Keeping Arizona from being the next Flint

Feb. 9 was “Environment Day” at the state Capitol. That dawn I boarded a bus with some 30 of my fellow Tucsonans on our way to speak with our legislators. This year’s theme: the importance of conserving and protecting Arizona’s precious water resources. A timely issue to be sure.

When Flint, Mich., had its water source changed from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department over to water drawn from the Flint River it created a health crisis. The corrosive river water caused lead from older pipes to contaminate the water supply. As many as 12,000 children may have been exposed to higher than normal lead levels that may cause serious health problems.

Water in our arid Southwest is scarce. We exist because residents can turn on the tap and receive clean, reliable water. Flint’s problems were caused by the shortsighted attempt to save money at the expense of public safety. A water shortage would be Arizona’s Flint, in that it is both preventable and sadly likely if we continue to weaken our water conservation laws and fail to adopt policies that allow Arizona to continue to flourish.

Roughly 43 percent of Arizona’s water comes from groundwater. A generation ago, lawmakers had the foresight to protect this important resource with the 1980 Groundwater Management Act. Under the Act, developers in a large swath of the state must demonstrate an assured water supply for the next 100 years in order for their developments to proceed unimpeded through the required approval process.

A 2007 amendment strengthened the Act by empowering counties to apply this important water assurance requirement to thousands of acres not included in the original Act. As amended, the Act protects all of us against water shortages. It also protects our economy; few things are as inherently worthless as a home in the desert lacking a reliable water supply.

Unfortunately, Republicans in the Legislature have brought forward SB 1268, a bill that would devastate the critical groundwater protections.

SB 1268 would allow individual municipalities to exempt from the Act’s 100-year water supply requirement subdivisions located in areas for which counties have decided this requirement is necessary. In doing so, the bill allows a single municipality to drain a groundwater aquifer serving an entire region. This undermines the Act’s purpose of conserving Arizona’s groundwater for the benefit of all Arizonans.

For the short-term gain of helping push through a development near Sierra Vista, SB 1268 threatens watersheds across the state. This includes the San Pedro River watershed, which supplies water to 140,000 people, as well as the migratory birds that draw thousands of visitors to Arizona.

SB 1268 is an example of the penny-wise, pound foolish approach to water that could lead to shortages in the immediate future.

Other examples can be found in the state’s failure to adopt sensible water conservation policies. Tucson’s policies on water conservation are a model not just for the state, but for desert areas around the world. International experts have come to Tucson to learn about our efforts to encourage water conservation. The University of Arizona is a leader in water-saving drip irrigation and arid land farming practices, both of which can save millions of gallons of water.

Flint may seem far from Arizona, but the need for clean, reliable water is a problem for all of us. Arizona has the ability to show the world how to responsibly invest in cost effective water saving policies. We have the ability to grow and prosper, to protect our wildlife, and enhance our tourism industry. We fail the voters when we allow irresponsible bills like SB 1268 to rob from all Arizonans for the benefit of a very few.

This piece originally appeared in the Arizona Daily Star.