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Yuma summit examines water issues
Herb Guenther, affectionately referred to in Yuma County as “Mr. Arizona Water,” related the adage that some people make things happen, some watch them happen and some wonder what happened.
“I would rather be in the first group,” he told more than 100 agriculture, business and community leaders who gathered Thursday for a full-day water summit.
Hosted by Arizona Common Sense, the meeting grew out of concerns earlier this year that thirsty communities in central Arizona were trying to make a grab for Yuma County' rights to water from the Colorado River. The issue came up with the introduction by House Speaker Andy Tobin of Yavapai County of HB 2338 that would establish regional augmentation authorities with the power to buy and sell water.
After considerable controversy and an outraged response by Yuma County leaders, Tobin pulled his bill and appointed a committee to meet with stakeholders and possibly draft a new bill for the next legislative session.
The committee consists of Guenther, Rep. Lisa Otondo and Rep. Darin Mitchell, who both represent Yuma County, as well as Rep. Frank Pratt of Pinal County, Rep. Brenda Barton of Payson and the director of Arizona Department of Water Resources as an adviser.
The group will hold a series of meetings throughout the summer to seek input from stakeholders in rural areas. The first meeting will be held in Yuma from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. May 31, likely in the council chambers at Yuma City Hall. Others will be in Sierra Vista on June 14, Flagstaff on June 21, Prescott on June 28 and Payson on July 12, then regroup in Phoenix in August.
Guenther said his preference for a new bill would be limiting existing water rights as a source of augmentation, providing electoral oversight of authorities, limiting their eminent domain authority and refining their bonding authority.
The issue grew out of unsustainable water supplies to support future growth in many parts of the state, with Flagstaff, Prescott, Cottonwood and Sedona among the critical areas.
Many see the Colorado River as the answer to their need for more water. However, as Guenther pointed out, the river was over-allocated in the 1922 compact and flows have been greatly reduced in recent years with the lingering drought in the Southwest.
Irrigation districts in Yuma County hold high priority rights to water in the Colorado River for agriculture use, observed Tom Davis, manager of the Yuma County Water Users Association, and Elston Grubaugh, manager of the Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation and Drainage District.
Even so, WMIDD already has had some experience with water transfers, Grubaugh said. The area also is seeing interest by outside investors in buying up farmland, not for the land but for the water rights.
Water transfers would be considerably more complicated with YCWUA, where the water rights are “glued” to the land, Davis said.
“So I don't think we would be first on the list when greedy so-and-sos start looking around,” he said. However, he added, the association remains vigilant.
“The take-home message (about HB 2338) is how paranoid we are about water rights,” Davis said. “We have to be at the table.”
The issue is taking on new urgency with the lingering drought, climate change and increased demand by a growing population for declining water resources. Another factor is potential for litigation by the Upper Basin states challenging Arizona's use of tributary water.
Steve Hvinden, chief of the Boulder Canyon operations office for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, noted that over the past 13 years, the average river flows have been the lowest in the last 100 years of record keeping. He said the latest model shows a “significant chance of a shortage by 2016.”
The Central Arizona Project, which carries water from the Colorado River to the central part of the state mostly for municipal providers, would bear the brunt of reduced allocations in such an event.
And that area has the money and the votes that could override Yuma County's priority water rights. But it would be a difficult process.
Scott Miller, Colorado River Management Water Planning Division of ADWR, outlined the steps that would be required.
First there would need to be a willing buyer and a willing seller. They would have to demonstrate that a water transfer wouldn't negatively impact other water users in the area, the buyer would need to have a feasible way to move the water and the water transfer would be subject to state and federal approval.
Protecting Yuma's water is critical not only to the agriculture industry but to the community's entire economy and viability, noted Ken Rosevear, executive director of the Yuma County Chamber of Commerce. Yuma's agriculture is by far the area's largest economic driver, impacting every part of the economy with a reach far beyond its $3.2 billion estimated value, he said.