How a 1980 law prevents rural Arizona communities from controlling their groundwater

A 1980 Arizona law prevents rural areas from managing their water and there's a new push from leaders to change that.
Published: Oct. 25, 2023 at 5:46 PM MST
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FLAGSTAFF, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) — In the drought, water is a scarce, invaluable resource. The Valley relies mostly on surface water from melting snowpack in the mountains. People in rural Arizona have to rely more on groundwater, and they have no way of telling just how much is down there.

Leaders in the high country, like Coconino County Supervisor Patrice Horstman, are fighting to know how much groundwater is left or where exactly it is. “What we need is to be able to decide our own future and what that means is we need to be able to look underneath to see what water exists,” Horstman said. “We can’t even look there right now.” With so many communities relying on this water, if it runs dry, that could be devastating for local businesses, tourism, and simply day-to-day life like showering and clean drinking water.

The 1980 Groundwater Management Act put the state in charge of groundwater in its most-populated areas to make sure water never ran dry. That leaves the water in about 80 percent of Arizona’s land mass unmanaged. When groundwater isn’t managed, new wells can be drilled and pump unlimited amounts of groundwater, even if that pumping negatively impacts a neighboring well, a nearby stream, or a community’s water supply. Horstman said this hasn’t benefited rural Arizona. “We do not even have the authority to look to determine whether there is sufficient water or sustainability of water when we make these zoning decisions or development decisions for here in Coconino County,” she said.

This impacts places like Tusayan north of Flagstaff, which Mayor Clarinda Vail said relies on wells to provide water to locals and tourists. “Because if we don’t have water we don’t have a community,” Vail said. “We can’t serve the up to 6 million people a year that come to Grand Canyon if we don’t have water.”

So Coconino County has been pushing for change at the state level for three years, but each time the county’s bills never move forward. “So we haven’t even been able to have a meaningful discussion on this,” Horstman said.

Governor Katie Hobbs introduced legislation to look at the 1980 law and see where they can make changes. Horstman said this is a step in the right direction but more still needs to be done. “We want to have the same ability for permitting for controlling and for managing and for making decisions about our local communities future,” Horstman said.

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