Our View: Rural groundwater needs protection from state drought plan

January 13, 2019

Arizona water leaders and lawmakers will either get a drought plan formulated and approved before a Jan. 31 deadline or the federal government will decide how to make cuts in Colorado River allocations.

Either way, the water that’s under the ground will become much more valuable. Any who will reap this bounty? Almost anyone who wants to sink a well and just keep it pumping.

There is urgency in the state adopting its drought contingency plan before the federal deadline. There should be equal urgency for the Legislature to address rural groundwater. As surface water cutbacks are imposed, the run on rural groundwater could look like the gold rush days.

State Rep. Regina Cobb is trying again with a rural groundwater management bill. At the least, it seeks to quantify groundwater use and reserves. It could also lead to management rules in the portion of Arizona not in active management water areas.

The regulatory parts are where the worry sets in. Though the measure seeks balance between users and doesn’t impinge on agricultural users, some fear it could open the door to an unintended regulatory environment.

In truth, her bill really just starts a policy discussion that is long overdue. How much rural water is really there? How should it be managed to assure it is sufficient in both the short and long term? How might management of rural groundwater differ from the rules in the state’s active management areas?

The good news and bad news for protecting groundwater is that no one really knows about rural groundwater management areas. There’s a lot to define and negotiate. It takes time.

Areas of Mohave and LaPaz counties have had plenty of warning about groundwater. Agricultural interests from as close as Calfiornia and as far away as the Middle East have acquired rural desert land and started pumping. One of the most consternating thought is of local groundwater used to grow alfalfa to be used as Saudi Arabian cattle feed. Passage of a state drought contingency plan will put more pressure on rural groundwater. It’s up to the 13 percent of the state who live in rural areas to stop it.

Cobb’s bill deserves early attention and definitive action that moves it in lockstep with state drought plans.

— Today’s News-Herald

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