Leaders fear bill is a ‘water grab'
BY ANNAMARIE KNORR
• In 2010, the Legislature created the Water Resource Development Commission as a way to bring people together to talk about the future water needs of the state and to develop a plan to address additional supplies that will be needed in the future.
• The commission ended up in deadlock due to the inability of rural and urban areas to agree on concepts. However, the urban interests have decided to take that fight one step further and bring it into the Legislature.
• The bill is sponsored by House Speaker Andy Tobin.
• Main proponents of the bill are Salt River Project, Central Arizona Project and the large municipalities of Phoenix, Tucson and Flagstaff.
Concepts in the Bill
• New quasi-governmental entities called Regional Water Augmentation Authorities (RWAA) are created through this bill. These entities can be created by a simple agreement between any two or more public entities (city, town, water district, flood district, water company, Indian tribe, etc.) and/or any public entity and private entity. The bill gives express authority for RWAAs to be formed with any entity regardless of their location and clarifies that their boundaries do not have to be contiguous.
• Once formed, RWAAs have authority to acquire, hold and assign or otherwise dispose of water rights. They also can appropriate money to fund water projects such as pipelines and will have eminent domain powers.
• Critics are concerned that the RWAAs would be unaccountable, unelected bodies with the power to create and enforce regional water policy.
• The bill is designed to be utilized by the Active Management Areas in Maricopa, Pima and Pinal counties well before any of the rural areas can access the fund.
• The provision allowing the authority to charge fees is too broad. It allows membership fees, service fees and water sales fees. This allows the federal agencies to gain access to these funds through “partnering” arrangements.
• There must be provisions for dissolution of the authority other than unanimous vote.
• Under the administrative powers given to the RWAAs, there needs to be a prohibition on the authority to encumber or regulate any private land or private water use without the written consent of the owner.
• The current language regarding eminent domain is broad enough that it could be abused.
• Authorities should be limited to entities with contiguous boundaries to prevent central Arizona from siphoning water from other areas in the state.
• The bill will be considered in the House Agriculture and Water Committee on Tuesday. Opponents are encouraged to attend and testify.
A bill before the Legislature is seen by many as an effort by thirsty cities to take water from their less politically powerful rural neighbors.
And, local leaders fear, the prime target is Yuma County's senior rights to water from the Colorado River.
The bill, HB 2338, would establish Regional Water Augmentation Authorities, giving them the power to buy and sell water to their members.
For Yuma City Administrator Greg Wilkinson, the legislation is a clear “move toward taking Yuma's water” by the Central Arizona Project and Salt River Project.
“The city is vehemently opposed to it,” Wilkinson said, and will be sending a number of people to the state Capitol to testify during a hearing on the bill Tuesday before the House Agriculture and Water Committee.
HB 2338 has its roots in the Water Resources Development Commission, appointed to analyze Arizona's water needs for the next 100 years, especially in light of the lingering drought and with some cities lacking a sustainable water supply. The legislation to establish the task force in 2010 was pushed through by Rep. Andy Tobin. Now speaker of the house, Tobin also is the sponsor of HB 2338.
That could make fighting the legislation politically challenging, particularly in the House of Representatives, some say.
Tobin did not respond to emails asking for comment on the legislation.
While WRDC failed to come up with a consensus, the group did recommend the formation of Regional Water Augmentation Authorities to assist communities in developing future water supplies and infrastructure.
The idea was that areas lacking adequate water resources could work with other areas to obtain the precious resource, said Wade Noble, an attorney for various irrigation districts in Yuma County, who served on the WRDC.
A number of cities in Arizona have serious water needs in the near and long term, Noble said. “And the greatest water resource is agriculture water in Yuma County. Whenever you look at augmenting water, people look at the Colorado River.”
He continued: “I knew all along where things would end up. But if you're not at the table, you're on the menu. I always knew Yuma County would be targeted because of the amount of water we have here.”
Noble noted that Yuma County has really good water rights and a provision in HB 2338 would prohibit condemnation of water rights.
But the bill could open the way for someone to come in and purchase those water rights for another area, said Bas Aja, executive vice president of the Arizona Cattlemen's Association, who also served on the WRDC. He said the meaning of augmentation was a sticking point for WRDC, with rural members thinking it meant developing new water sources (such as reusing discharge water and better management of water sheds), while to municipal members it meant getting water from someone else.
Aja expressed concern about the “triple A's” the legislation would give the proposed authorities: appropriations to fund water infrastructure projects such as pipelines to transport water, ability to augment water resources and expanded authority, including eminent domain to acquire the land for the projects. The entities also would not be accountable to voters.
Wilkinson expressed concern that Yuma could get outvoted in an authority on the taking of local water rights. “That would be devastating to Yuma's agriculture.”
Water from the Colorado River is the lifeblood for Yuma County's agriculture, the area's No. 1 economic driver worth an estimated $3.2 billion a year. If the water is taken, Yuma County's fields that now produce more than 90 percent of the nation's winter vegetables would become a wasteland, Wilkinson predicted.
Former Yuma County lawmaker Russ Jones expressed similar concerns that HB 2338 could be a water grab.
“I've personally had members of the CAP board tell me to my face that when they need water from the Colorado, they'll get it,” Jones said.
Rep. Darin Mitchell, who represents Legislative District 13, which includes parts of Yuma and Maricopa counties, expressed his own concerns about HB 2338.
“It's such a big bill,” he said. “And there are so many things wrong with it ... it's a monster bill dropped in our laps. So many people are against it for different reasons. There's nothing about it I like. It's unnecessary, it creates another level of bureaucracy and (the authorities) aren't accountable to anyone.”
While stopping short of calling HB 2338 a water grab, Mitchell feels uneasy about a possible hidden agenda. “I feel there's something about the bill we don't know about. I feel we don't have all the information.”
Mitchell, who sits on the Agriculture and Water Committee, said his fellow committee members – Republicans and Democrats alike – also have misgivings about the legislation.
“I believe we should do something about water,” he said. “But it isn't this bill.”