Advancing Arizona’s Groundwater Management to Protect Our Water Supply

Several bills before the legislature would protect people and birds.

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It is a flurry of activity right now at the Arizona Capitol where the state legislature is considering numerous groundwater management-related bills.

Just a quick reminder: Birds need water, and in the arid Southwest that also means birds rely on groundwater. Groundwater sustains rivers and streams in between rain and snow events and is the source for springs and wells. Over 40% of Arizona’s water supply comes from groundwater. Outside of the central populous portions of the state, there are essentially no rules governing its use. This affects the water future of more than 1.5 million Arizonans.

Groundwater pumping has increased over time, both in terms of total wells and the amount of water taken out of the ground. This includes withdrawing groundwater near Arizona’s celebrated rivers and streams. The overuse of groundwater degrades rivers and riverside habitat and other groundwater-dependent ecosystems such as those sustained by springs.

Groundwater is the only source of water for communities and businesses in parts of Arizona, but if overuse continues, these communities risk an uncertain water and economic future. And given the connection between birds, habitat, and groundwater, it is imperative we make progress on groundwater management. The state legislature must act to empower Arizona communities to protect their water supplies.

Three bills currently introduced at the state legislature would do just that.

  • Rural Management Areas (HB 2679): This bill would allow county boards of supervisors to establish Rural Management Areas, or RMAs, in order to plan and protect groundwater resources in certain geographic areas within counties that border the Colorado River. Stakeholders in Mohave and La Paz Counties have expressed interest in this legislation given the large farming operations in western Arizona where the drilling of new, large groundwater wells is threatening water supplies of the local communities.
  • Subsequent Irrigation Non-Expansion Areas (HB 2595): A tweak is needed to existing law that would allow the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) to consider future groundwater use projections when determining if an area should be closed off to the development of new wells for agricultural irrigation. Right now, the department can only consider it if current groundwater use threatens water supplies. This leads to reactive, rather than proactive groundwater management because the problems become severe before any action is taken. Despite requests from local communities to form new Irrigation Non-Expansion Areas (INAs) in specific locations, ADWR has not been able to fully implement this policy tool (since the formation of three INAs in the 1980s) to halt unsustainable new agricultural groundwater uses, and therefore, communities’ water supplies remain threatened. This law would correct for that.
  • Well spacing rules (HB 2204): This bill would require the director of ADWR to adopt rules governing where new wells and replacement wells could be located. Such rules already apply in Active Management Areas (areas with existing groundwater protections) and this bill would allow basins experiencing declines in groundwater levels outside of Active Management Areas to implement well spacing rules. Well spacing rules could help prevent some of the rampant proliferation of wells we have seen throughout Arizona, protect existing groundwater users, and support more sustainable levels of groundwater use.

It is imperative that we advance sound groundwater management policy for people and birds. Be on the lookout for ways to take action.