Legislators looking to stop extinguishment phase-out for farmers

FASTBy Melissa St. Aude | Casa Grande Dispatch

A plan to strip Arizona farmers of extinguishment credits might be stopped by legislation.

Sen. Barbara McGuire, D-Kearny, and Rep. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, have introduced nearly identical bills that would prevent the Arizona Department of Water Resources from implementing a rule that would systematically phase out agricultural extinguishment credits in the Pinal Active Management Area.

“I want to see an outright repeal of the rule so that people aren’t living in fear and uncertainty,” Smith said in an interview this week with the Dispatch.

Extinguishment credits represent groundwater that may be withdrawn without the requirement to replenish. They do not affect the ability to farm and may be sold to developers when the farm land is retired. The credits can then be used to obtain a 100- year water supply certification required by law for developers.

In an effort to protect limited groundwater supplies and encourage developers to use other water sources, ADWR had planned to begin its credit elimination schedule this year.

Farmer credits would have begun to decline gradually each year until 2054, when they would hit zero and cease to exist.

Area residents protested the phase out, arguing it would negatively affect farmers and Pinal County’s agricultural economy.

Smith said the rule amounts to the state “stealing landowner rights.”

He began working on legislation to stop the ruling several months ago.

ADWR eventually agreed to delay implementation of the phase out, and the

15-member Pinal Local Water Group was formed late last year to evaluate the rule and consider alternatives.

Michelle Moreno, spokeswoman for ADWR, said since the group is only a few months into its work, the legislation is premature.

“We would like to allow the local water group time to come up with an alternative,” she said.

“The whole point to the committee was to get community members together to discuss options.”

But Smith said the delay creates market uncertainty.

“It’s just kicking the can down the road,” he said.

He has the support of some members of the local water group, he said, and he hopes to see it pass a resolution in support of his legislation.

“We want them on board,” he said.

McGuire said that since the Pinal Local Water Group was formed last year, she has seen little progress.

“I could not sit by and watch farming dry up and blow away in Pinal County nor the taking of water credits without just compensation,” she said in a Dispatch interview.

McGuire believes farmers are the best stewards of the land.

“Farming has been a way of life in the area for decades, as long as I can remember, and it needs to be there for future generations to come,” McGuire said.

At a Tuesday meeting of the Pinal Local Water Group, member Rodney Shedd, an area farmer and co-founder of the agricultural advocacy group Farmers Against State Takings (FAST), told the group he approved of both versions of the bill.

“Both are pretty similar,” he said.

Farmers Against State Takings formed last year to attempt to stop ADWR’s extinguishment credit elimination plan.

Shedd said the group always hoped legislation would be written to nullify the rule.

“It’s been our position all along that this couldn’t be done without going through the Legislature,” Shedd said at the water group meeting.

Should the legislation pass, Moreno said the community would need to consider ways to protect the aquifer and limited groundwater supplies.

“The whole reason for the reduction in credits is to protect the aquifer,” Moreno said.

Senate Bill 1166 was introduced by McGuire on Jan. 23 and assigned to committee.

Its second reading was Jan. 27.

House Bill 2516 was introduced by Smith on Jan. 30 and assigned to committee. Its second reading was on Feb.3.

Note: Rose Law Group represents FAST

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