CASA GRANDE — The Groundwater Users Advisory Council for the Pinal Active Management Area is accusing the Arizona Department of Water Resources of “steamrolling” the fourth iteration of the area’s water management plan through the approval process without enough time for public comment.
The Pinal council met by video conference Wednesday with representatives from ADWR, who described the changes from the current Pinal AMA plan and the draft of the fourth plan.
Active Management Area plans are in place for the Phoenix, Pinal, Prescott, Santa Cruz and Tucson areas. The plans were created as part of Arizona’s 1980 Groundwater Management Act and are designed to control the use and encourage the conservation of groundwater in those locations.
The changes in Pinal’s fourth plan include allowing ADWR to audit conservation programs used by an irrigation district or municipal water user, make changes to the agricultural and municipal water conservation incentive programs and more.
A copy of the draft plan was released in March and can be found on ADWR’s website at https://new.azwater.gov/ama/management-plans along with a list of changes from the third management plan. Click on “management plans” in the menu on the right side of the website.
The Pinal council was supposed to discuss the draft plan at its meeting in April, but that meeting was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The fourth management plan was supposed to be completed in 2008, but cuts in ADWR staffing during the housing bust forced the department to write the plan for each area one after the other instead of working on them all at the same time, as it has done in the past.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Natalie Mast, an active management areas planning manager for ADWR, requested written comments from the council on the nearly 350-page draft plan by June 5. The department is hoping to collect public comments and have the plan adopted by the fall of 2020. At the same time ADWR staff is starting work on the process of creating a fifth plan for all five Active Management Areas in the state, she said.
The department hopes to have a draft of the fifth plan in place by 2021 and have a final fifth plan adopted by 2022.
Councilman Scott Riggins blasted the short timeline to return comments to ADWR, saying that this was the first time the GUAC, as a whole body, had been presented with the draft of the fourth management plan.
He asked when, in the short time frame it had set for itself, ADWR would respond to the questions and feedback the council would give to the department on the draft.
“There’s been no public discussion of this,” Riggins said. He acknowledged that a draft of the plan had been out since March but the council as a whole had not been able to discuss it properly with ADWR or amongst themselves before the public.
“This timeline is aggressive and misconstrued,” he said.
As an example of a comment that he would submit, Riggins asked why drip irrigation and sprinkler irrigation in the agricultural best management practices part of the plan was valued more highly in the draft than other methods of irrigating a field, especially since a farmer could install those systems without being required to install other efficiency methods such as ground leveling.
Riggins also pointed out that an online video conference was probably not the best format to hold a meeting on a document that required a lot of public input.
“This virtual format does not further the public process. We need to find a way for people to be heard,” he said.
Council Chairman David Snider agreed with Riggins. Snider said he understood the department was behind schedule on the fourth AMA plan, but “that shouldn’t diminish discussion of the plan.”
Snider called the plan “dense” and “not well constructed.”
“There’s a lot of cut and paste from the Phoenix plan or the third (Pinal AMA) plan,” he said.
He picked apart pieces of individual chapters in the plan, saying that the data the department used in chapters didn’t “jive” with each other, there was no information on how well conservation plans were working in another chapter and other parts were difficult to understand.
“There’s a lot of work to be done,” he said.
Mast acknowledged the short time frame for the council to return written comments to the department.
However, department staff had presented parts of the draft fourth management plan to the council at least three times before, she said. ADWR staff has also tried to reach out to stakeholders about the draft plan since it was released in March.
It was possible the department would call for another public meeting with the GUAC to discuss the draft plan before the plan was approved, she said. That meeting would depend on the number and kind of comments the department received.
Riggins acknowledged that the department had presented pieces of the draft to the council and each time the council discussed possible changes to those parts of the plan. But the final draft didn’t show any of the changes the council had recommended.
He also pointed out that the council hadn’t been able to bring in the public to discuss the draft plan in-depth. It seemed like ADWR was trying to “steamroll” the plan into place, he said.
“There certainly hasn’t been an interchange of ideas (on the plan),” he said.
Snider asked if it was possible for ADWR and the council to hold at least one other public meeting between the beginning of June and the end of July so that the public and the council could discuss the draft further.
Einav Heneson, ADWR’s Active Management Area director, said that it would be possible for the council to hold a meeting without ADWR staff, but the council would have to comply with the Arizona Open Meeting Law.
Snider, who has served on a number of public boards, said that shouldn’t be a problem.