The San Pedro north of Benson, the Southwest’s last free-flowing desert stream of consequence.

Mike Christy / Arizona Daily Star 2015/

The Colorado and the San Pedro rivers’ futures are on the line at the Legislature due to a controversial water bill.

The bill, whose architect is Sen. Gail Griffin of Sierra Vista, would loosen requirements for an adequate water supply for new homes in rural counties.

Approval would most likely clear the way for a 7,000-home development in that city near the fragile San Pedro, the Southwest’s last free-flowing desert stream of any consequence. The development has been tied up in court by a federal lawsuit saying the state improperly found that the project has adequate water.

Under the law Griffin would change, builders can’t construct new subdivisions in counties such as Cochise County unless the state finds there is adequate water for growth.

Gov. Doug Ducey vetoed similar legislation two years ago, saying he didn’t want to weaken Arizona’s pioneering Groundwater Management Act of 1980 to which these rules were added in 2007. The law allows rural counties — Cochise and Yuma are the only ones to follow it so far — to require new subdivisions to have adequate water for 100 years. (Urban Pima and Maricopa counties have stricter requirements under state law.)

Supporters of Griffin’s bill say the state government shouldn’t be telling rural counties how to manage their growth. Her bill would force county boards with such a requirement to periodically agree unanimously to keep it on the books. Opponents fear that will be a very difficult political test to meet, and that doing away with water-supply requirements would lead to limitless groundwater pumping for subdivisions, drying the San Pedro River.

But what’s not in the bill is also stirring conflict, particularly between the warring Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Central Arizona Project. Missing is a proposal the governor, but not the CAP, wants to allow the state to let those with legal rights to Colorado River water leave it in Lake Mead instead of taking deliveries.

Griffin’s bill proposes a huge package of other measures, including:

  • A requirement for an action plan for desalinating brackish groundwater underlying Yuma, Buckeye and other areas.
  • A 10-year extension of the 2025 legal deadline for Tucson and other urban areas to comply with the 1980 groundwater law’s requirement that groundwater pumping equal recharge into their aquifers.
  • Requirements that the Legislature approve future interstate water deals, and that ADWR and CAP’s governing agencies tell the other if they’re negotiating one.
  • A proposal to reduce, but not eliminate, as the governor’s office prefers, the CAP’s ability to declare sovereign immunity from litigation.

But the proposal for a state program to encourage Colorado River water users to not take all their water has been a top priority for the Governor’s Office and ADWR, to delay Colorado River shortages due to declining Lake Mead water levels.

Tom Buschatzke, the state water agency’s director, said Thursday that as this year’s dry winter is proceeding, the lake could drop up to 5 feet by the end of 2018 below the 1,075 foot threshold for declaring a shortage.

“While we cannot control the weather, what we can control is response to ongoing drought,” Ducey’s chief of staff, Kirk Adams, said last week.

The Central Arizona Water Conservation District is officially neutral on Griffin’s bill. But its officials criticized various aspects of the state’s water-saving plan at two committee hearings last week.

First, the district has already been allowing its water subcontractors such as cities and Indian tribes to leave some of their water in the lake for years, on a smaller scale.

But a CAP district board member told a Senate committee hearing Monday that a statewide program of this kind would cost ratepayers big bucks. That’s because as less river water is sold in the state, the price per gallon cities and farms pay rises.

CAP district board member Mark Lewis estimated the price tag would be $30 million for district customers in Pima, Pinal and Maricopa counties paid through property taxes and water bills.

But at the House committee hearing Thursday, Warren Tenney of the Arizona Municipal Water Utilities Association said ADWR’s idea is worth the cost, for Lake Mead’s sake.

“We believe the costs we’ve paid have been a great investment, an insurance to keep us from going into shortage,” said association director Tenney.

“Our greatest fear is if we hit a shortage, it will have significant negative impact upon our economy. It will raise a perception concern for our residents as well as for businesses and others outside who are looking to invest in Arizona.”

In a rare move, Ducey dispatched two top aides, Adams and natural resources policy advisor Hunter Moore, along with water chief Buschatzke, to contact reporters to raise concerns about Griffin’s bill.

Griffin didn’t return calls from the Star seeking her comments. The Republican senator, chair of the Senate Natural Resources, Energy and Water Committee, told last Monday’s hearing that the bill is a work in progress.

“We know there needs to be amendments on this bill. We want everyone at the table to discuss what the issues are, and we will go out and do some public meetings on it,” she said.

Sandy Bahr, the Sierrra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter director, testified at the hearing that the water-adequacy issue is of statewide concern, the San Pedro is important to the state’s tourist economy and legislators have a responsibility to protect the river.

“We want to encourage you to take a good hard look at how we plan water,” Bahr said.

“Instead of planning for maximum growth, plan for sustainability. There’s nothing on the table to sustain other rivers besides the Colorado.”

But Bass Aja, Arizona Cattlegrowers Association’s lobbyist, told the committee that if legislators had known in 2007 when they put the strict adequacy requirement into law that a federal agency would use it to shut down growth, it wouldn’t have passed.

Contact reporter Tony Davis at tdavis@tucson.com or 806-7746. On Twitter@tonydavis987