Bruce Babbitt: Tribes need to be involved in water talks

The Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park. (Wendy Howell/WGCN)

The Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park. (Wendy Howell/WGCN)

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt said Arizona’s tribes need to play an important role in protecting the state’s groundwater and dealing with the pending crisis because of the lack of water in the Colorado River.

Babbitt offered his comments during a Zoom meeting hosted by the Citizens Water Advisory Group (CWAG) with about 125 people attending. Babbitt praised the CWAG website for having the best information about the state’s water.


Bruce Babbitt (Submitted photo)

Babbitt, who also served as secretary of the Interior, praised the Gila River Tribe as a model for other tribes as Gila River Tribe came away with 600,000 acre feet in water from negotiations. Babbitt said the negotiation has made the Gila River Tribe an import ant voice with the use of water in Maricopa County.

“I cannot say enough good about them,” he said. “A lot of other tribes have done similar work.”

The Navajo and Hopi tribes remain in negotiation regarding the water rights of the Colorado River.

Babbitt said Arizona governors and legislators of the last 10 years have not protected the state’s groundwater in rural areas as he said it is “shocking” that there is no regulation of any kind on the Big Chino Groundwater Basin. Babbitt said some of the water goes to Prescott, but the rest is wide open for use if it remains unregulated.

“We tend not to worry about the future, but we have a looming potential disaster,” he said.

Babbitt said mega-agriculture farms have impacted some of the places groundwater in southern Arizona comes from. He said one mega-farm in Wilcox is growing 50 square miles of alfalfa and using more water than the city of Tucson. He said another mega-farm in southern Arizona is using a large amount of water and exporting the crops to Saudi Arabia.

“Gov. [Doug] Ducey should stop what started on his watch,” he said. “The Big Chino is a target. Water is there and the climate is good.”

Babbitt said various groups have been telling the governor and legislators to do something to protect groundwater for the past decade, but without any success. He said Kingman has the same problems as the Prescott area with its groundwater. Babbitt said action needs to be taken to give counties a say in the management of the water in their county and the upcoming election is an opportunity to elect officials who will enact groundwater protections.

Babbitt emphasized that if the next session of the legislature doesn’t do anything then citizens need to use the initiative process to bypass them and take the issue to the voters.

“It has worked in the past (with other issues). If this is put on the ballot then the overwhelming majority would say yes,” Babbitt said. “The first priority is to get something out of the governor and legislators, but if not we need to go with an initiative.”

Babbitt said much of the Big Chino is on state land. He said the expectation is the state would protect the groundwater, but he said this hasn’t been the case with the mega-farms in southern Arizona.

“We cannot assume that the state will protect the public interest,” he said.

Babbitt said neither of the gubernatorial candidates has a program of any kind to protect groundwater because it hasn’t been an issue.

“It hasn’t risen to that point,” he said.

Babbitt said if a Rural Management Area, which would give some regulation control to counties, was adopted, the hope is that they would use it to impose some reasonable requirements.

Gary Beverly, who hosted the zoom meeting for CWAG, said the Big Chino is being impacted by population growth, water export and agricultural irrigation.

He said the lack of regulation is a big hole.

Babbitt said agriculture consumes 75 percent of the state’s water. He said agriculture should not be eliminated, but he said if it was reduced by 10 percent then there would be more water for the state.

“That discussion is not happening,” he said.

Babbitt also questioned how much development could be allowed with one developer in Maricopa County building tens of thousands of homes without consideration of water.

“The question is how much can go forward and have a reasonable balance for the future?” Babbitt asked.

The state legislature approved $1 billion this last session for water augmentation, but did not spell out the specifics. One of the proposals is a water desalination plant.

“That will not happen in the near term. That is not a solution. That is a pipe dream,” Babbitt said.

Babbitt said Ducey did not have a plan and thus pushed the $1 billion water augmentation fund without specifics. Babbitt added that a proposed water pipeline from the Missouri River also makes no economic sense.

Reporter Stan Bindell can be reached at

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