The Water Crisis in Rural Arizona

Rural Arizona Is Facing a Water Crisis. Yet For 3 Years, Lawmakers Have Sat on Their Hands

Opinion: Rural communities need the power to manage our own groundwater, county supervisors say, not let those with the deepest wells pump everyone else dry.

Travis Lingenfelter, Patrice Horstman and Donna Michaels opinion contributors

Three long years. That’s how long residents in our three counties – Mohave, Coconino and Yavapai – have been urging the state Legislature to pass bills finally giving rural Arizonans the authority to control our water futures. And yet, folks in Phoenix have sat on their hands, letting whoever can drill the deepest well win while watching homeowners’’ wells go dry and our rivers decline. We are fed up waiting for the Legislature to act against unfettered groundwater pumping in rural Arizona.

All three of our county boards of supervisors unanimously passed resolutions in recent weeks calling for the governor and state lawmakers to take action on advancing rural management of groundwater.

80% of Arizona has no water certainty

Residents in Cochise County have gone even further, gathering signatures to put new groundwater management districts on the ballot before local voters in November. Rep. Regina Cobb’s legislation, House Bill 2661, would enable our rural con11nunities to 1nanage groundwater through a new, opt-in program called Rural Management Areas. Nearly 3 out of 4 voters solidly support the Rural Management Area proposal, across rural and urban geographies and political party affiliations, according to a January poll.

Urban areas like Phoenix and Tucson are able to manage this precious underground resource as a result of the 1980 Groundwater Management Act, which created critical guardrails to protect groundwater in those areas. Those urban communities have greatly benefited from the increased certainty that comes with a predictable water supply.

But that legislation left out 80% of the state’s geography and about 1.5 million people who now desperately need that same level of certainty.

Groundwater is many areas’ sole water source

Without protections in our rural communities, large new wells and ceaseless pumping are permitted with virtually no parameters, even if the pumping dries up the drinking water well of a neighboring homeowner who may have lived in the region for generations.

  • In Mohave County, groundwater is the primary drinking water supply for Kingman and other communities, yet we are powerless to protect it from water speculators and exploitation.
  • In Coconino County, groundwater feeds creeks and springs in Grand Canyon National Park, which generates $1 billion in direct economic output every year, and is the primary drinking water supply for park visitors and nearly all nearby communities.
  • In Yavapai County, groundwater supports iconic Arizona streams such as the Verde River. Many experts agree it is at great risk without recharging its life-giving aquifer, which is also a primary drinking water supply.

Groundwater is the only source of water for many people in rural Arizona but it is drying up quickly as a result of free-for-all groundwater pumping, in turn robbing rural Arizonans of our economic stability and our basic right to self-determination.

We need tools to conserve the water we have

With no control over our water, we have no control over our future. Without the ability to protect and manage our most precious resource, our rural communities, our rural way of life, even the entire state, are at grave risk.

The Rural Management Area legislation will address this risk by taking a balanced approach, enabling local communities to decide which tools they want to apply to manage groundwater and ensure water certainty. The state Legislature is currently intensely debating another water bill, a priority for Gov. Doug Ducey, to create an Arizona Water Authority (AWA) to finance water projects. The AWA has its merits and deserves fair consideration.

Critical debate: How do we ensure the AWA actually finds us more water?

However, the most prudent approach for rural Arizona is to conserve the water we do have, and we need rural management area legislation to do that. As state leaders review the AWA, we urge them not to ignore rural Arizona. Rural management area legislation should go hand in hand with the AWA. Groundwater protection must be the foundation for increased water investment.

Please, Governor and Lawmakers: Act Now

We cannot allow the Legislature to continue ignoring the growing water insecurity of rural Arizona  it is irresponsible and unsustainable. As fellow elected officials, we implore our state legislators to seize this opportunity to put greater Arizona on the right course so we can conserve our precious and dwindling water supplies.

Without water we cannot grow. Without justice and self-determination we will not thrive. Governor Ducey, Speaker Rusty Bowers, President Karen Fann, members of the Legislature: We are counting on you to deliver for us. Please act now to pass legislation that gives us the tools to conserve and protect our dwindling precious water resources. Our future depends on it.

Travis Lingenfelter·, Patrice Horstman and Donna Michaels serve on the county board of supervisors in Mohave, Coconino and Yavapai counties, respectively.
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Originally Published on AZCENTRAL at 6:00 a.m. MT June 6, 2022 | Updated 10:09 a.m, MT June 6, 2022

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