March 4, 2021
Kim Mitchell is the senior water policy adviser at Western Resource Advocates and former hydrologist at the Arizona Department of Water Resources. Haley Paul is policy director at the National Audubon Society in Arizona. Both are members of the Water for Arizona Coalition.
Governor Ducey recently signed important legislation that updates how Arizona’s longstanding “use it or lose it” water policy is applied. That’s good news for Arizonans, our economy and the environment. Under the new law, HB2056, water right holders such as ranchers and farmers can intentionally and voluntarily leave their water in a stream without fear of losing their water rights through forfeiture or abandonment. While that may sound commonsense, it’s a significant shift in how our state has approached water rights.
This new law helps clarify longstanding and complex issues around water use in Arizona. Arizona’s forfeiture law provides that in some cases a surface water right may be forfeited after five years of non-use. There has been uncertainty about how and when this law applies, creating risks—or in some cases perceived risk—that a surface water user choosing to conserve water may forfeit valuable water rights. The new law makes it clear that conserving water, as part of an approved conservation plan, doesn’t constitute forfeiture or abandonment.
It might seem counterintuitive that there was ever a policy that potentially discouraged anyone from using less water, but that has been the reality. And that policy may have made sense many years ago, when the scarcity of water in Arizona’s rivers was not the concern it is now.
But today, we have a clearer picture. We know that climate change and aridification are putting pressure on our state’s water supply, and that we need to figure out how to do more with less water. The new law adds a provision aimed at shifting incentives away from “use it or lose it,” and instead gives water users increased flexibility to pursue innovative water conservation measures. It reflects the fact that those who conserve and efficiently use their water should be rewarded, not penalized.