PHOENIX — At the start of a subcommittee hearing on drought he chaired, U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., recited the old Arizona saying, “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.”
The subcommittee on Wednesday heard testimony from several experts in conservation and ranching as Kelly and the panel discussed what Congress and federal agencies can and should do to protect water resources in the drought-stricken Southwest.
“Water has always been a limited resource in the Southwest,” Kelly said. “The effects of the drought are made worse by climate change. Arizona is on the frontlines of this megadrought, but this affects 40 million Americans.”
Kelly mentioned fish and wildlife, wildfires, agriculture and even hydropower as areas threatened now and in the future by drought, which has caused reservoirs like Lake Mead and Lake Powell to decline to historic lows.
Despite praising Arizona for being prepared for initial cutbacks to Colorado River Basin water as part of the interregional Drought Contingency Plan and reminding listeners that most Arizona residents would not be impacted initially, he emphasized “we are not out of the woods here.”
Kelly highlighted central Arizona farmers as being on the frontlines of the drought and “an important community who will feel pain.”
Among those called to testify was Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke. He acknowledged the difficult situation Arizona faces, with the state set to lose an allotment of 512,000 acre-feet of water from the Colorado River at the start of 2022, and it could be in line for more cuts in 2023 if water levels don’t rebound.
Buschatzke said that his department supports voluntary conservation efforts over mandated cutbacks to water use but said “that will be a heavy lift.”
According to Buschatzke, most farmers maintain the right to pump groundwater, and various municipalities are sending water to farmers as part of a credit program, but the reality is that many farmers may have to fallow up to 40% of land to account for the loss of Central Arizona Project resources.
“We are doing the best we can,” Buschatzke said, “but we cannot fully mitigate the loss of water. Farmers are not going to be able to farm the way they have historically in southern Arizona.”
Buschatzke also called on an “ethic of collaboration” between Western states, tribal nations and Mexico to iron out further regulatory mechanisms that would achieve equitable water outcomes.
Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary for water and science with the U.S. Department of the Interior, said the agency had provided $100 million in funding to 220 different drought-related projects across the West since the start of the year, including infrastructure improvements. Trujillo also said the department supports efforts like recycling, and even desalination, as methods to increase available water.
Kelly spent some time detailing important drought-related measures in the bipartisan Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act, which he worked hard to advance. This includes $8.3 billion to repair aging Western water infrastructure and to enhance groundwater storage. Trujillo also mentioned expansion of the 242 Well Field near Yuma, which aims to capture underground water flows and keep more water in the upriver reservoirs.
However, Jennifer Pitt, Colorado River program director with the National Audubon Society, testified at the hearing and suggested climate change would lessen that act’s impact.
“We need long-term solutions,” Pitt said. “There is so much at stake. This is a sobering and scary time for everyone that depends on the Colorado River. In passing the first act, you have set the stage for important investments, but more is needed.”
Provisions within the second and larger infrastructure package, which could be passed via budget reconciliation, were not discussed. Included in that is a provision that would revoke a land swap agreement for the proposed Resolution Copper mine in Oak Flat, which critics contend would be a water intensive project. The reconciliation package also includes numerous measures related to climate change, including possible funding for a civilian climate corps.
Kelly has recently stated that while he supported certain measures, such as increasing renewable energy production and extending middle class tax cuts, he had concerns about how the reconciliation package would be paid for and how precisely it would benefit Arizona’s economy.
The senator was equally hesitant to take a definitive position on the Resolution Copper project, which is projected to use up to 250 billion gallons of water over the mine’s lifetime, although Resolution Copper claims it would use a fraction of that number and rely more on banked water than groundwater.
“Mining is an important part of Arizona’s history and a major contributor to our economy,” Kelly said in a statement. “I’m continuing to evaluate the environmental impacts of this and any project like it. I have met with and heard from leaders of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, local elected officials and folks on both sides of the issue. As this is considered by the courts and the Forest Service, I will continue to hear from stakeholders and remain committed to respecting tribal sovereignty and ensuring our state has the infrastructure and water supply needed to prosper.”
At the moment, Lake Powell and Lake Mead are at 30 and 35% of their capacity, respectively. According to the testimony, even slightly-below-average snowpack that feeds the Colorado River could lead to drastically reduced runoff, as climate change causes water to soak into the ground, or for it to be captured by vegetation, before it flows downstream.
The Senate passed the first $1 trillion infrastructure bill 69-30 in August; passage of both infrastructure packages is currently stalled in the House, after a vote was postponed last week.
CASA GRANDE — The pandemic has slowed the city of Casa Grande’s efforts to help homeless people in the area.
The pandemic forced a number of federal and state social service employees to work from home, slowing services to those in need, Casa Grande Mayor Craig McFarland said at a Tuesday meeting of the city’s new Chronic Homeless Coalition.
The coalition includes representatives from the city including the Police Department, CGHelps, the Community Action Human Resources Agency, the Pinal County Health Department and several other service agencies.
It’s an offshoot of the mayor’s Homeless Task Force and tries to meet once a month, McFarland said. The coalition was just starting to get things rolling on coordinating local, state and federal programs for homeless people in Casa Grande when the pandemic threw a wrench in the works.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also canceled its annual nationwide Point-In-Time count of homeless people in 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic, McFarland said, which made it difficult to know just how many homeless people were in the area, why they were without a home and what services they needed to find housing.
In response, the city and local organizations such as CGHelps held their own point-in-time count in September, approaching and collecting information from about 45 individuals, McFarland said.
Casa Grande Deputy Police Chief Angel Leos believes that there are probably many more homeless people in the area than that and that a number of people were missed because of the rain that day.
Casa Grande officers try to work with homeless people they come across during their patrols, Leos said.
The Police Department does a monthly outreach where officers and social service volunteers approach homeless people, offer them a snack pack with toiletries and non-perishable snacks, a blanket or jacket in cold weather and information on local services that can help them, Leos said. A number of patrol officers also carry the snack packs in their vehicles.
But they are not trained to be social workers and if there is evidence of a crime, such as drugs, public drinking or assault, then officers are required to investigate and possibly arrest or cite someone, Leos said.
The law also prevents officers from taking certain actions, he said. The U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that stated that people sleeping outside in a public place cannot be cited or arrested if there are no alternative arrangements available, such as a shelter. So officers can’t cite someone in a Casa Grande city park because there is no shelter available in Casa Grande.
Officers also can’t remove a person from private property without the property owner specifically giving officers permission to “trespass” the person, he said.
This can be more difficult than it sounds, Leos said. A number of properties in the city are owned by people or businesses that are located outside of the state or county. Getting ahold of these absentee property holders can be difficult.
He pointed to a recent example involving an old auto dealership in the downtown area. Officers noticed a large group of homeless people living on the property. But it took repeated phone calls to the property owner in Mesa before Leos was able to receive a form requesting officers to remove people on the property.
Leos said officers have notified the people staying on the property and will be providing a trash container for them to throw away items they don’t want to keep before they move on.
It is the responsibility of the landowner or landlord to maintain their property, McFarland stated in an email about the city’s troubles with some vacant properties. The city does have ordinances and can cite a property owner for not following those ordinances.
The city prefers to work with the property owner through an abatement process rather than condemn a property, City Manager Larry Rains stated in an email about that process. The abatement process can range from requiring a yard to be cleaned up to securing a property or even demolition.
The abatement process involves sending out a series of notices giving the property owner a deadline to fix the situation with their property, McFarland stated in his email. In some cases, it can get to the point that the city has to condemn a property and have it torn down.
The condemnation process can be very time consuming and require a fair amount of legal work, Rains stated in his email.
If the city does have to condemn and tear down a property, it can put a lean on it to be reimbursed for the cost of the demolition, McFarland stated. However, the process can take years.
Officers are also starting to note the location of homeless people they encounter during their regular patrols so the information can be given to local service groups such as CGHelps and other programs that can reach out to those in need on their own, Leos said.
At Tuesday’s meeting, he suggested creating a group of volunteers from various organizations that would reach out to homeless people in the area once a week or at least more than once a month to see how people are doing.
It can take up to six or seven contacts with a person who is homeless or needs help before they will accept help, Leo said. He offered to send a plainclothes officer with any group that felt they might need the extra security. An officer in uniform can be intimidating to someone who is homeless, he said.
He also noted that many homeless people who have been cited by the police are showing up for their hearings at Casa Grande city Court. Leos said he’s spoken with a judge who would consider having representatives from local social services groups in the courtroom to offer services to some of those in need.
Social service organizations, like some restaurants and stores, are having a hard time finding full-time employees due to the pandemic, said Suzanne Payan from CAHRA and CGHelps. The organization also had to close its office in August due to damage to the building’s roof and ceiling from the rain. It is offering services a few days of the week and is hoping to reopen fully and offer services nearly every day soon.
CGHelps is working to get a nurse practitioner to help provide clinical services for homeless people in the area and a medical professional that can offer COVID vaccine shots to those who want them, she said.
The department has also been working with local tribal governments to get help for tribal members who may make their way to Casa Grande and find themselves in need, Leos said.
Another concern may be an increase in the number of people being evicted from their homes or apartments due to the pandemic eviction moratorium expiring, Leos said. He suggested reaching out to landlords to see if they had tenants who could use help and see if they could bring computers and volunteers to help tenants and landlords sign up for pandemic aid to prevent someone from being evicted.
The hope is to prevent more individuals and families from ending up on the city streets, he said.
FLORENCE — Pinal County has received a one-time grant of $2.2 million to provide shelter and other services to individuals experiencing homelessness as part of the American Rescue Plan Act.
The Board of Supervisors voted to accept the grant agreement Wednesday from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Pinal County will be required to submit an allocation plan outlining the use of funds and will seek public participation and reach out to partner organizations to form a plan, Pinal County Grants Coordinator Heather Patel told the board. There will also be a public hearing in the next couple of months before the Board of Supervisors.
County staff have already discussed it with some partners and plan to bring it up next week at the Pinal County Coalition to End Homelessness, Patel said. Veterans and domestic violence victims have options designed to serve them, but Pinal County doesn’t have shelters for the general population who are homeless, Patel said.
The grant can be used to buy or rehabilitate buildings to house the homeless. Patel said the trend now is to turn old hotels into shelters. The county could also provide funding to groups who provide rental assistance.
But the problem is a shortage of rental units in Pinal County and a lack of landlords interested in participating in these programs. Rents also tend to be higher than what the county can pay with these programs, Patel told the board.
“Those are some of the things we will take into consideration when we are talking with our partners, to figure out what our proposed plan would be.” Supervisors Vice Chairman Mike Goodman, R-San Tan Valley, said the county should be using the grant toward a more permanent solution to the problem.
Supervisor Jeff Serdy, R-Apache Junction, added, “I think it’s important that we make sure that this does go to the people that need it and not just to pad the pockets of the nonprofits that will be disbursing it. Something for us to watch for.”
“I’m glad to see this,” Supervisor Kevin Cavanaugh, R-Coolidge said. “I’m acquainted with a number of homeless people in the town where I live.” He asked how many homeless people there are in Pinal County.
Patel said the most recent survey wasn’t completed this year because of the pandemic, but last year there were more than 100, not including people in domestic violence shelters or other temporary housing through those organizations. Neither does it count people in the “homeless management information system” who may be receiving help from the county’s partner organizations.
“We can’t just say there’s 100 un-sheltered people. There’s plenty more because they go into and out of the systems,” Patel said.
CASA GRANDE — Despite electric vehicle manufacturing taking off within Pinal County, Arizona ranks in the middle of the pack for “EV friendliness,” according to a recent study.
The study, commissioned by Bumper.com, rated states on how amenable they are to EV owners. Arizona ranked 15th overall, despite being seventh in total EV registrations as of 2020.
“Arizona is doing well overall,” said data analyst Julianna Ohlander, who compiled the rankings. “A lot of growth, such as installing EV charging stations, has been in just the last few years.”
Currently there are just over 800 EV charging stations, and 2,000 ports, in Arizona, mostly in the Phoenix and Tucson metro regions. Casa Grande has three such stations, with a handful of other Pinal locations in places like Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino and the Pinal County Courthouse in Florence.
Ohlander said she looked at a number of metrics related to infrastructure, including how many charging stations were in each state, how many ports were available for each station, what tax incentives and rebates there were and the overall cost to recharging a vehicle.
Currently in Arizona, it costs around 10 cents per kilowatt hour, which Ohlander said equates to approximately $35 to travel 1,000 miles in an EV. At current gasoline prices in Arizona, the operating costs for an EV are lower; however, a strict cost comparison is complicated by EVs’ higher sticker prices.
Ohlander also said she’d be interested in working on a “longitudinal” study that would show which states are moving forwards or backwards, and how quickly, on accommodating EVs.
“It’s really all about infrastructure,” Ohlander said, “and if Arizona makes a goal to invest in that.”
Ohlander said she supports President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan and that it was in states’ best interests to move with those trends.
At the moment, Gov. Doug Ducey and Arizona Republicans who control the state Legislature have opposed mandating renewable energy standards by either the Arizona Corporation Commission or the federal government.
Ohlander also noted a number of EVs are cost-comparable to gasoline cars, although many of those are minis or have short ranges before needing to be recharged.
The Lucid Air, whose limited-edition Dream varieties will be delivered this month to customers, sells for $170,000. At a Production Preview celebration last week, CEO Peter Rawlinson said they would be working on more affordable models over the next few years that could cost in the $70,000 range.
“Lucid seems like a really interesting car,” Ohlander said. “To have everything so compact and as much trunk space as an SUV is great. As more and more EVs come out and there are more options for people, we will start seeing a lot more on the road. People like choices.”
Those looking for more information on EVs and state-by-state breakdowns can visit the U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center at https://afdc.energy.gov.