Arizona’s leaders recently dealt with a pending shortage of Colorado River water. While a wet winter and spring may have delayed the problem, it won’t go away and will need future intervention. At least decisions were made to cope.
What is lacking is planning in regions outside the state’s active management areas, especially in the western and southeastern parts of Arizona. They were not included in the landmark 1980 groundwater act that addressed growth areas, basically the ones that now receive Colorado River water. People are moving to those outlying areas and in some cases developing huge agricultural operations. Stopping that is unpopular, but failure to do so could lead to some ghost towns in future decades.
Two major figures in Arizona’s groundwater planning, former Gov. Bruce Babbitt and former Director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources Kathleen Ferris, recently penned a column about this potential crisis. The solution proposed is somewhat surprising. They advocated not for big new state control of water planning in those regions, which worked in central Arizona, but for state-mandated planning by local government.
The Legislature has not been willing to take on the task of controlling groundwater in new areas. In fact, bills have been proposed to support more water use in Cochise County, although that effort has been blocked wisely by Gov. Doug Ducey. The idea proposed by Babbitt and Ferris could work, and it might have a better chance of passage than a major expansion of the existing infrastructure.
Under the Babbitt-Ferris proposal, county governments would be required to develop a water plan. It would get state review by ADWR to see if it met minimum standards. If not, the state would develop a plan.
This idea certainly deserves a look by the Legislature. It has the appeal of allowing local control and restraining growth in state government but it means allowing counties to have that control. It would protect current and future residents of the rural areas with serious standards, not leaving such an important matter to chance. No one should want the latter.