Water-well metering to prevent groundwater depletion proposed in Legislature

Groundwater use is not regulated outside Arizona’s five Active Management Areas, which were established in the early 1980s to govern groundwater use central Arizona. (Photo by Jackie Wang/News 21)

PHOENIX – Two bills have been introduced in the Arizona Legislature calling for water-well metering to address the lack of regulations on groundwater pumping outside central Arizona.

This comes after a series of recent reports in The Arizona Republic showing large industrial farms in rural counties are drilling ever-deeper wells to irrigate thirsty crops like hay, corn and pistachios, but these companies aren’t required to disclose how much water they’re pumping.

Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, has proposed a bill to let the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources require a meter on wells outside the state’s five Active Management Areas, which were established in the early 1980s to govern groundwater use central Arizona. The director also could require an annual report.

Kavanagh said his bill, HB 2226, is the first step in addressing overuse.

“Everybody’s saying we don’t have the information. So this gets the information,” he said. “Then nobody has an excuse not to act. People can’t be willfully blind in the face of a possible impending water crisis for some residents of our state. And I feel sorry for those residents.”

Meanwhile, a bill from Rep. Kirsten Engel, D-Tucson, would simply require well meters outright for large-scale irrigation. Her bill is HB 2158.

As the climate grows hotter and drier in the Southwest, drastically reducing the water available from the Colorado River, cities and farmers are putting increasing pressure on underground stores. The Republic’s analysis found that water levels in nearly 1 in 4 wells in Arizona’s groundwater monitoring program have dropped more than 100 feet since they were drilled.

Kavanagh said he had not spoken to House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, and didn’t know whether Bowers would support his bill. The speaker last week told the Associated Press he was concerned about overpumping.

“If nothing else,” Kavanagh said, “this will start the conversation and maybe it will cause this to be placed into one of the other water bills that are moving forward. But you can’t stay willfully blind. There’s no excuse for that.”

Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, said she will soon propose a bill to create an additional regulatory tool called a rural management area.

“I don’t even want to reduce agricultural growth if it can be recharged,” she said. “If it’s not recharging, we’ve got an issue. If it’s taking away from municipalities that have been there already, we’ve got an issue. If it takes away from their growth and development, we’ve got an issue.

“So we have to look at all those parameters and come together with a decision for that community. And I think that’s where a rural management area works.”