on both the local communities and the river itself, and she recommends a policy revision.
Following reports of groundwater pumping by Saudi Arabian entities, Mayes suggested improved collaboration between ADWR and the State Land Department, especially concerning well-drilling applications in La Paz County. A meeting between the two departments is already in the pipeline for a more detailed discussion.
Recent bills in the State legislature have aimed to address the rural groundwater regulation issue. Rep. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, however, raised concerns in an opinion piece for the Arizona Capitol Times. Griffin criticized several key points in these bills, which she says are fraught with problems. Amongst her concerns, she wrorte, “Instead of respecting the right to privacy, these bills would intrude into the personal lives and affairs of rural Arizonans and require active monitoring devices on private wells, including ranchers and farmers litigating water rights in ongoing stream adjudications.”
Currently, Arizona has six AMAs — Prescott, Phoenix, Pinal, Tucson, Santa Cruz and Douglas. These regions operate under the Groundwater Code, which regulates groundwater pumping. The Douglas AMA was created by citizen initiative. There is also a non-irrigation expansion area (INA) near Joseph City.