In Arizona, as in all arid regions, water means life. Arizona faces more severe constraints on its water supply than almost any other state in the nation.
When we compare our State’s average annual precipitation of 12.32 inches to the 30.21-inch average experienced by other US states, it is not surprising that the name "Arizona" comes from the Native American word "arizonac," meaning "the place of the small spring."
Astute settlers in the 1860s re-established some of the gravity-powered irrigation canals from the previous generation of Native American tribes to bring water to crops in the large valleys of central Arizona. The settlers constructed new networks along those lines with a similar layout that moves water to this day.
In the late 19th Century, Arizonans experienced storms that transformed normally calm streams into frightening floodwaters. They came to understand more about the patterns of water flowing during different seasons in and away from their communities.
This awareness and their ability to harness the power of water led the way to successful irrigation and canal projects. In 1911, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation completed its first major project in the region, Roosevelt Dam. One of the world's highest masonry dams, this project gave Arizonans the ability to control floods, irrigate, and generate hydroelectric power in many communities.
Areas outside the reach of irrigation canals still needed to rely on groundwater. Parts of Arizona had ample supplies of it, but as demand for irrigated croplands grew, the aquifer depletion occurred. Since the early 1930s, State officials recognized that action was required to control overdraft of Arizona's groundwater basins.
Today, this history continues to impact the agency's mission. Please explore and learn more about the Arizona Department of Water Resources!
Beginning in the 1930s, groundwater pumping in central Arizona increased as a result of higher cotton prices, new pump technologies, and lower energy costs. In certain areas, the increased groundwater pumping resulted in wells going dry and land subsidence, or a gradual sinking of the Earth's surface, occurring. In response to concerns about unregulated groundwater pumping, the Arizona Legislature enacted laws in 1948 prohibiting the drilling of new wells to irrigate lands within ten "critical groundwater areas."
Despite the enactment of the 1948 groundwater laws, groundwater pumping continued to increase in many areas of the State, causing additional groundwater declines and subsidence. Bills were introduced in the Legislature in 1952 and 1953 to impose additional restrictions on groundwater pumping, but those measures failed.
The tipping point came in 1976 with the Arizona Supreme Court’s decision in Farmers Investment Company vs. Bettwy. The high court ruled that a private company of pecan growers could impose a limit on how much groundwater a municipality - in this case, Tucson - and the nearby copper mines could pump. Following this decision, Arizona cities and the mining industry demanded State legislative action.
In response, the Legislature formed a 25-member groundwater management study commission to propose new groundwater laws.
The three primary issues were:
- Who should have the right to pump groundwater and how much?
- What methods should the State consider in reducing groundwater overdraft?
- Should groundwater be managed primarily at the state or local level?
Continuing the path of unregulated groundwater pumping would threaten the state's expanding population and economy by depleting this vital resource and creating additional land subsidence. Farmers proposed that anyone looking to initiate new groundwater pumping should be required to purchase an existing right. An alternative proposal by the mining industry was that each groundwater basin receives a "quantified right" to groundwater. The disagreements among the groups continued.
The cities and mines brought things to a head when they garnered enough support to potentially pass several provisions that were opposed by agriculture representatives. A path to an agreement looked unlikely.
In 1979, Governor Bruce Babbitt and State legislators were at an impasse over how to proceed. Babbitt convinced the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Cecil Andrus, to issue an ultimatum: unless Arizona enacted tough groundwater laws, he would refuse to approve construction of the Central Arizona Project (CAP). Because the allocations were due in 1980 to keep funding of the CAP on track, this ultimatum threatened to delay, and possibly kill the CAP.
After some initial shock, the cities, mines, and agriculture asked Babbitt to mediate the discussions of the study commission. One of the first items agreed to by the study commission was to create the Arizona Department of Water Resources as the State agency empowered to administer and enforce groundwater laws in the State.
On June 12, 1980, Governor Babbitt signed the Groundwater Management Act. For the first time, one state agency was responsible for all water planning and regulation in the State, except for water quality. That duty would be assigned to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. The law designated four areas of the State where groundwater pumping was heaviest as "Active Management Areas," or AMAs.
The Groundwater Management Act generally does not regulate groundwater use in areas outside of AMAs but instead requires only that groundwater be put to reasonable and beneficial use. However, the Act designated two areas (now three) outside of AMAs as irrigation non-expansion areas, where the irrigation of new lands is prohibited. In all areas of the State, the Act requires wells to be registered with ADWR and new wells to be constructed in compliance with ADWR’s well construction standards. The Act also imposes restrictions on transporting groundwater away from groundwater basins.
To address groundwater overdraft in the AMAs, the Act established a management goal for each AMA, which for the Phoenix, Prescott and Tucson AMAs is to attempt to achieve safe-yield by 2025. To assist each AMA in achieving its management goal, the Act requires ADWR to adopt a series of five management plans for each AMA that include mandatory conservation requirements for persons withdrawing, using or distributing groundwater. The Act also requires developers of new subdivisions within AMAs to demonstrate that their subdivisions will have a 100-year assured water supply and that any groundwater use will be consistent with the AMA’s management goal as determined by rules adopted by ADWR.
The Groundwater Management Act was the most anticipated and far-reaching water policy initiative ever undertaken by the State of Arizona. This progressive law created new responsibilities and authority that led to recognition in 1986 by the Ford Foundation for its landmark work in water management.