Bill Seeks $6.1 Million and More Hydrologists for Arizona Department of Water Resources

Water is precious in Arizona, but the department charged with managing it has long been underfunded and understaffed.
Water is precious in Arizona, but the department charged with managing it has long been underfunded and understaffed. Elizabeth Whitman
A bill in the Arizona Legislature seeks to allocate an extra $6.1 million to the under-resourced Arizona Department of Water Resources so it can hire more employees, including scientists.

The bill was pre-filed on December 31, 2019, by Democratic State Representative Rosanna Gabaldón, whose District 2 covers parts of Pima and Santa Cruz counties, not far from areas like the Willcox Basin that suffer from dropping levels of groundwater.

The suggested $6.1 million would come from the state's general fund, coming on top of other appropriations eventually allocated to the Department of Water Resources for the 2020-2021 fiscal year.

The money would be used "to hire additional hydrologists, groundwater flow modelers, and support staff members," the bill says. It does not specify how many.

In a phone interview, Gabaldón said she would leave those specifics "in the good hands of ADWR." The proposed amount of $6.1 million did not come from ADWR but grew out of discussions with her staff, she said.

As for which other agency might lose out if $6.1 million were allocated to ADWR: "It cannot be determined at this point," Gabaldón said. "The budget process is something that we go through as a body."

Doug MacEachern, a spokesperson for ADWR, declined to comment for this story, citing department policy of not commenting on matters related to appropriations.

The Department of Water Resources is a vital agency in arid Arizona, but it remains underfunded and understaffed a decade after the 2008 recession led to dramatic cuts in the number of employees. Today, staff levels have rebounded to roughly two-thirds of pre-recession levels, with 146 employees as of June 30.

The dearth of resources has affected the department's capacity to manage Arizona's critical water supplies. A year ago, the state auditor general found that the department was 10 years behind in crucial aspects of its groundwater management plans, in part because it was gutted after the recession.

ADWR also had to divert resources to several years of contentious negotiations over the Drought Contingency Plan, which spelled out shared cutbacks to Colorado River water during times of shortage.

Earlier this year, revised projections from the department showed that Pinal County lacked sufficient groundwater to meet legal requirements for subdivisions to have an assured water supply for the next 100 years. The new numbers, which contradicted previous projections from the department, came after it updated its groundwater model.

Gabaldón said her bill would bolster a related bill, not yet filed, that is expected to bump more resources into Arizona's two general stream adjudications — which are complex proceedings to define water rights in a river system — for the Gila River and Little Colorado River. They began in the 1970s, nearly half a century ago, and they continue to this day.

The department maintains a vast database of information related to the adjudications. Last year, it developed reports and maps, conducted field investigations, and provided expert testimony.

"They do a lot of the background work," said State Representative Kirsten Engel, a Democrat who represents Tucson, of ADWR's role in the general stream adjudications. "Fully staffing [ADWR] would really help the state.”

Engel called Gabaldón's bill "very much needed." But even with the additional funding, the department would likely still be understaffed, she added.

It's not clear what levels of staffing and funding would be adequate for the department. References to its lack of resources typically point to staffing and budget levels before the 2008 recession, but that was a different time for Arizona water.

"I think you could argue that the needs in the water area have only increased," Engel said, citing the Drought Contingency Plan, another round of Colorado River negotiations slated to open this year, and groundwater management planning.

Republican State Representative David Cook, who represents Pinal County, said he could not support the bill as written, calling it "throwing money at a problem that doesn't exist."

Based on his conversations with ADWR Director Tom Buschatzke, Cook said, he believed that the department needed to be able to pay current employees more and retain them — not just hire more staff.

"We’re training [and] educating ... these people, and then they leave for high-paying jobs" elsewhere, like the Central Arizona Project or the Salt River Project, Cook added.
A spokesperson for the House Republican caucus, which holds the majority in the chamber, did not respond to an email and a phone call requesting comment.

General fund appropriations for the department have changed little in recent years, and the most recent budget request from ADWR suggests that pattern will continue.

ADWR received about $16 million from the general fund in fiscal year 2019. Last year, it was allocated $66.9 million from the fund, but the majority of that funding was designated for $50 million in loans and funding related to the Drought Contingency Plan. Still, $540,000 was allocated last year for "additional staff." 

In its budget request submitted to the governor in September, ADWR asked for just under $16.7 million from the general fund in the upcoming fiscal year.

Its overall budget has increased slightly since 2016, according to the department's 2019 annual report, rising from under $16 million four years ago to just under $20 million in 2019.

Gabaldón said her idea for the bill was in part inspired by a meeting earlier this year of the ad hoc committee on groundwater in Pinal County, on which she served.

She had been disappointed to discover that the person working on Pinal County, despite "doing his best," she said delicately, "wasn't up to speed." 

Asked for comment on the bill, Patrick Ptak, a spokesperson for the governor's office, said it was being reviewed ahead of plans to release the full details of the governor's budget next week.

Repeating a common refrain from Ducey on water policy, Ptak added, "We are going to continue to have a focus on conservation and securing our water future."
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Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.