Sonoran Institute Weighs in on Negotiations in Arizona State Legislature on Groundwater Regulations.

May 16th, 2024

During this year’s legislative session, Arizona policy makers have considered several solutions to regulate water use in rural areas experiencing significant groundwater overdrafts. Competing bills were introduced in the Arizona legislature by both parties, and there were efforts to reconcile these differing approaches to empowering rural areas in managing their water future. Concurrently, the City of Douglas is navigating the establishment of a new AMA for their region. Voted in by residents of the Douglas Groundwater Basin in December 2022, the Douglas AMA is the first new AMA created in Arizona in almost 30 years. Development of a management plan for the Douglas groundwater basin is now underway, including the certification of grandfathered groundwater rights by September 2024.

These developments reflect a growing demand for policy solutions to address groundwater losses in Arizona. New state-level policies need to allow for some level of local control and should be flexible to reflect differing conditions within individual basins. Beyond that, there is significant disagreement about what the approach should entail. 

Much of the debate, and the focus of the two legislative proposals, has revolved around the process and requirements for establishing new rural groundwater management areas. As these conversations continue, policy makers should address the following for any groundwater management approach to be successful: 

  • Most rural communities have little or no capacity to take on additional planning efforts, and funding and technical resources must be explicitly dedicated to jurisdictions undertaking these efforts. 
  • Such support should begin before petitions for potential new groundwater regulations are submitted and support both the local government directly as well as the Arizona Department of Water Resources in providing educational materials and dedicating staff to be available as part of outreach activities that inform petitioning efforts. 
  • Educational materials and outreach assistance should empower specific audiences to understand how new rural groundwater management areas might affect them. These should include not only owners of groundwater rights, but municipal water providers, local government decisionmakers, major economic sectors, and others.
  • To the extent that legislation creating any new groundwater management areas also establishes local councils to oversee development and implementation of management plans, legislation should support the Arizona Department of Water Resources in allocating funding for councils to hire contractors or staff to assist with planning efforts.
  • Such funding should underwrite public participation, data collection, water rights certification, development of water conservation and monitoring programs, implementation agreements with local jurisdictions, and other activities critical to the development and implementation of potential new rural water management areas.

Through our Arizona Growing Water Smart Program, Sonoran Institute has invested in building local capacity to address communities’ water supply and demand challenges through training and technical assistance. Our investment, where successful, is predicated on early engagement, driven by collaborative local champions, and supportive of priorities and actions as identified by the community. We believe that this approach should be reflected in any policy framework that guides rural groundwater management in the future. 

Addressing diminishing groundwater levels in Arizona is a bipartisan issue. To ensure that any new groundwater policy solutions can be successful, the Arizona legislature must continue to provide ADWR and local governments with sufficient resources and staff capacity to support localities in addressing the most critical water concern of our time. 

Dan B. Kimball                                            
Chair, Board of Directors                               
Sonoran Institute

Mike Zellner
Chief Executive Officer
Sonoran Institute