After being sidelined by the pandemic last year, Arizona legislators are back in session and moving quickly this week to revive and enact bills to protect water and natural resources to provide for citizens and businesses for decades to come.
There is no time to waste. Arizona is now into its 21st year of a scorching drought that is depleting the most important water resource in the Southwest, the Colorado River.
Ground and surface water are now more important than ever. To that end, state lawmakers are rushing to revive and fast track critical bills that will help protect and conserve both.
“The name of the game this session is companion bills to move them,” state Sen. Sine Kerr, R-Buckeye, said about committee chairs in both houses working in tandem to push through “mirror” bills on water and natural resources that never made it to the finish line last year due to COVID-19.
Kerr, who is the chair of the Senate Natural Resources, Energy and Water Committee, was one of several lawmakers and state officials who updated the business and manufacturing community last week on the bills they are working on during the virtual Environmental Issues Breakfast Legislative Kickoff hosted by the Arizona Manufacturers Council (AMC) and the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Snell and Wilmer sponsored the event.
Other speakers included Rep. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, chair of the House Natural Resources, Energy and Water Committee, and Rep. Tim Dunn, R-Yuma, chair of the House Land, Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee as well as officials from Governor Doug Ducey’s office and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ).
One of the measures that has been revived and is fast-tracked through committees is known as the “use it or lose” bill that is important to business and manufacturing.
“Use it or lose it” legislation
The legislation, HB 2675, would create an important new step to conserve groundwater, the speakers said.
It would repair a quirk in current law that acts as a disincentive to conserve water. That’s because current state forfeiture law provides that a water right may be lost after five years of non-use.
That has done little to encourage water holders to conserve supplies, the speakers said.
HB 2675 would remove that barrier and ensure that water holders’ conservation efforts will not result in the loss of water rights. Under the proposal, a water right holder could file a Water Conservation Plan with the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR). Upon filing a plan, the holder’s water rights would be shielded from a claim of abandonment or forfeiture.
“If you have five acre feet of water and you only need to use three acre feet, we want you to save and not lose your right to it,” Griffin said. “Right now if you don’t use the allocation you stand the risk of losing that right.”
Surface water protection bill
Another piece of legislation important to manufacturing and industry is a bill to protect surface water from contamination. It is needed to address changes to the federal Clean Water Act last year that removed federal jurisdiction over certain small bodies of water in states.
With that federal jurisdiction removed, Arizona needed to add some protections of its own, said Amanda Stone, intergovernmental and community affairs director for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), who spoke at the event.
If approved by the Legislature, the bill would provide surface water protections for water that is used for things like recreation, fishing and drinking, Stone said.
Other waters, called ephemeral waters, are excluded from protection unless they are connected to protected waterways. These are streams that flow only for a short time, usually after a large storm or snowmelt when there is an increase in water runoff.
The bill, HB 2456, would duplicate many of the former federal rules and place them under state jurisdiction. One rule would require that a permit must be obtained from the ADEQ before pollutants can be released into certain bodies of water.
It also provides steps to work with farmers, businesses and other organizations up front to prevent water contamination.
“It’s not only good for the environment, it’s good for the business community,” Stone said.
Wildfire prevention, removal of invasive species, nuisance lawsuits
Legislators also talked about a host of other bills the public can expect to see this session, including forest restoration and wildfire prevention to protect watersheds in the northern portions of the state.
Other measures include funding to remove invasive species like saltcedar that is sapping waters and streams and wildlife habitats across the state, continue a cleanup of contaminated groundwater wells in Tucson, and to enact “nuisance” lawsuit protection for farmers and the agriculture industry from frivolous lawsuits.
Corporation Commission overstepping its role?
Another issue that is expected to come under debate this session is the role of the Arizona Corporation Commission. Among its many duties is the regulation of public utilities including setting renewable energy requirements and goals for utilities.
Governor Doug Ducey and others are concerned that the commission is overstepping its authority in that area, said Chuck Podolak, the governor’s natural resources policy adviser, who spoke at the event.
Last summer, the Arizona Supreme Court opened the door to allow state lawmakers to overrule the commission on renewable energy standards.
“The Governor is essentially in agreement with the Supreme Court,” Podolak said. “When it comes to energy, there’s a role for the ACC and there’s a role for the legislature.”
About the Arizona Manufacturers Council
The AMC is the official state affiliate of the National Association of Manufacturers. AMC acts as the voice for Arizona’s manufacturing industry, which has been a major contributor in keeping Arizona’s economy afloat during the pandemic. Currently, the industry employs about 177,000 workers statewide and pumps about $30 billion annually into the economy.
The Council holds regular meetings to bring together environmental policy experts, industry stakeholders and state legislators to discuss Arizona’s most pressing environmental issues. These events often are free to the public. For more information, visit: AMC events.