Irrigation Canal

Queen Creek is trying to buy an annual entitlement to Colorado River water from a farming and investment company that owns land in Cibola Valley in far west La Paz County.

CASA GRANDE — Finding a solution to Arizona’s water problems is going to take input from everyone, according to panelists at the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center’s annual conference.

That includes state, federal and local governments, the public, environmental organizations, agriculture and business and may require sacrifices from all in order to be successful, officials said.

The two-day event over the weekend focused on the next 40 years of water use in the state. It included panels of former Arizona Department of Water Resources managers, federal, city and state government officials, tribal members, economists, experts on water, legislators and environmental groups.

In a panel on managing Arizona’s water needs, four state lawmakers and a representative from Gov. Doug Ducey’s office identified some of the greatest challenges facing the state’s water supply as: water mining, the individual water needs of different areas of the state, managing the supply of water from the Colorado River under the Drought Contingency Plan and getting all of the various groups together to agree on a solution to the state’s water supply problems.

The panel included state Reps. Andres Cano, D-Tucson, Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, and David Cook, R-Globe, whose Legislative District 8 includes part of Casa Grande, Coolidge and Florence. Arizona Sen. Lisa Otondo, D-Yuma, and Chuck Podolak, the governor’s natural resources policy adviser, also sat on the panel.

Cobb said the largest water problem affecting her area of the state is water mining. That involves water users withdrawing more groundwater from the area’s aquifers than can be naturally replenished.

Cobb said her area has seen an increase in companies coming from other areas of the country or even outside the United States to start massive farms in the area that use large quantities of groundwater.

Since Cobb’s legislative district falls outside of a state Active Management Area, groundwater users can withdraw as much water as they want to support their needs. Active Management Areas govern the use of groundwater in five of the state’s largest or water-challenged areas.

Because there is very little data on the aquifers in her district, residents don’t know exactly how much water is there, how much is being withdrawn and how long it will last, she said.

Cook said each region of the state has its own problems with water that is unique to that particular area. The northwest, Cobb’s area, has problems with water mining. The southwest corner of the state is dealing with the issue of property owners transferring water rights to other areas of the state.

“We need to focus on the areas individually because they’re unique,” he said.

He suggested that the state should be split up into four regions. Each region would have a committee made up of stakeholders that would discuss and design possible solutions for that area and then those solutions would be brought forward to design a larger more comprehensive solution for the state’s water problems.

Otondo raised concerns about Arizona’s water allocation from the Colorado River being cut due to the Drought Contingency Plan that was approved in 2019.

Under the agreement, should the level of Lake Mead start to fall below a certain level, all of the states that are a party to the lower basin agreement, which includes Arizona, California and Nevada, would take a cut in their allocation out of all of the states in the agreement. In Arizona, the Central Arizona Project’s supply of Colorado River water would absorb most of the cutback in water under the agreement.

That could force CAP water users to turn toward using more groundwater during those cuts, Otondo said. The state needs to find a way to manage groundwater in order to make sure there is enough of a water supply. But managing groundwater in the state is highly contentious.

Podolak identified a different challenge, getting all of the different factions surrounding the use of water — agriculture, business, real estate, the public and government — together to come up with a solution to the state’s water problems.

He didn’t think identifying and addressing each region’s water problems one-by-one would solve the state’s water issues. All of the groups needed to get together as one group and identify all of the water issues in the state and find a statewide solution to those issues.

“How do we deal with these things? How do we bring these factions together?” he asked.

Cook said one key to the solution would be to make sure that the state’s legislators were well educated on the state’s water issues and to make sure any new legislators were as well. However, the education process needs to go beyond just getting updates and research on the various issues, he said. The Legislature also needs to be able to discuss the situation with others and act on the information.

He talked about the goals of an ad hoc committee he chaired in the fall of 2019 that created a stakeholder group to address water issues in Pinal County. That stakeholder group proposed at least one bill, HB 2880, that addressed an issue with the Arizona Department of Water Resources’ Assured Water Supply certification program.

Developers have to have a certificate of assured water supply from ADWR in order to start building in an Active Management Area. ADWR has put the certification process on hold in the Pinal AMA because of concerns that there is not enough groundwater to meet the needs of future residents over the next 100 years.

The bill would have allowed developers who are waiting for a certificate from ADWR and want to change their projects to use less water to keep their place in line while awaiting approval of their certificate. Currently, any changes to a development plan require a developer to submit a new application to ADWR and move to the back of the approval line.

“Why should we penalize those projects and put them at the end of the line?” Cook asked.

Cano pointed out that these groups should not just include members from the business, agriculture and development industries but researchers and educators from the state’s universities as well.

“The No. 1 problem is data,” he said.

The Legislature and the governor also need to make sure that ADWR has the funds it needs to operate and hire the staff it needs to complete the various groundwater plans for each of the Active Management Areas.

The department took a large hit in funding after the downturn in the housing market in 2008. It is behind schedule in researching and revising the groundwater management plans for each of the state’s AMAs including the Pinal AMA.

Otondo pointed out that a number of hydrologists and other researchers from ADWR have left the department because they can get better pay in the private sector, which means the department has lost experienced employees.

Podolak said the governor’s office is in the midst of planning for next year’s budget and wants to include additional funding for ADWR.

But if the state wants to get to a solution for its water issues, then it needs to know who has the legal rights to what sources of water and those rights holders have to be included in the discussion.

Cobb pointed out that the original budget for the 2021 fiscal year did include additional funding for ADWR but the COVID-19 pandemic caused the Legislature and the governor to rework the budget to meet emergency needs.