Groundwater, electric school buses are among the environmental issues at the Legislature

Environmental groups host an event at the State Capitol on Feb. 9, 2022, to talk about issues like groundwater in the 2022 state Legislature.
Environmental groups host an event at the State Capitol on Feb. 9, 2022, to talk about issues like groundwater in the 2022 state Legislature.

A new bill that would allow private utilities to extract water from a rural area west of Phoenix is stirring controversy in the Arizona Legislature this session, with legislators from both parties unsure of how to vote.

It’s one of several environment-related measures on the table, including one proposal that would give kids the opportunity to ride electric school buses and another that would transfer coal ash regulation from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to state environmental regulators.

Environmental activists and elected officials turned their attention to the issues Wednesday at the annual environment day at the Capitol. The day’s program included speeches from the mayors of Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa and a spirit circle by a faith-based environmental group.

Dozens gathered at the Capitol's rose garden to listen to speeches about green legislation, environmental racism and a spiritual approach to the climate crisis.

“It’s easy for most of us to forget that we live in a desert,” said Rep. Judy Schwiebert, D-Phoenix, speaking of the importance of protecting Arizona’s natural resources and water supply.

As the state deals with dwindling water resources and increasing issues related to climate, here are some of the bills legislators are working on at the capitol and which ones environmental activists are keeping their eyes on.

Groundwater

House Bill 2055, sponsored by Rep. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, chairperson of the House Natural Resources, Energy and Water committee, would allow public service corporations to extract water from the Harquahala irrigation non-expansion area, where irrigation restrictions have been in place since 1981.

Cities, counties and municipalities were already allowed to pump water from the district, but haven’t, since the water’s poor quality meant that it would be costly to extract and treat.

Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, said the bill was “tailor-made” for Epcor, a Canada-based utility company that provides water to Arizonans.

The Yuma Water Users Association supports the bill, saying it could alleviate pressure on Colorado River water, which has suffered a historic drought. The association asked Rep. Brian Fernandez, D-Yuma, to vote for the bill, although he said he remains undecided.

Environmental activists have strongly opposed the bill, and even some of Griffin’s own party members have raised concerns, saying the measure creates winners and losers.

“We have never thought that it was a good idea to create these groundwater sacrifices zones,” Sandy Bahr, president of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter, said. “We should be looking more at conservation and living within our means and not basically allowing massive groundwater pumping in some area to feed more development in another area.”

The Arizona Corporation Commission, which regulates Epcor, recently allowed the utility company to charge Arizona customers the same water rate. Since Harquahala water is expensive to extract and treat, some Republicans are concerned that everyone’s water rates will go up.

In a caucus hearing Tuesday, several of Griffin’s Republican colleagues called for a larger conversation on water.

“This is a savings account, and we’re in a drought,” said Rep. Tim Dunn, R-Yuma. “Is this something we use to augment and offset water the CAP’s not going to be able to deliver? Or should this be used for the … ongoing 100-year supply of water to actually just have new growth that Buckeye’s looking at and other cities are looking at?”

The Central Arizona Project Canal delivers Colorado River water to Phoenix, Tucson and Pinal County.

Another bill, HB2661, seeks to find a middle ground in the regulation of groundwater resources. It’s sponsored by Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, whose district has seen an increase in groundwater pumping in recent years.

The bill would create a “rural management area,” less stringent in regulation than existing active management areas, which have specific guidelines for places like Phoenix, Tucson and Prescott, but a step up from the scant regulation some of the basins in her district have received.

“There's no other tools,” Cobb said. “Our area and most of rural Arizona does not want to go into an active management area, because it is pretty extensive regulation.”

Groundwater is pumped into a canal south of Salome. The water is used to irrigate crops on lands farmed by LKH Farming.
Groundwater is pumped into a canal south of Salome. The water is used to irrigate crops on lands farmed by LKH Farming.

Mohave County had applied twice to the Department of Water Resources for an irrigation non-expansion area designation, but it was denied both times. The department determined that the basin had sufficient groundwater for irrigation at the time, even though many local officials feared it might not in the future.

“We cannot assume that because today something's not at risk, tomorrow it’s not going to be,” Cobb said. “We're in a drought and we know that there are going to be basins at risk. We are already seeing that. We've seen wells go dry. We've seen subsidence. We've seen lots of different factors that show that we are going to have groundwater problems in rural Arizona.”

The bill is basin-specific and would allow the county’s supervisors to form a committee of community members to plan how to mitigate the risk for a basin or sub-basin. Cobb said the plan could include a range of options, including limiting the amount of water people are allowed to pump, and would then be submitted to the Department of Water Resources to approve or disapprove.

But Cobb’s bill hasn’t been assigned to a committee yet, let alone had a hearing. She said the bill, which she’s proposed every year for the past five years, is assigned to Griffin’s committee, but it hasn't been heard because Griffin doesn’t support the idea.

Electric vehicle infrastructure

SB1246, sponsored by Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, would make it easier for school districts to move toward electric buses. The bill would create a vetted list of electric school bus vendors for schools to choose from. It would also potentially provide funds for schools to purchase electric buses and related infrastructure.

Boyer emphasized the bill doesn’t mandate schools to switch to electric buses. The state will apply for some of the $5 billion the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed in November last year, is offering in grants for zero-emission and low-carbon school buses.

“If we can compete for these grants, and the money's already been appropriated by the federal government, then Arizona should be in a position where we can create a cleaner environment for our students, but also to mitigate some of the costs that districts are already paying for on buses," Boyer said.

Chispa Arizona, a Latino environmental group, has been active in campaigning for electric school buses, pointing out the high rates of asthma in Latino and Black communities. Vianey Olivarría, Chispa Arizona’s co-director, said the group supports Boyer’s bill but still has questions about which districts will get the buses and if the vendors are labor-friendly or not.

“For us it was a conversation, especially since this keeps happening in the environmental space, to center equally and to center the communities most impacted by climate change,” she said. “And those are Black, brown communities, Indigenous communities, low-income families.”

The bill currently states that 25% of grants should be awarded to rural and remote proposals.

Valley Metro tested battery electric buses in Tempe in summer 2020.
Valley Metro tested battery electric buses in Tempe in summer 2020.

Sen. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, has introduced a slate of bills related to electric vehicle infrastructure, including SB1150, SB1151, SB1152 and SB1154. These bills would create pilot programs for electric vehicle chargers and create a study committee to look at electrifying transportation.

Steele said the most important bill is SB1152, which would require the state to create a plan for electric vehicle infrastructure and charging network expansion. That’s because the infrastructure bill allocated $76 million in funds to Arizona. The state can also apply for up to another $2.5 billion in grants.

But the $76 million comes with strings: The state must submit a plan to the U.S. Department of Transportation describing what it would do with those funds.

"The reality is there are possibly hundreds of millions of dollars in free money available to Arizona and all we have to do is have a plan for what to do with it,” she said. “You don't want to look this gift horse in the mouth.”

Both the pilot program bills would require $500,000 for two years, which would initially be paid for with the general fund and then the federal infrastructure act funds if approved. SB1151 would allow state agencies to apply for electric vehicle charging stations, particularly in areas where Arizonans spend extended periods of time, like state parks, museums and the motor vehicle department. SB1150 would offer grants for people to retrofit their homes for electric vehicle charging.

Arizona state Sen. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, stands outside an Environment Day event at the State Capitol on Feb. 9, 2022.
Arizona state Sen. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, stands outside an Environment Day event at the State Capitol on Feb. 9, 2022.

Steele said she has tried to get this legislation passed for years, but it looks promising this year because of the funding from the federal infrastructure act and trust-building with Republicans. She said she first introduced the legislation after receiving a call from an insistent youth activist.

“He was just demanding to know what my solution was going to be,” she said. “I was trying to explain to him, ‘Look, I'm only a Democrat, I don't have the power and I don’t think I can get any of that done.’ And I started going through trying to explain to him why I wasn't going to do anything. And I just realized how hollow those words sounded. And that even if it wasn't going to pass, I had to try something.”

Arizona Department of Environmental Quality

HB2053 would continue funding the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, the state’s main agency for managing environmental hazards, like water quality and air pollution.

The department received a poor performance audit in September last year, when the Arizona Auditor General found that the agency had been out of compliance for between seven and 29 years by not setting standards for eight groundwater pollutants.

“Department has not developed all required aquifer water quality standards, conducted key ongoing groundwater monitoring of the State’s aquifers, monitored for agricultural pesticides in groundwater and surrounding soil, or reduced the number of impaired surface waters in the State, limiting its ability to keep these waters safe from pollution,” the audit stated.

The bill is moving onto the Arizona Senate, after passing the House 54-4. Bahr said she wished the Legislature had given the department deadlines to meet certain standards.

“We didn't oppose continuing DEQ, but we specifically asked for the legislature to hold them accountable on these programs where they got poor review in their performance audit,” she said. “Their performance audit, relative to water quality, was poor, and so we thought that if you're going to continue the agency for eight years, which obviously we want the agency to continue, how about actually requiring it to do its job.”

The department had also asked to regulate disposal of coal combustion residuals, outlined in HB2411, instead of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Residuals are produced by burning coal in power plants and contain pollutants like mercury, cadmium and arsenic that can taint water supplies and air if not disposed of properly.

The Republic has previously reported that state officials had been communicating with utility companies for months about a state-run coal residual program. Environmental advocacy groups fear that ceding control from the EPA means lower standards and less enforcement.

In a third hearing, Rep. Andrés Cano, D-Tucson, urged legislators to vote against the bill given the department’s performance audit.

“It is clear that while the folks at the agency are doing good work, they are not following state law,” he said. “Perhaps ADEQ should update its arsenic standard and fix the numerous other issues the auditor general identified before taking on a new program.”

The bill made it to the Senate on Feb. 3 after narrowly passing the house, 31-28.

While activists have campaigned for and against several groundwater, electric vehicle and climate change bills, they have also warned that the slate of anti-voting bills in the legislature is critical for environmental protection.

“I just really think it's important to note that those issues really aren't separate,” said Bahr of the Sierra Club. “Having a healthy environment is dependent on having a healthy democracy, and a lot of these bills aim to ensure that we don't have either.”

Zayna Syed is an environmental reporter for The Arizona Republic/azcentral. Follow her reporting on Twitter at @zaynasyed_ and send tips or other information about stories to zayna.syed@arizonarepublic.com.

Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona Legislature addresses groundwater rules, school buses