JOANNA ALLHANDS

Most of the work we did in 2001 on groundwater was DOA. What to learn from that now

Opinion: Arizona tried to fix groundwater issues 20 years ago, but most solutions went nowhere. Here's what we need now for a similar effort to avoid a similar fate.

Joanna Allhands
Arizona Republic
Nancy Blevins and her husband, Rodney Hayes, rinse dishes on Aug. 28, 2019, in the kitchen of their home in Vicksburg, Ariz. Some rural areas are facing groundwater problems that force some residents to carry in bottled water.

If it feels like we’ve been down this road with groundwater before, you’re not imagining it.

We have.

It was two decades ago, when dozens of water professionals spent 2½ years finalizing a plan to address unsustainable pumping that – surprise! – still exists today.

The governor’s water committee offered roughly 50 recommendations, on everything from restricting the size of exempt wells to creating incentives to develop on farmland instead of raw desert, to creating a comprehensive plan to preserve groundwater in Pinal.

We're running out of time to be proactive

Most recommendations were DOA not long after the ink on them was dry, though a few changes were made to shore up long-term planning and renewable supplies for the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District.

And while several folks who were involved in 2001 told me that they didn’t think their recommendations were pie-in-the-sky, they also didn’t expect them to be enacted immediately. The point, they said, was more to set the table for what they expected would be an ongoing discussion.

Fast forward 20 years, and here we are, with another governor’s water council that has spent two years studying the same problems but has yet to offer any solutions.

Some things are different now. There is much more urgency to do something, as wells run dry and parts of aquifers collapse in rural areas of the state, as residential growth has all but stopped in Pinal County and all signs point to something similar happening on the west side of metro Phoenix in a few years.

Even worse, renewable supplies are not nearly as plentiful as they were in 2001 (funny but not funny: conversations then focused on using more of the state’s Colorado River allocation to slow groundwater withdrawals).

Sustained drought and aridification now threaten to increase the severity of shortage on the Colorado, which will put even more pressure on Arizona’s finite and dwindling groundwater supply.

We need 3 things to get ahead on groundwater:

We’ve reached an inflection point.

Arizona no longer has the luxury of waiting years for solutions to gain favor.

If we want to be proactive – or even just lessen the pain of our coming groundwater crisis, which affect everyone in this state – we can’t keep sitting on our hands, meeting but never acting.

Perhaps that’s the greatest lesson from the 2001 governor’s committee. If the current effort has any hope of getting ahead of problems, it needs three things:

1.  Political will

While lawmakers served on the committee in 2001, none were heavily invested in the effort. So, none fought for the plan’s needed legislative changes (nor did the governor). And with no major crisis looming to spur action, there was little impetus to fight the status quo or convince influential parochial interests to sacrifice some things for the greater good.

That is no different today – though arguably, there is even less urgency among elected leaders to do something.

There is no political muscle at the Capitol demanding solutions. The same bills are proposed each year, and each year the same ideas die without a hearing. Until that changes, it doesn’t matter how many lawmakers are on the governor’s current council. If no one is willing to run with whatever the committee recommends, it also will be DOA.

2.  Expertise

The good news about today’s study is that more diverse interests are involved than in 2001. But with so many voices at the table, we also need people with deep water knowledge who can help guide the debate with facts and data.

The Department of Water Resources had a lot more staff in 2001 than it does now, and there weren’t as many pressing water issues bearing down on them at once. That allowed staff to devote a lot more time to supporting this kind of study.

Now, they are overwhelmed with multiple initiatives, and because pay is higher in the private sector, there is regular turnover. None of this is going to get any better as Colorado River reconsultation talks ramp up. The longer work on groundwater goes on, the less ability the department will have to support it.

3.  Clarity

Gov. Doug Ducey reconfigured his council in 2019 to take advantage of the working relationships that had been forged during Drought Contingency Plan talks. But the committee also hasn’t had much direction on what to study or how quickly to move.

This, combined with the challenge of meeting virtually during the pandemic, has caused most work to atrophy. Though two groups formed to deal with groundwater, the one focused on rural areas has done next to nothing. And while another on the state’s Active Management Areas has focused on many issues the governor’s committee raised in 2001, work on solutions has ground to a halt after a committee leadership change.

Ducey must realize that he is rapidly running out of time. He has the next legislative session to accomplish anything before he leaves office, which means his committee will need to arrive on solutions by this fall. Yet he has largely been hands off, letting study play out on its own schedule.

The committee needs more direction. And a deadline.

Otherwise, we might as well give up now and wait for a major crisis to direct our steps.

Reach Allhands at joanna.allhands@arizonarepublic.com. On Twitter: @joannaallhands.

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