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Summit speaker: Water bill likely won't progress this year
A controversial water bill opposed by Yuma County and other rural areas of Arizona likely won't progress any further this year in the Legislature, those attending the Southwest Ag Summit Thursday were told.
Arizona water guru Herb Guenther said he had talked with House Speaker Andy Tobin Saturday and again Wednesday and the lawmaker indicated he won't continue to press for passage of HB 2338 this legislative session.
Instead, Guenther reported, he was told Tobin is willing to meet with stakeholders to come up with a more acceptable version of the bill for next year's session.
Tobin is the sponsor of HB 2338 that would authorize regional water augmentation authorities that could buy and sell water. Yuma County interests fear the bill is an effort by the state's thirsty cities to grab Yuma's senior rights to water from the Colorado River.
The bill currently is being held in committee.
“There probably won't be any added hearings this year,” Guenther said. “Tobin indicated to me he will hold off and work out something that's more acceptable. My job is to bring compromise. I'm confident a more acceptable bill will be drafted.”
Guenther held a managment position with Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation and Drainage District for several years before being elected to represent Yuma County in the Arizona Senate. He then served as director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources for eight years. Today, he remains involved in water issues around the state through his company, Troubled Waters Consulting.
He and Russ Jones, former Yuma County representative who had chaired the House Ag and Water Committee, filled in at the last moment as keynote speakers for the summit. The scheduled speakers, who were to speak about agriculture labor and immigration reform, were detained this week in Washington, D.C., with intensive negotiations on the issue.
With HB 2338 a hot topic right now, it was a natural to ask Guenther and Jones to share background and update on the contentious subject, said Steve Alameda, one of the summit organizers.
Guenther described HB 2338 as his “second-least-favorite bill.”
Jones has been an outspoken opponent of HB 2338, saying he believes the issue is really one for Prescott, a city that is struggling to find a sustainable water supply. It also happens to be in the district that Tobin represents.
As a result of the 1980 Arizona Groundwater Code, Prescott was designated as an active management area because of its heavy reliance on pumped groundwater. The primary management goal is safe-yield by 2015, meaning no more groundwater is being withdrawn than is replaced annually.
“There's no way they will ever achieve that,” Guenther said.
And anywhere else they might pump water would negatively impact other areas. But getting water to Prescott from the Colorado River would require a major pipeline and that comes with a costly price tag, he noted.
Jones commended Yuma County's representatives for fighting for the area's interests. “It's not easy standing up to leadership. They're reaping the non-rewards.”
Guenther said major objections to HB 2338 are that it infers the purchase of existing water rights as “augmentation,” gives eminent domain powers to the authorities and excludes them from oversight by elected officials. And those are the issues a new bill needs to address.
However, he said, Yuma has some defenses. Another entity can't condemn someone's water rights. The purchase of water would require willing sellers and buyers – it would require a secure and transfer permit (not an easy thing to obtain), it must demonstrate the ability to get the water to where it is wanted and be put to a beneficial use and it must not harm other water users.
Still, he said, there will come a time when municipal providers don't have the water they need and will have to turn to agriculture.
“Some people say if an area doesn't have water, it shouldn't grow,” he said. “But you can't limit growth. People will go where they can get jobs and are comfortable living there. They don't look at water.”
Jones said he's concerned about significant cuts made to the Arizona Department of Water Resources, severely weaking it at a time when the state needs stronger oversight of its water resources.
“I don't think an augmentation authority would be bad, but there's a big missing piece and that's lack of regulatory oversight,” Jones said.