Arizona Department of Water Resources exploring options for long-term groundwater management

Jan 31, 2024, 4:35 AM | Updated: 3:22 pm

Groundwater protection area for Gila Bend a potential solution...

From left to right, Republican lawmakers Anthony Kern, Wendy Rodgers and Sine Kerr joined Maricopa County Farm Bureau Director Erin Kuiper to announce SB 1221. (KTAR News/Balin Overstolz McNair Photo)

(KTAR News/Balin Overstolz McNair Photo)

PHOENIX — The Arizona Department of Water Resources kicked off an informal process to establish a new groundwater management area in Gila Bend on Tuesday.

The new Active Management Area (AMA) could be set up in the Gila Bend Groundwater Basin, which is around the town of the same name southwest of the Valley. The purpose of establishing an AMA is to preserve long-term water levels.

If the plan goes through, it would be is the first time ADWR will establish a new groundwater management area in four decades.

Authorities last established active management areas with the 1980 Arizona Groundwater Code.

ADWR Director Tom Buschatzke said his department wants to establish an AMA in Gila Bend because its water levels are in severe decline.

“I thought it prudent to start this public process,” Buschatzke told KTAR News 92.3 FM. “This public process does not preclude a legislative process from moving forward in terms of finding additional ways, more flexible ways to address groundwater management.”

Democratic state Sen. Priya Sundareshan said establishing an AMA in Gila Bend could be considered a short-term solution. However, she believed Buschatzke made the right decision.

Republican state Sen. Sine Kerr disagreed. She called the plan a threat to ranchers and farmers in Gila Bend. In response to ADWR’s public hearing, Kerr held an event in front of the Arizona State Capitol in partnership with the Maricopa County Farm Bureau (MCFB).

During the event, MCFB Director Erin Kuiper critiqued Buschatzke’s plan.

“The director has chosen to call it informal,” Kuiper said. “However, there’s nothing informal about threatening the basin and livelihood of our farmers and ranchers.”

One plan calls for a flexible groundwater protection area

Both Sundareshan and Buschatzke want legislative solutions to enable more flexible water management options.

One of the solutions they hope for is the proposed Rural Groundwater Management Area (RGMA), which is different from the current AMAs.

The RGMA proposal would allow ADWR to focus on local-area input, flexibility and the ability to tailor goals specific to the region under management.

Although the Governor’s Water Policy Council recommended this pathway, the decision is still in the works as it’s not currently a valid option.

Sundareshan approved of the RGMA proposal.

“Of course, details need to be fleshed out,” she said. “But that is the kind of action we need to see.”

Another plan proposes a basin containment area

On the other side of the aisle, Kerr said she didn’t support the current AMA process nor the proposed RGMA. She proposed Senate Bill 1221 instead, which would create a legal pathway to establishing “Basin Management Areas.”

Like both other plans, it would introduce increased water use oversight and rules.

Kerr said she initially saw eye-to-eye with Gov. Katie Hobbs on the issue. “I agreed with her, that rural Arizonans needed a new tool,” she said, adding that current AMAs need improvement.

However, Kerr left the water policy council in October 2023, citing frustrations with the governor’s inaction.

The text of SB 1221 said the Basin Management Area plan’s first goal is to “protect the economy while considering the need to preserve groundwater for future non-irrigation uses.”

While Kerr didn’t provide specifics on the differences between her plan and the RGMA, she said the rural plan wouldn’t guarantee enough water rights for people in Gila Bend.

Disagreement over groundwater protection area in Gila Bend

Both plans clearly aim to make the ADWR’s path to oversight and preservation more in line with the needs of affected communities.

Sundareshan said she believes a bipartisan solution is possible if both sides are willing to find common ground.

“To Sen. Kerr’s credit, I think that her bill contains some very important pieces that significantly match what came out of the groundwater policy council, the governor’s council,” she said.

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Arizona Department of Water Resources exploring options for long-term groundwater management