A bill that could have derailed a seven-state Drought Contingency Plan that lawmakers passed last month was put on ice at the request of its sponsor, House Speaker Rusty Bowers, after a lengthy and contentious committee hearing.
Bowers said he was putting the bill on hold to continue refining it, but the measure is unlikely to receive further consideration this year. Friday marks the final day for House committees to consider legislation that originated in the House. However, as speaker, Bowers has authority to bring it forward even after that deadline.
The legislation, House Bill 2476, would have repealed an Arizona’s “use it or lose it” water rights law. In essence, if water rights holders don’t use that water for five years, they give up their claim to it. In recent years, the Gila River Indian Community has gone to court to force some farmers and ranchers in the Upper Gila Valley to forfeit their water rights under the law.
The Gila River Indian Community is opposed to the bill and announced last week that it won’t sign Arizona’s Drought Contingency Plan if the bill is considered by the legislature.
Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis told the Arizona Mirror that he appreciated the move by Bowers, but said that the tribe is sticking to its position until it receives reassurance from Gov. Doug Ducey that he’ll veto the measure if the measure re-appears before the legislature ends its work for the year.
Lewis said Ducey has not reached out to his government and has not returned their requests for comment.
Several farmers came and spoke before the committee about their concerns with the tribe attempting to take their water and their difficulties with the “use it or lose it” law that Bowers aims to repeal.
Farmers and ranchers testify
The Natural Resources, Water and Energy Committee Tuesday afternoon was full and farmers, who donned cowboy hats and boots, and spoke passionately before the committee.
At the center of many of their comments before lawmakers was the issue of hot lands, or areas that have been chosen to not receive water in an attempt to conserve water.
Many farmers testified that the areas that were deemed hot lands by their irrigation district and the tribe would often intersect with other properties on their farms. This would cause them to erroneously water those areas, which would lead to them getting fined for using water on land that is not supposed to be watered.
Farmers also argued that having areas deemed hot lands has unfairly affected them, with one farmer saying he was unaware that 20 acres of a 100 acre farm he bought would be deemed unusable, causing him to lose money and the water rights for the 100 acres he thought he had.
Bowers said the bill has nothing to do with hot lands, but it shows a “pattern” by the tribe on how they interact with local farmers, who said that the tribe treated them unfairly in the negotiation and litigation process related to hot land water usage.
Other farmers said that the law makes it harder to conserve water because if they decide not to water an area or use a well for five years to conserve water, they can have those rights taken away.
One farmer also argued that the current law isn’t helpful to farmers who want to be certified organic, as well, because in order to grow certified organic crops, the land must not have been used for any farming for a period of five years.
GRIC fires back
Lewis said he had a lot of respect for the people who came and spoke, but said he was there “to speak truth to power.”
Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, asked Lewis if he’d be willing to subject his constituents to the same five year use-it-or-lose-it law. Lewis said it was like comparing apples to oranges.
Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Tucson, called the law Bowers aims to repeal “arbitrary,” echoing a claim by Bowers that the law was never used until the tribe began using it late last year.
Lewis shot back that 16 other states have the same law on the books.
If Bowers’ bill did move forward, it would make Arizona the only Colorado River Basin state to not have a use-it-or-lose-it law in relation to surface water.
Before asking the committee chairwoman Rep. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, to hold the bill, Bowers spoke directly to the farmers.
“I feel responsible for what happened to you,” Bowers said. “I don’t want to let you down twice.”
Bowers said he aims to speak with legislative attorneys to discuss how the bill could be drafted to further protect farmers and reach an agreement between all parties involved.
Outside the House chambers, Lewis said he was disappointed with Bowers’ pledge to keep working on the legislation, calling it “bad policy.” He did not give a timeframe of when the tribe would consider re-entering into DCP agreements.
The states involved in the DCP have between March 4 and 19 to submit their finalized deals and agreement. If they are not all in place by the end of that deadline, the federal government will intervene and take control of the deal.