It's going to be a lot harder for Arizona to meet a state deadline to stop overpumping groundwater, due to deep budget cuts for the state's water agency, water officials in Tucson say.

The Arizona Department of Water Resources took a 58 percent hit - the third-largest of any state agency - for fiscal 2010-11.

The state faces a 2025 deadline, set by a 1980 law, to reach safe yield in its groundwater use. Safe yield means not pumping more water than what is returned to the ground by recharge of rainfall and treated sewage effluent.

Scientists have warned that overpumping of groundwater leads to sinking of the ground, or subsidence, followed by fissures in the earth. They say that water quality deteriorates as wells sink deeper into the ground to pump.

"Arizona had the flagship groundwater regulatory law in the country, and we have essentially gutted the system," said Steve Weatherspoon, a longtime private water attorney in Tucson who represents Nogales and the Tohono O'odham Nation on water issues.

The state won't return to the days of the 1970s before it had water rules, "but we can stall right here where we are at," said John Mawhinney, a former state senator who helped draft the 1980 law and who now chairs an advisory council to the state water department's Tucson office. It has closed, as will all five regional department offices, due to the budget cuts.

Department Director Herb Guenther, however, said the state won't meet the 2025 deadline with or without staff cuts because it lacks money to buy out water rights owned by farms. The groundwater law gave the state authority to start doing that as early as 2006. Agriculture uses 74 percent of Arizona's water supplies.

Guenther said he thinks Republican Gov. Jan Brewer and her staff not only wanted to cut government spending, but to make the water department "more business-friendly, with less regulation and less harassment. . . . Early on in the administration, their message was very clear: We need to be business-friendly; we want to invite industry into this state," added Guenther, who was appointed by ex-Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat.

The Legislature gave the department authority to raise $5.6 million in permit fees to make up some of the difference. But the department forecasts that in the current economic climate, the authorized fees will raise $2 million.

Paul Senseman, Brewer's spokesman, said the spending cuts were needed because of record budget deficits that forced Brewer to focus on core functions of education, health care and prisons.

"Living within our means as a state certainly creates requirements by nearly every agency to make reductions and streamline operations," he said.

He didn't respond to questions about whether the cuts were motivated by a desire to loosen regulations.

Rep. Vic Williams, a Tucson Republican who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, said, "I understand how important our water-resources office is to Southern Arizona, . . . but to put it in front of public safety or the K-12 system, I don't think I'd be willing to do that."

Weatherspoon, Mawhinney and former water department official Michael McNulty said the department cuts will hurt in these ways:

• The state agency's Tucson Active Management Area office has until now set water-use limits for cities, golf courses and industries. Now those limits will be set by Phoenix officials, less sensitive to Tucson concerns because the Tucson office has closed.

• The state already is two years behind and will be further delayed in updating its long-term strategy to meet the 2025 goal for the Tucson area.

• With a smaller staff, the state's regulatory efforts will suffer, making it easier for users to avoid cutting back or to escape the brunt of a requirement that a new development prove a 100-year assured water supply.

• Conversely, the Tucson office's shutdown will make life harder for the private sector. When developers need permits to sink wells or otherwise use water, they'll have to go to Phoenix now, creating "a drag on economic development and revitalization of Southern Arizona that will result from inadequate and delayed accessibility," Sarah Evans, chair of Tucson's water advisory committee, wrote in a letter to Guenther.

Longer waits for permits won't be a problem in today's bad development climate, but when growth returns, "I think things will get pretty hot" with the development community, said McNulty, a Tucson attorney who has represented developers and ran the water agency's Tucson office from 1981 to 1984.

Guenther, however, said the department is prepared to move staffers around, if necessary, to meet demands from developers for permits. The department's plans will still recognize regional differences and be in line with community standards, even though they're set in Phoenix, he said.

But Guenther expects statewide water planning to suffer from budget cuts.

"That's our most important function, to make sure that we are looking for future water supplies, using nothing but renewable supplies as opposed to mining groundwater," he said.


Contact reporter Tony Davis at tdavis@azstarnet or 806-7746; follow him on Twitter at tonydavis987