Friday, May 7, 2010

Chiming in on the ADWR situation

At this point the fate of the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) should be old news to most people.  But I've commented on this in the past so I wanted to chime in with a few observations.

First of all this was in the works for quite a while - the budget problems in Arizona have been big news around here for almost two years now and any part of the state budget that isn't protected by a voter mandate or required by some existing law has been fair game and taking major hits.  That's what happens when the yearly deficit in the budget equals about 20% of the total budget.  There were plans floated in the legislature to allow ADWR to become self-funded through fees and/or taxes.  The problem with using fees is that the same factors leading to the state's budget deficit have seriously impacted the ability of the department to collect fees.  Most of those fees would come about as a result of economic development occurring that requires various permits from the state.  That economic development just hasn't been happening.  One idea that came up was to allow ADWR to impose a tax on most large water users based on the amount of their usage.  Arizona has a state legislature that wanted to cut corporate taxes during what must be the biggest budget crisis the state has faced since it became a state - you don't really think they would allow a new tax on water use?  And of course they didn't.  It was an ambitious plan, but it had some merit.  A main reason for having a department of water resources is to provide some certainty to water users (especially those who have a significant economic stake in their continued water use) that those water supplies are being properly managed.  So instead the department's budget has been reduced from over $20 million just two years ago to about $7 million for the coming year.  The staff in the department was over 200 two years ago and is currently at about 90.

The only ADWR office that will remain open is in Phoenix - there used to be satellite offices in Tucson, Nogales, Casa Grande, and Prescott that handled matters related to the state Active Management Areas (AMAs), which were created by the Groundwater Management Act of 1980 that finally imposed a sensible legal structure on groundwater use in the areas of the state under greatest development pressure.  That legal structure is supposed to bring those areas into safe yield in the next 15 years and those local offices were responsible for developing the management plans to guide that process.  The fourth of five management plans mandated by the law was supposed to be nearing completion about now because it would cover the period from 2010 to 2020.  If it does get completed it's going to take a few more years.

So why would our legislature gut a state department that has such an important role in the functioning of water management in a state where very little development can occur going forward without adequate management of water supplies?  Are they just ignorant of the importance of ADWR or are there more sinister motives lurking under the surface.  Other people have speculated on this point and I've talked to some others who have their opinions.  John Mawhinney, who was a state legislator when the Groundwater Management Act was passed and currently helps run the Arizona Water Banking Authority and heads up the Groundwater Users Advisory Council in the Tucson AMA, wrote an op-ed piece for the Tucson paper recently where he speculated that ADWR was a victim of their own success in some respects.  They have done such a good job of managing water in the state that no one is aware of what they do or thinks they serve an absolutely necessary purpose.  There may be some truth to this - in regards to some in the legislature and much of the general public.  Also John, as a former legislator, may be giving some in the current legislature the benefit of the doubt.  But many other people I have talked to - very knowledgeable people - think that there is an element in state government and the private sector that wanted to see ADWR emasculated, presumably to remove the yoke of regulation and give them freer reign with water.  Seems to make sense, but frightening nonetheless.

One other place where some discussion of this matter has been occurring is on the blog run by Gary Yaquinto, of the Arizona Investment Council.  He put up a very thoughtful post on this earlier this week and has received some enlightening comments.  He references an article from the Arizona Republic that pretty well spells out what is going on with the budgets of both main state agencies that regulate water ADWR (quantity) and Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) (quality).

The amount of institutional knowledge that is being lost from these departments in order to balance our budgets is staggering.  Even if they can return to previous staffing levels when the economy recovers it will be a long, long time before they can return to their previous level of competence.  And I mean nothing against those people who remain in their jobs there.  They must all be stellar performers and dedicated to what they are doing.  But they can only do so much.  Keep an eye out for those people who want to take advantage of the lack of oversight to endanger our water supplies - we are all watchdogs now.

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