Arizona promised to invest a billion dollars in water, then pulled part of it back

So much for that billion-dollar investment.

Last year, lawmakers said Arizona needed an independent board to choose water projects. This year, it wants to dictate more of which get cash.

© David Wallace/The Republic
Last year, lawmakers said Arizona needed an independent board to choose water projects. This year, it wants to dictate more of which get cash.

Lawmakers last year heavily touted the cash they were putting behind efforts to find new sources of water and conserve existing ones.


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They agreed to split a billion dollars over three years — the majority of which was earmarked to import water from somewhere else — and passed legislation to radically beef up the Water Infrastructure Finance Authority of Arizona (WIFA) to dole out the cash.

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Now, the newly signed state budget reduces that funding to about $189 million.

Or nearly $144 million short of the $333 million that was expected.

WIFA needs certainty to make loans

Without that investment, it’s unlikely that lawmakers will have enough to make up the full billion next year, given how much less cash is projected to be lying around then.

And that could prove problematic for WIFA, which needs certainty in funding to make loans over time.

That is, after all, how lawmakers wanted the bulk of the cash to be handed out, particularly for the larger projects that WIFA is supposed to accelerate.

Another view: This water fight could get aggressive. And ugly

Some now quietly argue that Arizona should spend more cash on in-state projects, not pile it up for some elusive water source elsewhere.

I’ve long said as much, and that more of the cash should be doled out as grants, particularly for projects that could make cash-strapped rural areas more sustainable.

But if that’s the case, why not just offer more flexibility for how the money can be doled out?

Lawmakers want their own water projects

Instead, next year’s budget contains carve-outs for a slew of local projects, including:

  • nearly $40 million for Gilbert and Peoria to drill new wells,
  • $25 million to help settle a dispute between farmers and the Ak-Chin Indian Community that rely on the Santa Rosa canal,
  • $20 million to reconstruct a levee in Winslow,
  • $11 million to accelerate projects that desalinate brackish groundwater,
  • $3.4 million to build a water recharge basin in Mohave County, and
  • $810,000 for irrigation and xeriscape improvements in Glendale.

It’s certainly within the Legislature’s purview to fund them.

But just last year, our elected leaders argued that Arizona needed an independent board to ensure that taxpayer-funded projects can save or create as much water as advertised, among other things.

Now, they are giving that board less money and funneling cash toward their own favored ideas, which won’t have anywhere near that level of accountability attached.

Was expanding WIFA all a ruse?

I know. Some argue that last year’s exercise was all just a ruse concocted by former Gov. Doug Ducey’s administration to funnel cash toward his favored ocean desalination project in Mexico.

State leaders pressured the newly expanded board to consider said proposal just before Ducey left office, even though the project lacked key details.

WIFA had not yet spelled out how it would handle projects like this. Nor had it hired an executive director or key staff to begin doing the work the Legislature told it to do.

In the end, the board rejected IDE’s proposed term sheet and voted simply to keep talking with the group on its proposed desalination project.

IDE has not yet funneled additional information to WIFA staff for review. It’s generally been radio silence ever since.

If Arizona is stepping back, explain why

But WIFA, to its credit, has worked hard to regain the trust needlessly lost in that short-lived mess.

It has focused on transparency and policymaking, spelling out how it intends to evaluate projects.

Plans are taking shape to determine how much additional water the state might need and where — basic information Arizona has long been missing to make educated decisions about new supplies.

Meanwhile, the agency is prioritizing water conservation, hoping to earn some quick and positive wins this summer under that program, which the Legislature also seeded with $200 million last session.

Perhaps lawmakers now want to focus on local projects and see what kind of projects apply to WIFA before handing it more cash.

But if so, that’s an about-face from last year, when our leaders argued a beefed-up agency was necessary to coalesce and catalyze water projects with regional or statewide impact.

The change at least deserves a public explanation.

Reach Allhands at On Twitter: @joannaallhands.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona promised to invest a billion dollars in water, then pulled part of it back

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