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State leaders discuss Arizona's major water challenges
 06.22.20

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little data on the aquifers in her district, residents don’t know exactly how much water is there, how much is being withdrawn and how long it will last, she said.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


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Fundraisers set for 10-year-old with rare form of cancer
 06.22.20

ARIZONA CITY — Volunteers are hoping to find a new house and financial assistance for the family of a 10-year-old with a rare and aggressive form of cancer.

Oliviah Hill hasn’t been able to sit down, lie on her right side or walk without a walker for more than a year. She has undergone 10 surgeries and has a large open wound where much of her right buttock muscle has been removed.

“She’s in a lot of pain but she’s always cheerful,” said her mother, Leann Riddle.

Until about a year ago, Oliviah was an ordinary, healthy girl. She was looking forward to going swimming with friends when the family went to buy her a swim suit one spring day.

“I was watching her walk in the store and noticed something seemed funny about the way she was walking,” Riddle said. “When she went in to try on the bathing suit, I noticed her buttock was swollen. I took her to the doctor thinking it was a spider bite. I wasn’t even thinking of cancer.”

After a series of tests and scans revealed that the swelling was due to a tumor, she was admitted to the pediatric oncology unit of a Valley children’s hospital.

She was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis type 1, a condition in which often benign tumors can grow on various parts of the body. But Oliviah’s NF-1 tumor was on her stomach and it wrapped around various other organs.

It had grown so large that it broke off and caused other, malignant tumors, Riddle said.

She also was diagnosed with malignant neoplasm of peripheral nerves and autonomic nervous system and hydronephrosis of her right kidney. Her condition was deemed rare and aggressive.

“They couldn’t remove the stomach tumor because it was too dangerous,” Riddle said. “It was a lot to take in.”

She was put on a course of chemothearpy and radiation treatments.

“She never got sick from the chemotherapy, but she was tired and all of her hair fell out. She’s always been such a fashionista that she was devastated by losing her hair. She had such pretty long, black hair,” Riddle said.

During a surgery to remove the tumor from her buttock, Oliviah’s heart stopped. While her heart was restarted, she remained unconscious for more than 24 hours.

“The doctors weren’t sure why she coded during that surgery,” Riddle said. “She also never made it to her 13th week of chemo because her heart rate went up too high.”

Removing the tumor required that much of the muscle also had to be removed. The wound required 44 stitches and Oliviah had to learn to walk again using a walker. She’s had nine consecutive surgeries to her buttocks and legs in attempts and slow the progression of her cancer and requires permanent ongoing wound care at home.

“She still has cancer,” Riddle said. “She was supposed to do 20 weeks of chemo therapy but we never got that far. When she was having chemo, she went from 80 pounds to 50 pounds.”

Caring for the wound is a full-time job. While Oliviah’s father works construction, Riddle had to quit her full-time job to care for her child, leaving the family struggling financially.

The family, which includes Oliviah along with her mother, father, brother and sister, currently live in a three-bedroom home with Oliviah’s grandmother and others in Arizona City.

The conditions are not ideal, said Kembly Mourelo of the Alliance Cancer Support Center in Casa Grande, who began a fundraising effort to help the family.

“She currently shares a house with 10 people and shares a room with her parents and sister. She needs more space,” Mourelo said. “Oliviah’s condition is extremely painful, incredibly debilitating and is something no person on this Earth should have to experience, let alone an innocent 10-year-old child.”

Ideally, Oliviah needs a new home in Casa Grande within 20 minutes of the Valley so she can be closer to doctors, Mourelo said.

Because she has trouble walking, the home needs to be handicap accessible with a handicap accessible shower. They are hoping to find a one-story home with four bedrooms, two bathrooms and tile flooring.

Riddle said they’d like to rent, but their income shortfall is about $300 a month for a suitable home in Casa Grande.

Fundraisers are aimed at helping to cover living expenses and costs associated with medical care, which include surgeries, wound care, special medical furniture, handicap accessible changes to the home and overall expenses.

“Oliviah has continuous wound care and medical needs,” Mourelo said. “Her family is very proud and personally saddened and humbled to request financial assistance on a monthly basis, but their daughter Oliviah’s tragic situation unfortunately warrants it at this time.”

Mourelo said the family has received some donations from the Casa Grande Rotary Club and other organizations, but much more is needed.

A Go Fund Me account has been started with a goal of raising $100,000 for the family to cover the cost of housing and other expenses.

To donate, visit the Go Fund Me site at https://gf.me/u/x96qyn or call Mourelo at 520-431-2735.


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Full ethics hearing still up in the air for Cook
 06.22.20

PHOENIX — The head of the House Ethics Committee is weighing whether to have full-blown hearings into the panel’s investigation of Rep. David Cook — assuming the matter gets that far.

Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale, said Monday he is still reviewing both the evidence presented by outside investigators as well as the response to the charges submitted by the attorneys for the Globe Republican.

That response in particular demanded a full hearing to “given the right to the fundamental protections every citizen of our country would reasonably expect to have.”

“If you don’t, then you will make the House a country club, where only those who are in the majority get to determine who sits and who doesn’t,” wrote attorneys Dennis Wilenchik and Carmen Chenal Horne. And that, they said, would override the votes of those who put Cook into office.

Cook represents Legislative District 8, which includes part of Casa Grande, Coolidge and Florence, as well as southern Gila County.

Allen acknowledged that there are issues to be resolved about how to handle what are the two basic complaints against Cook, one involving allegations of an affair with a lobbyist and the other about efforts to intervene on her behalf to halt the sale of some property in a tax sale.

“You take either of these complaints on a stand-alone, they probably wouldn’t have rose to an investigation at all,” Allen acknowledged.

So why proceed?

“If you take them as conjoined twins and you said, OK, there’s a real question here,” he explained

“How do we prove that question?” Allen continued. And does any answer rise to the level where it merits further investigation.

Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services  

Allen

Even if the Ethics Committee decides neither charge merits further pursuit, Allen told Capitol Media Services there’s something else: Cook’s cooperation — or lack thereof — with the inquiry.

Wilenchik and Horne said Cook was “fully cooperative in the investigation.” But Allen said the evidence suggests otherwise.

For example, he said other parties in the investigation provided texts and emails they had gotten from him. But none of them, Allen said, came from Cook himself despite the subpoena.

“That’s a terrible precedent to have in the House, to say, hey, look, you don’t have to, when subpoenaed, do anything,” he said.

Allen said he’s not trying to build a case against Cook based solely on that issue.

“But there has to be some accounting for it,” he said.

All that leads back to the decision Allen and the Ethics Committee have to make, if they decide to go ahead with any charges, about what sort of defense Cook should be allowed to make.

Allen said is precedent for proceeding without giving Cook the right to call witnesses of his own or cross examine those who spoke to investigators.

That involved Rep. Daniel Patterson, D-Tucson, accused in 2012 of multiple incidents of intimidating female lawmakers. He also was facing domestic violence charges based on accusations that he hit his former live-in girlfriend.

Patterson ended up quitting rather than trying to defend himself before the Ethics Committee.

But Allen conceded there are some key differences between what happened in 2012 and now, differences he said may merit giving Cook the hearing he is seeking.

Most notably, in the Patterson case, there were multiple witnesses and incidents involving Patterson. This one, Allen said, is different

In essence, the first charge against Cook stems from allegations that he had a romantic relationship with AnnaMarie Knorr who was a lobbyist with the Western Growers Association, a relationship he did not disclose.

The second is that Cook called Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb to discuss a pending sale of property in which Knorr had an interest due to unpaid taxes. There also were allegations that Cook promised to arrange campaign contribution for Lamb, but the investigative report makes no such finding.

Cook did subsequently sponsor more generic legislation making it easier for owners of agricultural property, like that owned by Knorr, to get an exemption from taxes.

The issue of how and whether Cook gets to defend himself also has raised questions from Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa.

In a Twitter post last week, Townsend said she is not condoning any behavior that is unbecoming of a legislator.

“But regardless, every legislator has the right to a fair investigation,” she wrote.

Townsend’s district includes San Tan Valley, Apache Junction and Gold Canyon in Pinal County.

“This is setting a most dangerous precedent for future political execution,” Townsend continued. “I cannot stay silent.”

Complicating matters is that at least part of the case against Cook is based on information provided by Bas Aja, himself a long-time Capitol lobbyist and Knorr’s father who apparently has had some sort of falling-out with his daughter.

“There’s a judgment call to be made in here about the level of evidence towards these allegations,” Allen said.


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Fourth of July different this year in Pinal County
 07.03.20

CASA GRANDE — There will still be fireworks on the Fourth of July, but this year celebrations will be different in most Pinal County communities.

To prevent the spread of the coronavirus, many traditional community gatherings are canceled this year and fireworks displays are designed with social distancing guidelines in place.

Below is a roundup of events and activities throughout Pinal County aimed at celebrating the Fourth of July.

Apache Junction

Officials in Apache Junction are urging residents to celebrate the holiday from their backyard and through a livestreamed event.

A fireworks display will be held at 8:30 p.m. on July 4.

The show will be vertical, with no ground displays, so that the fireworks may be viewed throughout most of the community.

The fireworks show is sponsored by Republic Services.

The city’s Parks and Recreation Department will offer “rec packs” to pick up and take home to help celebrate the holiday. The packs will be available July 2 and 3 and include activities and games.

They are free to the first 100 families.

As well, the city will celebrate Independence Day with various entertaining posts, videos and things to do via social media sites.

The fireworks show is contingent on weather and fire safety in the nearby area. For more information, email the department at ajpr@ajcity.net or call 480-983-2181.

Casa Grande

Casa Grande will host a modified Fourth of July celebration this year with a drive-thru-style event.

The fireworks show begins around 9 p.m. on July 4 at the Ed Hooper Rodeo Park. Residents may use the parking lot at the rodeo grounds, 2525 N. Pinal Ave., to enjoy the show from their cars. The parking lot will open at 7.

Parking spaces will be outlined to allow for proper physical distancing.

Concessions will not be available. Restroom facilities and hand-washing stations will be located throughout the parking lot.

Coolidge

While its traditional July 4 community event at the Kenilworth Sports Complex and city pool are canceled this year due to COVID-19, Coolidge plans to host a fireworks display at the sports complex beginning at 8:30 p.m. on July 4. The park’s parking lot will open for public access and viewers may watch the display from their cars.

Florence

Florence’s annual Freedom Fest has been canceled due to COVID-19 and dangerous weather conditions that caused a recent spike in nearby wildfires.

The town will not launch fireworks this year but will provide enhanced online and televised options for residents to celebrate at home.

A fireworks display may be offered at a later date.

Maricopa

The city of Maricopa will host a live fireworks extravaganza at 9 p.m. July 4. The show has been custom-designed this year to allow residents to enjoy it from their own backyards.

The fireworks display will be held at two locations in the northern and southern parts of Maricopa. Both displays will occur simultaneously for about 15 minutes and feature high-altitude fireworks that promise to fly higher than any of the previous shows.

The city also plans to connect with residents through social media and photo contests. Copper Sky Recreation Complex will be closed at 6 p.m. on July 4 to prepare for the display and will remain closed throughout the evening.

San Tan Valley/Queen Creek

The annual Hometown Fourth celebration is from 4 to 9 p.m. on July 4 at Schnepf Farms, 24810 S. Rittenhouse Road in Queen Creek. Fireworks begin at 8:30 p.m.

The outdoor event features local food trucks and vendors. To comply with social distancing, tickets will be limited and will be sold online only. Tickets are $25 per carload and may be purchased online at https://schnepffarms.com.