The door may be opening a little wider for water raids on rural Arizona by the big cities. And the threat comes from one of the least likely sources--a state senator-elect who hasn't even taken office yet. Carol Springer, a Prescott Republican, announced December 13 she would introduce legislation to abolish the Prescott Active Management Area, one of four state-mandated districts (commonly called AMAs) that regulate and protect groundwater. After an insurrection by local officials against her plan on January 3, Springer is backing down--at least temporarily. She says, however, she wants to "clear up misconceptions" and introduce the legislation later this year.

The state Senate will be in Democratic hands this session, and Springer's bill isn't being given much chance of passageMDRV. But the bill is causing jitters in the Prescott area. Springer's action is a complete reversal from the water policy advocated by most Prescott officials. Outgoing Senator John Hays introduced legislation the past two years to expand protection of the mile-high city's water supply.

Some Prescott officials have been left with the impression a deal was cut between Springer and veteran Prescott gadfly Sam Steiger, who backed her successful campaign to oust Hays.

"This is pretty much pure Steiger," says former Prescott Mayor Jerri Wagner. "It has his fingerprints all over it."

Wagner says she believes Steiger wants the legislation passed so he can broker the water to big cities. As mayor, Wagner was approached by Steiger on two separate deals in 1986 to sell water to the city. Steiger was also trying to peddle Prescott-area water to Phoenix and Scottsdale during that time. Additionally, Steiger was involved in promoting the American Water Exchange, a group that tried to form a stock market for private water interests in 1986.

Steiger acknowledges that he has advised Springer in the past, but he says he didn't talk to her about the proposed bill until after she announced that she would introduce it. "As far as the theory that Steiger and Springer are going to pull a fast one on some water deal, that's just bullshit," Steiger says emphatically. "I'm not even working on any water deals."

But Steiger still is a strong supporter of water deals. State restrictions such as gallon-per-day limits are strangling the area's growth potential, Steiger says, and are not realistic. He says Prescott should take care of its own "destiny" by taking back control of its water supplies. He adds: "And then they wouldn't have to rely on some arbitrary son of a bitch from the state."

Springer concedes she values Steiger's advice on water issues, but says she was spurred to action by shortsighted regulations that could cripple Prescott's resources. "We have plenty of water, but because of the rules Prescott is considering spending $75 million [to import water to Prescott]," Springer says. "That's outrageous." The $75 million is Springer's cost estimate of Prescott's buying a water farm, building the necessary wells and pipeline, and pumping the water forty miles south.

But local officials are more concerned that lifting the state restrictions could cause a free-for-all water battle in the tricity area of Prescott, Prescott Valley, and Chino Valley. All three communities are looking for additional water supplies to ensure future growth. Chino Valley and Prescott are already embroiled in a bitter lawsuit concerning Prescott's pumping water from Chino Valley wells. Additionally, they fear that water-hungry cities in metropolitan Phoenix could also raid the Prescott area's water supplies if the AMA designation is lifted.

Springer says there is no threat of water raids and contends the AMA gives only the "perception of protection."

Officials from all three Prescott-area communities have vented their displeasure at Springer's proposal. "We need the protection at this point of an AMA," says Prescott City Manager Terry Reynolds. "It's not in our interest to abolish it until there's something else in place."

State water officials say they are concerned that if the restrictions are lifted, unscrupulous developers could create subdivisions without a guaranteed future water supply. Under AMA rules under the state Groundwater Code, developers have to prove an assured 100-year water supply.

"We have a number of examples in the Prescott area that preceded the code, and every summer they have a water shortage," says Bill Plummer, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. Diamond Valley, a product of the infamous land-scam artist Ned Warren, has needed emergency water for the last five years. At state water hearings last year, residents of the subdivision asked for state aid to correct the problem. Other communities such as Holiday Hills and Ponderosa Park, southeast of Prescott, had to have water trucked in.

Plummer says his department will steer clear of this water war and make no recommendation on whether the AMA should be scrapped.

Democratic state Senator Gus Arzberger, who would hear the bill as incoming chairperson of the Natural Resources and Agriculture Committee, doesn't think there's much chance Springer's bill will pass. "Not a chance in the world," says Arzberger, a farmer and rancher from Willcox. "We hesitate to tinker with the 1980 Groundwater Act. We'd probably start World War III if we started changing it."

Water lobbyist Roger Manning predicts that Springer's bill "will never fly," but he does acknowledge that his group, the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association, wants to tinker with the Groundwater Act.

Manning says his group, which consists only of Valley cities, will again introduce legislation to create regional water authorities. Manning says that there is growing resentment among cities that the Groundwater Code is too restrictive, but that the proposed legislation wouldn't emasculate it.

Steiger says Prescott should take care of its own "destiny" by taking back control of its water.