Commission weighs tougher water conservation steps

June 6, 2001

A commission studying Arizona's groundwater use may recommend tougher conservation steps for areas already regulated but only voluntary steps for unregulated rural areas.

"Substantial progress has been made in ensuring Arizona's water future," but "additional work remains," the state Water Management Commission said in an interim report obtained by The Associated Press.

Gov. Jane Hull appointed the 47-member commission a year ago to determine how Arizona's 21-year-old groundwater code is working out.

That landmark law was enacted in 1980, establishing a new water rights system and imposing conservation requirements in five "active management areas": Phoenix, Tucson, Prescott, Pinal and Santa Cruz.

Hull created the commission 14 months after the Auditor General's Office reported in 1999 that the state was not likely to meet the 2025 deadline set in the 1980 law to achieve "safe yield" in the Phoenix, Tucson and Prescott areas.

Safe yield is when the amount of water pumped does not exceed the amount being recharged in the aquifer.

The interim report was approved by the commission on Friday. It says recommendations being considered include new permitting requirements for new wells, limitations on new pumping permits for mining, industry and electrical generating stations, and restrictions on the ability to convert to other purposes the current rights to pump water for agriculture.

Other steps being considered including requiring municipal and industrial users to phase in use of Central Arizona Project water and other renewable supplies, encouraging utility regulators to help private companies use renewable supplies, and establishing a new financing authority for regional water systems.

The commission said it also is discussing a proposed new "water management fee" on groundwater pumped in amounts above recharge levels but added that proposal faces "strong opposition."

The proposed new permitting requirements for new wells would be intended to protect municipal water supplies, ecologically significant habitat, surface water rights, areas of serious subsidence and supplies threatened by contamination, the commission said.

New statewide efforts are needed to promote conservation and water supply planning, but the interim report and two of the commission's three co-chairmen said those efforts would involve unregulated rural areas only if those areas agree.

"There is an extraordinary amount of paranoia in rural Arizona that folks in the cities are going to reach out and take their waters," said commission Co-Chairman John Mawhinney, a former state senator from Tucson.

Neither of those efforts will be expanded to rural areas outside current AMAs without legislative approval "and before that, long and hard discussions with the folks in rural Arizona to find out how and under what conditions they'd like to participate," Mawhinney said.

"But there is no thought (by the commission) about bringing them under the regulatory structure of the AMAs," Mawhinney said.

Commission Co-Chairman Jack Pfister, an Arizona State University administrator and former Salt River Project general manager, agreed but said non-regulated areas would be encouraged to join the conservation and planning efforts.

"We're not really expecting to have any impact on them unless they are in agreement," Pfister said.

The commission is give its final report to Hull by Dec. 1, a timetable that would allow recommendations to be considered by legislators during their 2002 regular session.

Source: Associated Press