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The Arizona Department of Water Resources recently announced it would not approve any new applications for groundwater use in the Pinal Active Management Area. However, there is no panic, because earlier approvals already will allow considerable growth, including doubling the size of Casa Grande and Maricopa.

The issue of Pinal water use had long been a question mark because of the way the 1980 groundwater law was written. A bigger issue, however, is parts of Arizona that were not addressed in the law but now are seeing more growth than was envisioned decades ago. Those generally are not the areas where water is being imported from the Colorado River either.

The state is a very popular place to live, and people are flooding in. And some of that is heading to the southeastern and western parts of Arizona. Recently, a federal decision has blocked a planned development near Benson that would add thousands of houses.

That area is especially sensitive to environmentalists because the San Pedro River is still flowing from the south, a rarity in Southwestern deserts. The Santa Cruz, Gila and Salt rivers used to flow as well but don’t now because of reclamation projects and lower water tables. That makes the San Pedro a focal point.

Enter the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which issued a reversal on a dredge-and-fill permit under the federal Clean Water Act. That followed a review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of a 2017 decision that the huge development would not harm threatened or endangered species. Despite statements to the contrary about the potential effect on the river, massive pumping has a much different effect than the traditional small wells that have existed in the area. An aquifer is shared by everyone, and drawing down of groundwater can run those small wells dry and the river along with that.

Arizona has some effective water management in the Pinal, Phoenix, Tucson, Prescott and Santa Cruz management areas. It needs more in other parts of the state, and the Legislature will need to face up to that.

— Donovan Kramer Jr.

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