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Hobbs vetoes five water bills amid concerns about development

Posted 6/19/24

PHOENIX — Gov. Katie Hobbs on Wednesday vetoed five bills changing water laws in Arizona, concluding they would cause more harm than good.

The governor rejected an extensive measure that …

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Hobbs vetoes five water bills amid concerns about development


PHOENIX — Gov. Katie Hobbs on Wednesday vetoed five bills changing water laws in Arizona, concluding they would cause more harm than good.

The governor rejected an extensive measure that would have allowed the construction of new subdivisions in certain areas of the state which are dependent on groundwater.

Proponents have argued these developments would take place where there have been farms that already have been irrigated with groundwater. The net result, they contend, is there would be no net increase in the amount pumped.

“The concept at the core of this bill — conversion of agricultural lands to lower water use development — is a policy that has broad potential benefits,” the governor said in her veto message. And Hobbs said she supports the goal.

But Hobbs, in her veto message, questioned whether there really would be any savings. She was hesitant to start crafting exceptions to the state’s 1980 Groundwater Act, which became the first real effort to recognize that there is not an infinite supply of water.

Other measures vetoed Wednesday were:

• Allowing someone seeking a certificate of assured water supply for a new subdivision in the Pima, Pinal or Phoenix active management areas to include effluent that is projected to be produced to show there is water available for the project;

• Altering what the Department of Water Resources can consider when determining whether to issue a certificate of an assured water supply necessary for development;

• Giving long-term storage credits to anyone who builds something that happens to incidentally recharge an aquifer;

But it is the measure about retiring agricultural lands and converting the water for new development that has the most potential impact.

The state always has had an interest in retiring agricultural use. Once as high as 90% of the available supply, it now is in the neighborhood of 75%.
That is due to both more efficient farming practices as well as some farmland being bought for development. The bottom line, according to the Department of Water Resources, is the state uses approximately the same amount of water now as it did in the 1950s, even with the growth in population.

What is in Senate Bill 1172 was designed to spur that along with a promise that for every acre of farmland retired a developer could get credit for two acre-feet for residential use. An acre-foot is nearly 326,000 gallons of water, with various estimates saying that is enough to serve between two and three average households a year.

The idea is that retiring farmland would free up water for residential development.

“Any time you are having a situation where you are taking one use that is at a higher level, you are able to transfer that to a lower water use, you are creating a credit that’s a credit to the aquifer,” said Sen. Sine Kerr.

“That’s a good thing,” said the Buckeye Republican. “That’s what we need to be doing.”

Kerr called it a win-win situation for everyone.

“The water’s already there, it’s being used, it’s been used for many years,” she said. “And it only makes sense for growth to happen where we have the water.”

But Sen. Priya Sundareshan, D-Tucson, said the measure isn’t ready to become law, and not just because she believes there hasn’t been enough public input.

She said the analysis of exactly how much water that retiring agricultural lands would free up is still being done. And Sundareshan said what work has been done suggests even if this farm-to-urban formula works in the Phoenix “active management area” — the term used for the lands that are subject to controls on the use of groundwater — it has the potential to do great harm to the water table in Pinal County.

That goes to another concern.

There are farms in Pinal County that have gone fallow after there was a cutback in water from the Central Arizona Project. And the owners haven’t turned to groundwater.

The result could be that a credit is created for water for urban development from pumping that is not currently occurring.

As worded, the legislation also could have affected the Tucson and Prescott active management areas, with unclear results.

“There is grave concern about the impact this bill will have on the sustainability of groundwater in our active management areas,” Sundareshan said in voting against the measure last week.

Hobbs isn’t convinced the plan is quite ready to be enacted.

“It is critical that the legislation be carefully crafted to ensure that the water conservation savings and consumer protections are guaranteed,” the governor wrote. She echoed Sundareshan’s concerns about the one-size-fits-all approach.

“It is clear that the unique data among Arizona’s active management areas does not support universal adoption of this program across all four of the state’s initial AMAs,” she wrote. “More time is needed to develop this concept in collaboration with stakeholders and lawmakers to ensure the legislation is crafted appropriately.”

Much of the push for the change has come from developers who blame the housing shortage in urban areas at least in part on the water requirements.

That came into sharp focus last year when the Department of Water Resources stopped issuing permits for new subdivisions for some areas on the fringes of Phoenix.

Agency Director Tom Buschatzke said a newly completed analysis of the groundwater in the basin in and around Phoenix showed there simply won’t be enough to provide the legally required 100-year supply of water. State law requires such assurances in the major metropolitan areas before construction can take place.

What that most immediately meant is developers in affected areas around Queen Creek and Buckeye who were awaiting the go-ahead to build won’t get them.

Spencer Kamps, lobbyist for the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona, called the package of bills sent to Hobbs “good for the aquifer and good for housing.”

But Sandy Bahr, director of the Arizona chapter of the Sierra Club, said the measure is flawed.

“Nothing in it requires any affordable housing,” she said.

Bahr also said water credits the legislation sought to grant developers isn’t hydrologically sound, suggesting a smaller amount. And she said the legislation left no real room for error if the retired farmland didn’t produce as much water as anticipated.

“You cannot retire a subdivision,” Bahr said.

There are some things that aides to Hobbs said she likes in the measure. One of those is a prohibition beginning in 2026 of installation of “non-functional turf.” That specifically refers to everything from highway medians to patches of grass in front of a grocery store.

None of this would require tearing out anything already there. It also would have no effect on residential lawns or recreation areas like playgrounds, sport fields and even cemeteries.

Hobbs had different problems with other bills she vetoed.

One, for example, would have allowed a developer to claim there is — or would be — an adequate water supply based on the anticipated amount of effluent the project would produce.

But under Arizona law, effluent actually belongs to the city or the utility that provided the water in the first place, not the developer to claim as its own. It also doesn’t take into consideration the cost of treating the effluent so it can be recharged into the groundwater.

Another of the bills the governor nixed would effectively have overturned that DWR finding last year that there is insufficient groundwater in areas around Buckeye and Queen Creek to support new construction. Instead, it would have required the agency to make a decision based on a 2006 hydrology report — one that found no shortage of water.

Also vetoed was a measure that would allow credits for someone who built a structure that would funnel rainwater back into the ground.

Among the concerns is some of that water probably would have made its way back into the ground anyway. The legislation could have resulted in crediting the same water twice.

Hobbs did sign three water-related bills.

One deals with a legal problem created when voters in Douglas formed their own active management area. State law prohibits AMAs from bringing in water from outside.

Only thing is Bisbee, on the edge of the AMA, had long been importing water from the San Pedro basin. This legislation permits that to continue.

Hobbs also signed a bill to provide grants to promote access to backup supplies in the Phoenix area from the Harquahala groundwater basin. And another is specifically aimed at allowing farmers and the city of Buckeye to collaborate on using renewable, recycled and sustainable surface water for future development, reducing reliance on groundwater pumping in the area.

Hobbs, in a statement, called them “bipartisan efforts to put in place smart, responsible policies that strengthen our water management and encourage continued growth.”