Unclouding Arizona’s Water Future

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Rhett Larson and Brian Payne

A cloud hangs over the future of Arizona’s water. The cloud has hung low and heavy for over forty years. The cloud is the ongoing adjudication of water rights in Arizona’s courts, where the priority, amount, and use of virtually all non-Colorado River water in Arizona remain in dispute. Arizona’s general stream adjudications cost the state, cities, towns, farms, mines, businesses, and citizens millions of dollars each year in legal costs. Those costs pale in comparison to the uncertainty that obscures Arizona’s water future because the cases remain undecided. The last time such a cloud hung over Arizona’s water future, the state enacted one of the most influential and innovative pieces of water law seen in world in last century—the Arizona Groundwater Management Act (GMA). Controversial legislation was recently proposed in the Arizona State Senate that would exempt certain communities from parts of the GMA, facilitating growth and increased groundwater withdrawals in these areas. This Article uses this recent controversy to explore the relationship between the GMA and the general stream adjudications, to explain why it is critical to invest in the efficient and equitable resolution of the adjudications, and propose reforms to Arizona’s water law that have the promise of being Arizona’s next great innovative contribution to water law and policy. These reforms include the creation of a state water escrow and regional water augmentation authorities to facilitate the resolution of Arizona’s water rights disputes and disperse the cloud obscuring an otherwise bright water future.

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