September 25, 2023 — Groundwater in rural Arizona is a valuable asset that groups throughout the state want to regulate.
Environmental Groups Petition for an Upper San Pedro River Basin Active Management Area.
In the San Pedro River watershed, environmentalist spearheaded by the Center for Biological Diversity have petitioned the director of the Department of Water Resources [pdf link to petition] to establish a groundwater active management area to regulate groundwater pumping in the region.
Calling itself the San Pedro Alliance, the group asked the Arizona Department of Water Resources last Wednesday to create a state-run Active Management Area to oversee and protect groundwater resources in the Upper San Pedro River Basin. Active Management Areas, or AMAs, are areas within the state that are subject to certain statutory and administrative regulations regarding the withdrawal and use of groundwater.
“What we want it to accomplish is that the basin will be at safe yield. That is defined as no more groundwater is being withdrawn than is being replaced annually,” said Robin Silver, leader of the alliance and a founder of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. According to the San Pedro Alliance, the river basin has been in a deficit situation for decades, with more groundwater pumped every year than is replenished by rainfall, artificially recharged sewage effluent, storm water and other sources.
On the legislative front, the Arizona Capitol Times reports that some Arizonans are growing frustrated with Rep. Gail Griffin’s inaction on groundwater regulation. Griffin chairs the House Natural Resources, Energy and Water Committee, and has repeatedly withheld groundwater management bills supported by a group of rural stakeholders from being heard.
According to the Capitol Times, Regina Cobb, a former lawmaker from Mohave County, fought for legislation to establish Rural Management Areas (RMAs) for three years, a program allowing rural communities to directly manage their water. Cobb says that each time she presented her bills, Griffin stopped them.
“Representative Griffin is a good lawmaker, but she is a gatekeeper as far as water issues in the House,” Cobb told the Times. “She has pretty much shut her mind to any kind of regulation at all on groundwater.”
Farmers Are Not “The Enemy.”
When it comes to water, agriculture is oftentimes blamed for using too much. But the Arizona Farm Bureau says, “Farmers know that water is their most precious resource. To make sure that they don’t waste a single drop, they have invested millions of dollars in technology like drip irrigation, sprinkler systems, laser-leveling, and soil monitors to make sure water goes where it needs to go, precisely when it needs to go there.” The Farm Bureau states:
- We need statewide efforts when it comes to water planning, but those efforts should be subject to local community support and control.
- We believe any statewide water plan should be designed to support increasing city populations in the Active Management Areas (AMAs) while maintaining a significant agricultural industry in Arizona. Where development occurs within AMA’s and INA’s, it should be on land with a historical use of water.
- We support the use of groundwater on agricultural lands and grandfathered irrigation rights on lands with historic water use. We also believe that, where feasible, surface water should be used rather than groundwater.
- We support the continued use of the best management practices alternative conservation plan, as part of a workable, economically and environmentally sound plan for agricultural water management and conservation.
- Any mandatory conservation program for agriculture must be economically, agronomically and technically feasible and reflect differences in farming conditions and cropping patterns.
- No government policy should be used to interfere with agricultural use of water, as long as a source of water is available.
- We support water augmentation efforts for communities and watersheds, where those efforts enhance supplies without negatively impacting another area.
- Water transfers should be transparent, consider all community impacts and be subject to local control.
- The Department of Water Resources should be adequately funded to meet public expectations and legal obligations.
A somewhat sinister rural groundwater problem is reported by Food & Water Watch, which suggests that drought profiteers are targeting poor rural communities in Arizona, engaging “Robin Hood in reverse.” They claim that these entities are buying up small farms to move already insufficient water resources from rural areas to Phoenix suburbs.
Sheer cost of groundwater transportation side, the Arizona Groundwater Transportation Act of 1991 limits or prohibits the transportation of groundwater to another basin or sub-basin or to an AMA. The primary purpose behind the groundwater transportation restrictions was to protect rural economies by ensuring that local groundwater primarily goes to local uses.