Government regulation is often viewed as intrusive and against the pioneering grain of the independent and sulf-sufficient settler, at least as this figure is understood in popular culture.

With a number of farmers drawing great quantities of water from a common source, a different strategy was needed than what prevailed during frontier days when settlers regulated and managed their water supplies. A successful conservation program at this larger scale called for an enlarged regulatory and water management role. Government took up the challenge and intervened, and politics of water conservation emerged.

Government regulation can be tricky business in Arizona. It is often viewed as intrusive and against the pioneering grain of the independent and self-sufficient settler, at least as this figure is understood in popular culture. For example, legislative hearings in 1947 regarding proposed groundwater legislation elicited the following remark from a farmer: "Who is going to tell me what to do and how to do it? If my land is destroyed through lack of water I want to destroy it myself; I don't want you to do it." This defiant statement expresses an attitude to contend with back then and to be considered even now, especially when regulation of natural resources is an issue.

By the early 1940s, various proposals were made in the Arizona Legislature, for studying, writing, and passing a groundwater code. Realizing it was to its benefit, the agricultural sector took a special interest in passage of a groundwater code, with the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation calling for a code as early as 1942. A US Geological Survey (USGS) study of major groundwater basins provided further evidence of the need for legislative action. The agency found in one especially heavily developed area of the state the annual safe-yield was being exceeded by 18 times. Safe yield means a long-term balance between amount of groundwater pumped each year and natural and artificial recharge occurring annually.

Meanwhile groundwater pumping continued apace. Pumping technology advanced after World War II, making it economically feasible to pump water from depths of as much as 500 feet for growing cotton, vegetables and citrus. The result was increase in irrigated acreage, from 768,000 acres in 1945 to 1,279,000 acres in 1953, occurring mostly in areas dependent on groundwater.

Growing concern prompted the Legislature to enact the Arizona Critical Groundwater Code in 1948. The 1948 law, however, was deemed deficient by all concerned, its recognized purpose to slow down the rapid depletion of groundwater, not solve any long-range safe-yield problems. The law sufficiently rankled Representative Murphy of Maricopa County he mixed his metaphors in his displeasure. He said the code was "as weak as restaurant soup and should have been sent from the Senate with crutches."

As expected, the 1948 Code proved ineffective. Enforcement was lax due to budgeting problems, and legal skirmishes ensued. Most troublesome of all, the rate of groundwater withdrawal increased. Studies and recommendations followed, all to no effect. One more effort to pass an effective groundwater code came to naught in 1954 when the Legislature failed to act. For all practical purposes no effective regulation of groundwater pumping was in place until passage of the Groundwater Management Act in 1980. In the meantime, instead of government regulations, short-term economic considerations ruled; pumping costs, not conservation, determined groundwater exploration.

1980 Groundwater Management Act

Concern about groundwater overuse again made the legislative agenda when the Groundwater Management Act (GMA) was passed in 1980. The Arizona Legislature passed the law at the urging - some claim it was in response to a threat - of the federal government. Whatever might have transpired between the two parties, a bargain was struck: the state would take measures to control groundwater use and the federal government would complete the Central Arizona Project. The GMA was the result of political maneuvering, and water conservation became the law of the land. The GMA stands as the cornerstone of water conservation efforts.

With the GMA, serious efforts to conserve groundwater were to be undertaken, backed by the power of the state. The Arizona Department of Water Resources was established; its responsibilities included devising and administering mandatory conservation measures in various areas. Groundwater use in designated areas would be carefully regulated, with management plans outlining specific conservation goals for various classifications of water uses - agricultural, municipal, and industrial. That the state became a major player in determining water use in declining groundwater areas represented a major departure from previous conservation strategies.

The GMA established four Active Management Areas (AMA). AMAs are Phoenix, Tucson, Prescott, and Pinal County. Later in 1994, the Tucson AMA was divided to form Santa Cruz AMA. AMAs contain about 80% of the overdraft occurring in these areas. The primary management goal of the Phoenix, Tucson, and Prescott AMAs, the most populated areas of the state, is to achieve safe-yield by the year 2025.

The AMAs are to accomplish their safe-yield goal by developing and implementing a series of five management plans over time, with the first occurring 1980-1990; second 1990-2000; third 2000-2010; fourth 2010-2020; and fifth 2020-2025. Each management plan is to establish water conservation requirements for different categories of water users. In general, the requirements become progressively more stringent with successive plans as the AMAs progress toward the safe-yield goal. If all goes according to plan, each successive management effort will represent a greater measure of groundwater saved.

Along with putting various types of water users on notice they are obligated to conserve groundwater, the GMA granted generous regulatory powers to the AMAs to ensure water users adhere to water saving management plans. For example, an AMA can set irrigation efficiencies for each farm unit within its jurisdiction.

Residential water use is classified as a municipal water use and represents a significant amount of water. For example, municipal water use in the Tucson and Phoenix AMAs is approximately 40% of total water used within each AMA. Of that percentage, residential water use makes up about 60-64%.

Although the GMA may not be a household term, effects of the act are felt by domestic or residential water users. The act sets conservation requirements that must be met by municipal providers or water utilities, with individual targets set for each municipal provider based on water use patterns within its service area. Municipal water conservation goals are measured as gallons per capita per day (gpcd).

To help meet gpcd goals, water providers encourage customers to practice water conservation. Utilities accomplish this task through various outreach efforts, including public media messages, a plethora of printed materials, education programs, and rebate and retrofit devices offers. Water rate structures and price levels might be altered to increase economic incentive for householders to save water. Unlike income tax laws, for example, the GMA does not impose a legal obligation directly on individual water users or citizens. Instead, conservation goals are set for water providers, who, in turn, encourage consumers to use water wisely.

Unlike the 1948 groundwater code, GMA is believed to be more hearty than restaurant soup and able to stand on its own in many respects. Yet questions have arisen about GMA's effectiveness at promoting water conservation, both in the long view of achieving safe yield and the more immediate task of enforcing water consumers. Various loopholes in the law and Arizona's rapidly growing population may mean trouble ahead, with greater, more frequent water shortages. A recent state auditor general's report cast doubt on the state's ability to achieve safe yield in Phoenix, Tucson, and Prescott AMAs by 2025 as planned.

One of the criticisms of the GMA is it measures water savings by gpcd. In effect, this means the law seeks to decrease the amount of water each person uses, without taking into consideration increases in population. If water consumers each use less water while at the same time total population expands, a net increase in water use could result. At one level water conservation goals might be met, but in the broader view a larger population means more water will ultimately be consumed. Critics ask, "Where then is the water savings?"

Critics also question effectiveness of GMA regulating utilities or water providers as means of promoting water conservation among water consumers or "end users." Utilities are basically in business of providing safe, affordable water and lack the authority to pressure customers to save water. Some critics say regulatory efforts might prove more effective if targeted directly at end users, resulting in greater water savings. The GMA directly regulates water users in agricultural and industrial sectors, and a similar approach could be applied to the municipal sector.