Water Policy Council Recommends Improvements to Arizona’s Groundwater Management

Water Policy Council delivers recommendations to Governor Hobbs.
Yellow-rumped Warbler. Photo: Barbara J. Baird/Audubon Photography Awards

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In May, I had the honor of being appointed to the newly formed Water Policy Council by Governor Katie Hobbs. The Governor gave her Water Policy Council a clear directive: by December 2023, provide her with recommendations on how to improve Arizona’s groundwater management. The aim is safe and reliable water supplies for all of Arizona. Recommendations can be legislative (meaning the legislature would need to introduce and pass legislation that she would need to sign to become law) or administrative (meaning state agencies like the Arizona Department of Water Resources could implement the recommendations through a rulemaking process or existing authorities). The Governor’s Water Policy Council’s work is currently focused within two committees: the Assured Water Supply Committee and the Rural Groundwater Committee.

As part of this process, diverse participants from around the state have convened to discuss groundwater management solutions. A bipartisan and diverse group of stakeholders serve on these two committees, which includes Tribes, legislators, state agencies, municipal water users, agriculture, county representatives, the urban development industry, mining, universities, and conservation groups (like Audubon Southwest).

As a responsibility of my role on the Water Policy Council, I also serve on the Rural Groundwater Committee, which has met very regularly over the past six months. Our committee agreed that a new groundwater management framework was needed to provide more options to manage groundwater for the areas outside of Active Management Areas (AMAs) and Irrigation Non-Expansion Areas (INAs). The areas outside of AMAs and INAs are often referred to as rural Arizona.

More than 1.5 million people reside in rural Arizona, which is roughly 80 percent of the state’s land area.

Yet there is no groundwater management in these portions of the state. This means the deepest well wins, and this has led to conflicts among neighbors, declining groundwater levels, degraded streams and rivers, and risks to water supplies that cities, farmers, industry, birds, rivers, and habitat all rely on.

There is broad recognition across the political spectrum and across various interest groups that without a new framework to help rural Arizona communities manage their precious groundwater supplies, rural Arizona’s future is at risk. Arizona is the odd state out when it comes to managing this water supply—Kansas, Nevada, Texas and other states in the West have ways to manage their groundwater.

So, to provide a new option for the parts of the state where no groundwater management currently exists, and to better understand the groundwater situation throughout the state, the Rural Groundwater Committee put forth two recommendations for consideration by the full Governor’s Water Policy Council, which were approved. These include:

  1. Rural Groundwater Management Areas framework
  2. Increasing data collection and monitoring for groundwater statewide

I also supported the recommendations brought forth from the Assured Water Supply Committee, which proposes some fixes to existing groundwater management rules, including:

  1. Closing the build to rent loophole (currently, within AMAs, when single family homes are built as rentals, not owned by individuals, they do not have to comply with the requirement to have 100 years’ worth of water before building).
  2. Closing the wildcat subdivision loophole (within AMAs, when six or fewer home lots are subdivided, they are not complying with the requirement to have 100 years’ worth of water before building).
  3. Encouraging more water providers/cities to become “designated,” meaning urban growth must be accompanied with 100 years’ worth of water within water provider/city boundaries.

You can read the details of all these proposals by clicking on the respective links above.

Audubon Southwest supports the recommendations of the Governor’s Water Policy Council.  In addition to the recommendations of the Governor’s Water Policy Council, additional related proposals are certain to materialize from other legislative interests, providing alternative approaches to water management. I believe all well-intended proposals, especially those that seek to preserve and manage rural Arizona’s precious groundwater resources, should receive consideration by stakeholders, in addition to those that originated through the Governor’s process.

The short version: These recommendations are a positive step forward in the discussion of how to improve the management and understanding of groundwater supplies in ALL of Arizona.

We recognize that some of the recommendations the Governor’s Water Policy Council is submitting, such as a new rural groundwater management framework, can only be achieved with cooperation and coordination with the legislature. We look forward to continuing to work with all parties to pass legislation that helps rural Arizona protect its future and sustain healthy economies, livelihoods, and water supplies.

Want to take action? Sign on to this letter encouraging the legislature and Governor Hobbs to help rural communities manage their groundwater.