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Rep. Tobin not giving up on water authority bill

PHOENIX -- A proposal that would allow the creation of new agencies to secure new regional water supplies is stalled in the Arizona House, but Speaker Andy Tobin says he's not convinced opposition from Yuma farmers means the bill won't move this year.

Tobin's ambitious attempt to jump-start the effort to secure more water supplies ran into a buzz saw of opposition from ranchers and Yuma-area farmers at a committee hearing last month, with farmers in particular arguing they were worried their Colorado River water supplies were being targeted, primarily to benefit northern Arizona communities near Tobin's home. The bill was held in committee, a sure sign it faced a nearly impossible climb to passage.

But Tobin, a Republican from Yavapai County who crafted the bill to create new "water augmentation authorities" after the completion of a two-year study of Arizona's projected water shortfalls, says kicking the can down the road will just make the challenges greater.

He made an impassioned presentation to the agriculture and water committee on Feb. 19, outlining what he called the dire prospects for huge future water shortfalls, the estimated $3 billion cost of new infrastructure to move water where it's needed in Arizona, and his arguments for starting the effort now. He acknowledged the quickly appearing opposition, and offered to radically change the bill to cut out Yuma if the region wanted out, after laying out the history of water in the state.

"No bill's perfect," he concluded. "We have an opportunity here to move a bill forward. I was asked to hold the bill. Again, controversy usually requires that. Let's hold it, let's wait till it gets better. If I held the bill we wouldn't be having all these people here. I'm glad they're here.

"And if it's not this bill and it's not the fixes to the bill then where's the fix?"

But committee members then heard from farmers and ranchers, and their representatives, all voicing fear that Tobin's bill really was an effort to buy up southern Arizona farmers' share of Colorado River and use it to bolster northern Arizona's supplies.

"All the constituents I have talked to oppose it they see it as a direct threat to Yuma's economic viability," said Russ Clark, a Yuma County supervisor. "To me, augment means transfer what that says to me is someone is going to take water from someone else."

Tobin's bill allows private entities to team up with public agencies to create public authorities that can make deals to buy and move water and obtain financing for projects such as pipelines and reservoirs. The authorities would have the power to condemn land for public use and could tap money from a state fund that would get $30 million a year in state funding.

Many see the bill as a gift to northern Arizona cities like Prescott, which have long-term water deficits which will limit growth. But they also cite a lack of accountability, oversight and what appears to be extensive power of the augmentation authorities, which would not be overseen by an elected board.

"Tribes, developers, can go anywhere in Arizona and set up shop as one of these entities," Andy Groseta, a Cottonwood rancher and president of the Arizona Cattle Grower's Association, said in testimony against the bill last month. "Diminishing one area's supply to augment another is not augmentation. We call it something else."

The Yuma Sun reported Friday that Herb Guenther, a former Arizona Department of Water Resources director and a respected voice in state water policy, said he's spoken with Tobin and was told the speaker won't push the bill this legislative session. Instead he'll meet with opponents and try to craft a deal.

"My job is to bring compromise," Guenther told the Sun. "I'm confident a more acceptable bill will be drafted."

Tobin said Friday he's committed to making changes to the bill, but not to waiting until next year.

"I'm not putting a time frame on it. If Herb comes to the table and says 'here's three or four things that will make this thing perfect,' why wait until January?" Tobin said. "There's no reason to put a deadline on good public policy if there's something there."

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