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Pinal County rejects $3.3M in 'vaccine equity' funds
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FLORENCE — Pinal County has turned down a $3.3 million grant to “improve vaccine equity” in communities at increased risk of COVID-19.

The Board of Supervisors, sitting as the Pinal Public Health Services District board, rejected the Arizona Department of Health Services grant 3-2 Wednesday. Board member Kevin Cavanaugh, R-Coolidge, made the motion not to approve it, and board members Jeff McClure, R-Eagle Crest Ranch, and Jeff Serdy, R-Apache Junction, voted with him.

Cavanaugh said it appears the vast majority of the grant would go to an as-yet-unnamed contractor, whose goals and purposes are unknown, except for “vaccine equity.” He said the majority of Pinal County residents are vaccinated against COVID, and there are at least 50 places in the county where a person can be vaccinated, according to a state health website.

Cavanaugh asked if the health department identified a problem and sought the grant, or if it saw the grant and looked for a problem. He further asked if the health department did a survey or other research to determine the need.

Pinal County 

Kevin Cavanaugh

Tascha Spears, Pinal public health director, said they didn’t do a survey, but the funds are available to counties that have a “social vulnerability index” as determined by census tracts at the federal level. Pinal’s SVI allows it to apply for the funding, she said.

Spears said she could report informally that “we have had extremes of the continuum with regard to vaccine requests. Initially we had people who called saying they were going to shoot up public health clinics if they weren’t going to get their vaccine that day.”

An announcement of upcoming booster vaccines has prompted another flood of calls, even though they haven’t been authorized yet, Spears said.

Cavanaugh asked who the under-served communities are. Spears said they include the homeless, rural communities that might not have easy access to clinics or other resources and the incarcerated. The grant is to help communities everywhere “truly have a choice” about whether to receive the vaccine or not, Spears said.

The grant agreement says local health departments will hire a “vaccine equity coordinator.” Spears told the board she had planned to hire a public health nurse who could also provide services. But Cavanaugh said his reading of the rules said that employee couldn’t provide services.

Cavanaugh asked what the new position would do “in a nutshell.” Spears replied he or she would manage the grant, determine and respond to areas of need and provide services, more than just being a manager or coordinator position.

Three citizens also emailed the board to express skepticism of a vaccine equity coordinator. One called it “a total waste of taxpayer money” and said vaccines are already free and readily available to everyone.

But Roberto Reveles of Gold Canyon appeared in person Wednesday to encourage the board “to support public health. … It is not extravagant, or a waste, to save any lives.” He said he was alarmed to learn recently that Apache Junction Unified School District had the most COVID deaths of any school district in Pinal County.

McClure asked if the county has a mobile service that provides vaccinations.

Spears said the department hopes to be offering that service soon, and a subcontractor is helping the county respond to requests for vaccine special events. This new funding would also help the county provide vaccines, she said, noting people are already asking to book appointments for booster shots. “We anticipate this need will be there, and these funds will be utilized.”

Future agenda items

Cavanaugh said he’d like to discuss the establishment of a Board of Supervisors ethics committee and a Board of Supervisors management efficiency and waste reduction committee at the board’s Sept. 29 meeting.

Vice Chairman Mike Goodman, R-San Tan Valley, said county planning staff and assessor staff are working to expedite property changes and asked that a future work session include those two entities discussing how they’re working together to help builders. He said he would also appreciate a definition of wildcat subdivisions.

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Rainy season unleashes with fury, beauty in US Southwest
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FLAGSTAFF — After two bone-dry years that sank the U.S. Southwest deeper into drought, this summer’s rainy season unleashed with fury.

Monsoon storms have brought spectacular lightning shows, bounties of wildflowers and mushrooms, and record rainfall to the region’s deserts. They’ve also brought destruction, flooding streets and homes, and leading to some swift water rescues and more than a dozen deaths.

It’s a remarkable reversal from 2019 and 2020, when the annual period known simply as “the monsoon” left the region parched. The seasonal weather pattern that runs from mid-June through September brings high hopes for rain, but the moisture isn’t guaranteed.

“That traumatized a lot of us here in the Southwest, really worried if the monsoon was broken,” said Mike Crimmins, a climatologist at the University of Arizona. “And then here 2021 monsoon comes along, and it’s almost like we’re trying to make up for the last two seasons.”

Tucson, in southern Arizona, marked its wettest July on record and was sitting at No. 3 on Thursday for record rainfall during a monsoon. The Phoenix airport is above average for the season but far from hitting the city’s record, the National Weather Service said. Some higher-elevation cities in metropolitan Phoenix fared better.

Payson has logged nearly 13 inches of rain so far — about 6 inches above normal. An area south of Flagstaff had hail that measured 2.5 inches in diameter, according to the weather service.

“That’s usually something you see in the news across the Midwest in tornado season,” said meteorologist Cindy Kobolb in Flagstaff. “Forecasters that have been here for decades can’t even say the last time they’ve seen hailstones that big in the state.”

Some locations like Window Rock, on the Navajo Nation, and Farmington, New Mexico, were just behind normal so far for the season. The Hopi Tribe recently ordered livestock reductions on the reservation in northeastern Arizona that’s in severe to extreme drought.

Hopi Vice Chairman Clark Tenakhongva said it was difficult to sign off on the July 20 executive order because he’s also a rancher who has reduced his herd, and hauled water and supplemental feed for his cattle. But, he said, “there’s no nutritious foods out there, there’s no water.

“Hopi are stewards of the land, and that’s the covenant we made with the creator,” he said.

Roswell, in southeastern New Mexico, has received nearly double its normal rainfall, while Albuquerque to the northwest was lagging. Rainfall can fluctuate wildly even within cities because of the hit-and-miss nature of the monsoon.

The remnants of Tropical Storm Nora pushed moisture into the region this week, boosting rainfall totals. With each storm, officials warn of potential flooding dangers. At least 10 people have died in Arizona in flooding events since the monsoon started this year, and at least five in New Mexico.

Despite the abundant rainfall, the region is still trending toward hotter, drier weather because of climate change. All of Arizona is in some level of drought and most of New Mexico, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

“I’m really trying to enjoy it for what it is right now, because I don’t think we’ll see this every summer,” Crimmins said.

The monsoon is characterized by a shift in wind patterns that pull moisture in from the tropical coast of Mexico. Many cities in Arizona and New Mexico get much of their annual rainfall during the monsoon. In a strong season, the moisture extends into southern Utah, Colorado and California, Crimmins said.

The downpours can replenish shallow aquifers and boost reservoirs temporarily. But the rain isn’t a fix for drought-stricken lakes and rivers, like the Colorado River, anywhere in the U.S. West. Those systems rely primarily on melting snow and have been dwindling for more than two decades because of a megadrought.

The expected La Nina weather pattern this winter means snowpack in the West could be in short supply, forecasters say. That worries fire managers who have been battling increasingly more severe blazes, like those in California.

“The net effect of a robust monsoon is that it helps in the short-term but can set the Southwest up for an active and prolonged fire season for the following year or two,” said Punky Moore, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service’s Southwest Region.

The same vegetation that can fuel wildfires when it dries up also feeds insects, said Gene Hall, an entomologist at the University of Arizona. More butterflies, more moths and more pesky mosquitoes, he said.

Some insects, such as the cockroach-like Palo Verde beetle, come out only during the monsoon to mate. Flying ants and termites gather by the hundreds or thousands to mate after monsoon rain, Hall said.

“Water is life in the desert, and we’ve had a lot of water,” he said. “Everything seems to be doing pretty well.”

Count mushrooms in.

Christopher May of Scottsdale has found more than 100 varieties of fungi during trips to Arizona’s mountains this summer, including some rare ones. With more rain, they’re easier to find, sometimes cloaking the forest floor like coral reef in the sea, he said.

“We have some of the best mushroom hunting in the country right now, maybe even the best,” he said.

Anissa Doten has a love/hate relationship with the monsoon. She grew up in Tucson, watching the skies light up as thunderstorms rolled in and listening to the rain. It was her favorite kind of weather, magical almost, she said.

Her feelings are more complicated now that she lives in the shadow of a mountain that burned in 2019 in Flagstaff. The home she shares with her five children repeatedly has flooded this year, including during one storm that officials characterized as a “500-year” rain event.

Each time alerts go off on their phones, they rush to check weather gauges and scramble to ensure everyone is safe and someone is home to pump water and rebuild layers of sandbags.

“It’s totally different anxiety-driven action mode,” she said.

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Upcoming CG housing projects highlight water workarounds
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CASA GRANDE — Two strategies for dealing with limitations on water usage within the Pinal Active Management Area were a point of discussion at the monthly Planning and Zoning Commission meeting on Thursday.

The commission approved three zoning changes and one allowance for a resident to add a circular driveway in front of a home on Paseo de Paula. Two of the zoning changes call for projects that have found creative ways to accommodate new housing, with or without certificates of assured water supply from the state.

The first proposal involves 31 acres in the G-Diamond Ranch area, northwest of Cottonwood Lane and Peart Road, as a build-to-rent gated community. Despite not having a state water certificate, the developers are planning for 331 single-story units — 104 one-bedroom homes and 227 two-bedroom homes. According to staff, this allowance appears to be due to a technicality that even if a parcel is split many different ways, under the same owner it is not subject to certain Arizona Department of Water Resources rules.

Members of the commission noted that the neighborhood, which would feature shared amenities such as a pool, fills a critical need within Casa Grande for affordable housing and rental properties.

Sean Lake, representing Hancock Builders at the meeting, described the plan as a “hybrid” situation.

“This is for people who want a nice living environment but don’t want to maintain a yard,” Lake said. “This fills a niche for people looking for a single-family environment as opposed to a traditional apartment complex.”

City Planner James Gagliardi said it is likely that similar build-to-rent projects would be brought to the city in the near future.

The other zoning change recommended to the City Council, within the planned 236-acre Carlton Commons community, roughly southeast of Fiesta Grand RV Resort, would take advantage of improvements in water efficiency to add more homes than were previously planned.

According to a recent state law, the ADWR can allow for up to a 20% increase in housing stock on a plat provided that the total water usage remains the same. Conservation efforts, including landscaping and water-efficient appliances, can allow for the change.

Although at the meeting the commission only considered a zoning change, city Planner Jaclyn Sarnowski noted that a new plat was under review for over 1,000 homes in an area roughly bounded by Doan Street to the north, and between Henness and Arizola roads east and west.

During the meeting, the commission heard several public comments citing water concerns as well as a request by resident Nancy Wood to make sure new developments do not destroy the habitat of burrowing owls.

“In our city owls are losing places to go,” Wood said. “I hope that the city will have developers address the issue or do appropriate surveys to make sure the safety of wildlife is taken care of.”

Wood did note she supported the proposals heard during the meeting, and her comment was more general than aimed at any specific project.

All items were approved unanimously by the commission. The final zoning item involved a 3-acre site purchased by Lucid Motors, which will be used for drive access and utility infrastructure as the plant expands.

Arizona anti-abortion group looks at new Texas law
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PHOENIX — The head of the state’s premier anti-abortion organizations said Thursday she is looking to use the newly enacted Texas ban on the terminating a pregnancy after fetal heartbeat has been detected as a template for legislation here.

Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy, said the late-night decision Wednesday by the U.S. Supreme Court to allow the Texas law to take effect appears to provide a “road map’’ for enacting abortion restrictions in this state that, until now, have been struck down by federal courts.

But the key to the Supreme Court action is the difference between SB 8 and all other abortion restrictions.

Laws from other states make it a crime to terminate a pregnancy in certain situations or after a certain date, with the state in charge of enforcing the law and prosecuting offenders.

For example, a 2012 Arizona law to make it a crime to perform an abortion after 20 weeks was struck down by a federal court, a decision upheld by the Supreme Court. Similar laws from other states have met similar fates at the high court.

In Texas, however, the law empowers individual citizens — and not necessarily from Texas — to file civil suits against not only abortion providers but anyone who “aids or abets’’ aborting a fetus after a heartbeat has been detected.

That usually occurs about six weeks into pregnancy, which may actually be before a woman knows she is carrying a child. It also could effectively become a nearly total ban on the procedure based on estimates that at least 85% of abortions are performed after that point.

It is that unusual structure of civil enforcement of the statute that resulted in the 5-4 decision of the Supreme Court to allow SB 8 to take effect while other legal challenges make their way through the courts. And that is the first time the justices have given their blessing to such a sweeping restriction since the historic Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 that says states may not restrict the ability of a woman to terminate a pregnancy before a fetus is viable.

Herrod is taking a closer look at what she calls a “novel approach’’ to restricting abortion.

“The Texas heartbeat law is a road map to what other states can do,’’ she told Capitol Media Services. “The Texas heartbeat law is worthy of serious consideration by the Arizona Legislature.’’

She acknowledged that, strictly speaking, the Supreme Court action was not a final ruling on the constitutionality of the measure. But the fact remains that the justices have allowed the law to take effect.

The high court decision is based on the unusual approach taken by Texas lawmakers.

SB 8 spells out that its ban on post-heartbeat abortions is enforced only by individuals who can sue doctors, friends, associates or others that help a women terminate a pregnancy. It even provides for them to recover their legal fees and offers a $10,000 minimum reward for every successful lawsuit.

And it is that approach to the issue that five of the justices of the Supreme Court said guided their decision not to block its enforcement.

In a brief unsigned opinion, the majority said the abortion providers who challenged the law did not properly address the “complex and novel antecedent procedural questions’’ in the case of having a law enforced not through criminal trials brought by prosecutors but through civil lawsuits that anyone can file. So the justices left the statute intact pending any further challenges to the statute.

That drew dissents from the other four, including an angry reaction from Justice Sonia Sotomayor who called the order “stunning,’’ particularly given the still-in-effect precedent of Roe v. Wade.

“Presented with an application to enjoin a flagrantly unconstitutional law engineered to prohibit women from exercising their constitutional rights and evade judicial scrutiny, a majority of the justices have opted to bury their heads in the sand,’’ she wrote. Sotomayor said the failure of the court to act “rewards tactics and inflicts significant harm on the applicants and on women seeking abortions in Texas.’’

Even Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the three more liberal justices, saying he would have enjoined enforcement of the law to let lower courts decide “whether a state can avoid responsibility for its laws’’ prohibiting abortions after roughly six weeks because it “essentially delegated the enforcement of that prohibition to the populace at large.’’

Herrod isn’t the only one paying attention to the ruling and what it could mean in Arizona.

So is Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix.

She is the sponsor of a new Arizona law which makes it a crime, enforceable by the state, to abort a fetus due to “genetic abnormalities.’’ That law is set to take effect at the end of this month, though there is a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality.

Barto said she wants to see how this particular approach to banning abortions at six weeks is considered by the courts on its merits. But the senator indicated she is hopeful.

“So far, it’s saving lives,’’ Barto said of the Texas statute. “And that should encourage everyone who care about protecting life in the womb.’’

The ruling, however, concerns Planned Parenthood of Arizona — and not just over the potential to use it as a template for new laws. Organization spokeswoman Murphy Bannerman pointed out that the law Barto already ushered through actually has some of the same elements of civil enforcement as the Texas statute.

For example, she noted, the law does more than make it a crime to perform an abortion knowing that the reason was the genetic abnormality. It also allows the husband of the woman who has such a procedure to file a civil suit on behalf of the unborn child.

And if the women is younger than 18, her parents can sue.

What all that means, Bannerman said, is that those who want to preclude this kind of law in Arizona will have to be vigilant.

“We are asking for people to email their legislators and tell them that you don’t support abortion bans, that you don’t support something similar to SB 8 being enacted here in our state,’’ she said.

Herrod, however, said while the approach Texas is taking is unique, it is not without precedent, even in places like Arizona. She said there are other circumstances where a private citizen can enforce laws.

“If you walk by a car that’s locked and you see a child that’s inside that car, and it’s in our heat and the child is clearly not going to survive, you’re going to bust open the window and save that child,’’ Herrod said. “That’s analogous to what Texas is trying to do, that the private citizen is able to protect that child from the abortionist’s hand.’’

There was no immediate response to the Supreme Court ruling from Gov. Doug Ducey who has signed every abortion restriction that has reached his desk.

What’s next for SB 8 — and any other similar law enacted here or elsewhere — will be further litigation.

The majority stressed it was not issuing a ruling on whether the Texas law is constitutional. And the justices said they were not limiting “procedurally proper challenges’’ to it.

“We know this isn’t the end of the road on litigation,’’ said Herrod. “The pro-abortionists will come up with some other approach to watch this law.’’