Battle in Arizona to Adjust State Water Use Regulations as Climate Change Causes Supplies to Dwindle

Seth Johnson
Associate Editor
Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2020

On March 14, 2018, the United States Department of Agriculture officially designated twelve Arizona Counties as primary natural disaster areas on account of agricultural loses brought on by intensifying drought. Despite being one the hottest and driest states in the nation, the state is one of the most agriculturally productive, sustaining a multi-billion dollar industry. As drought threatens this economic boon, competing interest groups petition the state legislature to adjust water-use regulations that have failed to stem shortages.

State Water-Use Regulations

Much of the available water for human use in Arizona exists underground in aquifers. In 1980, the Arizona legislature passed the Arizona Groundwater Management Code, in large part to manage the increasing tendency of water users to extract more water from the ground than was being naturally replaced. The act created a state regulatory agency known as the Arizona Department of Water Resources, and tasked it with enforcement of the legislation. For areas where groundwater use is particularly heavy, the act created special regions designated as “Active Management Areas”, where the agency enforces higher levels of regulations. In addition to managing various parties’ rights to access and use groundwaters, the agency also engages in central planning related to water use.

Outside of Active Management Areas, groundwater users often face little to no restrictions in their use, and aren’t required to record or report the amount used. Within Active Management Areas however, regulations prohibit the construction of new communities unless they can demonstrate access to at least a 100 year-supply of groundwater.

Developers against Farmers

In the midst of drought conditions, real-estate developers looking to build in Active Management areas are pushing for legislation to ease the 100-year supply requirement. This has put them squarely in conflict with Arizona’s farmers. In addition to seeking an easing of regulatory enforcement, the bills also contain provisions that many farmers argue are geared towards making it easier to transfer ground water from one area of the state to another. There is also concern among agricultural interests that bill provisions will make it more difficult for farmers to pursue legal action against the Central Arizona Project, a public entity that manages a massive aqueduct proving a large amount of the state’s water resources from the Colorado river.

The fight in Arizona is occurring amidst the backdrop of a declared natural disaster, but it may preview conflicts arising in areas where water supplies are seemingly plentiful. In Wisconsin, a growing suburb of Milwaukee recently entered into contracts enabling it to access water from Lake Michigan rather than the local sources it had used previously. The move was not without controversy, as many activists believe it belies an ominous future in which competition for shrinking water resources becomes far more pronounced nation-wide.

Foreign Agricultural Demand

While many believe that inadequate resource regulation is a large contributor to Arizona’s water shortages and resulting conflicts, another factor tied to climate change and globalization may be at play. Increasingly, foreign-owned agricultural enterprises are purchasing and operating farms in Arizona. One crop extensively produced by these farms is alfalfa, a crop that requires a disproportionately high amount of water per yield. Much of what is produced is then exported, particularly to Middle Eastern countries. Many foreign owned operators in Arizona of late are held by Saudi Arabian nationals. Perhaps non-coincidentally, an uptick in Saudi-owned farming enterprises occurred in tandem with the Saudi Arabian government’s decision in 2015 to raise water prices for corporations.

Some argue that the comparatively lower prices for water access, in tandem with the United States’ generous agricultural subsidies, may be partially to blame for unsustainable levels of agriculture, and the choice to farm water-intensive crops. Climate change’s consequences in Saudi Arabia seem to be further exacerbating consequences in Arizona, revealing a fundamental challenge to the state regulatory scheme confronted with an increasingly global phenomenon.

Regulatory Cooperation

While dwindling water supplies are largely a source of conflict, Arizona’s regulatory scheme has encouraged unique cooperation between municipalities and agricultural interests. For example, the 1980 legislation allows municipalities like Tucson, which are ordinarily limited as Active Management Areas, to pump more groundwater within the region in exchange for giving water the municipality is entitled to through the Central Arizona Project to agricultural producers. While this arrangement does not solve the increasingly dire problem of the Central Arizona Project’s shrinking Colorado River supply, it offers hope that state lawmakers will approach water problems with the flexibility required to maintain a feasible way of life.