Diverse interests came together in 1980 to pass Arizona’s groundwater law

Controversy continues over safe-yield, Big Chino, environment

Local resident William Gauslow makes a comment to a panel of water experts on May 17, after a screening of the documentary film “Groundwater, To Enact a Law for the Common Good.”

Photo by Cindy Barks.

Local resident William Gauslow makes a comment to a panel of water experts on May 17, after a screening of the documentary film “Groundwater, To Enact a Law for the Common Good.”

Water — and its long and contentious history in Arizona – took center stage in Prescott this past week.

About 275 people turned out at the Elks Theatre in downtown Prescott Wednesday evening, May 17, for the northern Arizona premier of “Groundwater, To Enact a Law for the Common Good” — a 26-minute film that documents the history of Arizona’s 1980 Groundwater Management Act.

Through a series of candid interviews with the major players of the time — including former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, as well as lobbyists for the mining and agriculture industries and cities and towns — the film takes viewers through the tense negotiations that got underway after a water conflict arose in 1976.

“The combative parties asked the legislature to resolve Arizona’s unsolvable groundwater issues once and for all,” the movie’s narrator said.

‘Dicey’ negotiations

Among the controversial issues of the negotiations: The idea that new development would be required to show a 100-year “assured water supply” in order to get the go-ahead.

Kathleen Ferris, who as a young attorney supervised the drafting of the bill, notes in the film that she and former League of Arizona Cities and Towns Executive Director Jack DeBolske “cooked up the idea that we should require the new homes” to have a 100-year water supply.”

At one point in the negotiations, however, that clause was dropped from the bill — a move that Ferris said caused her to feel betrayed by Babbitt, who had recommended that the notion of assured water supply be “put aside.”

Ferris maintained that the assured water-supply requirement “mattered, because it said we are not going to have growth without water.”

In an on-camera interview, Babbitt recalled that negotiations “got a little dicey when Kathy Ferris and the staff people started to feel like they were players at the table.” But, he added, “At the same time, that’s an important idea.”

The narrator adds that “when the last points were hammered out, (staff members) took the complex deal and drafted a 176-page bill, with the assured water supply requirements right back in it.”

The film makes the case that the state’s diverse parties put aside their differences and came together to make the Groundwater Management Act happen.

“In the end, everyone involved figured out that they would have to sacrifice personal interest to enact a law for the common good,” the film’s narrator stated.

Continued controversy

Still, questions that came from the audience during a question-and-answer session after a panel discussion showed that the contentiousness is far from over.

Prescott resident Leslie Hoy, a representative of the local Citizens Water Advocacy Group (CWAG), for instance, questioned the panel about a “mixed message” that she said governments were sending to residents. “Arizona governments at all levels promote population growth, while urging current residents to conserve water,” Hoy said, adding that CWAG regularly hears the question: “Why should I conserve when so many new people are coming? Where is the water going to come from?”

Panelist Tom Buschatzke, the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, responded: “I’m not sure there is a mixed message, because I think part of what water conservation can do besides facilitating future growth is also create possibility for (those providing the water); they can do more things if water conservation is happening.”

Local resident Howard Mechanic focused on the Prescott Active Management Area’s (AMA) goal of “safe-yield” (the condition of balance between the amount of water being pumped from the ground and the amount being recharged back in).

The Prescott AMA — a 485-square-mile area that includes Prescott, Prescott Valley, Chino Valley, and portions of unincorporated Yavapai County — has been deemed to be in groundwater overdraft since about 1998, and has a goal of reaching safe-yield by 2025.

Mechanic maintained that the community already has failed at that goal. “Is the plan here still safe yield, or is the plan here planned depletion?” he asked. “This community set up a goal of safe yield, and failed. There is no plan for safe yield, and there’s no plan to plan for safe yield.”

Ferris, who co-produced the film (along with acclaimed filmmaker Michael Schiffer) and served as the panel moderator, responded: “They’re called goals for a reason; there’s no consequence if you fail to meet the goal.”

Noting that ADWR does not have the authority to make safe-yield happen, Ferris maintained that it would not be achieved until the State Legislature grants that authority.

Environmental concerns

Joe Trudeau, Southwest advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, criticized the film for its lack of emphasis on the environment.

While the movie included commentary from industry, agriculture, and cities and towns, Trudeau said, “Balance includes the environment.” That elicited a strong response from Schiffer, a member of the panel.

“That is a ridiculous accusation,” Schiffer said, maintaining that the compromise that was done in the passage of the bill “was done to protect the environment of Arizona.” He told Trudeau: “We’re on the same side, and until we realize we’re on the same side, it will be much harder to achieve your goals.” Along with Buschatzke and Schiffer, the panel also included: Greg Kornrumph, manager of water rights for the Salt River Project; Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy; Tom Thurman, chairman of the Yavapai County Board of Supervisors; and Doug Von Gausig, mayor of the Town of Clarkdale, and director of the Verde River Institute.

Other issues that came up during the panel discussion and audience questions included: the dissolution of the Yavapai County Water Advisory Committee; proposed importation of water from the Big Chino aquifer and its impacts on the flow of the Verde River; and the status of the 43-year-old Gila River Adjudication.