Yuma Stands United Behind Its Ag Industry

2013-05-31 17:28:01

“Yuma really opposes HB 2338,” observed local water attorney Wade Noble as a legislative ad hoc committee meeting held in Yuma Friday wound down.

HB 2338, introduced in the Legislature by House Speaker Andy Tobin, would have established regional water augmentation authorities that could buy and sell water to assist communities facing water shortages. The bill ignited the Yuma community, which saw the legislation as a water grab of the area’s senior rights to Colorado River water. As a result, the controversial bill was held in the House Agriculture and Water Committee by chair Rep. Brenda Barton, and the ad hoc committee was formed to solicit input from the state’s rural areas in hopes of putting together a more palatable solution.

Yuma was the first stop, and its residents overwhelmingly responded to the opportunity to share their thoughts.

It was standing room only for the meeting that packed the Yuma City Council Chambers. For two hours, a wide diversity of Yumans stood united in support of the area’s $3.2 billion agriculture industry that depends on the river’s water, an industry that not only is vital to the local community but to the state and nation as well, they noted.

They also took exception to the assumption that “augmentation” meant transfer of water from one area to another.

And they firmly believe there is no need for more legislation to address the lack of sustainable water many parts of the state face. Several suggested just sitting down and talking through the situation and coming up with solutions through partnerships – and within the framework of existing laws.

“We appreciate your offering the citizens a forum for a face-to-face discussion about an issue that is critical to the community’s survivability … and its contributions to the nation,” said Yuma Mayor Al Krieger, who led off the comments by nearly 3 dozen speakers.

He urged the committee to take a wider view of the issue, noting that in the history of the United States there have been large projects that changed the world. For example, he said, desalination technology is advancing rapidly.

As for conservation, Krieger said Yuma’s farmers set the standard in the world for conserving agriculture’s use of water, but there is a lot of room for improvement by municipalities.

“Agriculture here is a $3 billion industry,” noted Roger Gingrich, city of Yuma water resources coordinator. “That’s no different than the Intel Chip plant in Chandler, and it uses a whole lot of water.”

City Councilman Paul Johnson took exception to the focus on transferring water to thirsty communities rather than considering other solutions. “It’s clear they wouldn’t be augmentation authorities but transfer authorities.”

He also called for transparency in the process, recalling the “middle of the night” deals that left the Owens River Valley in California a dry alkali flat as its water goes to keep the taps running in Los Angeles.

“We really need to shine as much sunshine on the process as we can, so we don’t end up with another Owens River Valley.”

Others spoke passionately about the impact that loss of Yuma’s water would have not only on the area’s agriculture but also its businesses and its future. But the impact would go far beyond Yuma, several said.

It’s also an important economic engine for the state, said Julie Engel, president and CEO of Greater Yuma Economic Development Corp.

But an even greater concern is the impact on food security, she said. “Food grown here is exported all over the world.”

Not to mention food safety.

Restaurant owner Bill Gresser warned of the risks of the nation’s food being grown outside the United States where farmers aren’t subject to the same strict guidelines that American farmers follow to ensure a safe food supply.

“If you take water from its essential use in Yuma, you put the entire nation at risk,” he said.

Mike Ivers, president and CEO of the Yuma Community Food Bank, related the “incredible generosity” of Yuma farmers in sharing their crops with the food bank to help feed needy people here and around the state and nation.

Shelly Tunis, an attorney who represents the Yuma Fresh Vegetable Association, first stressed that “we need to acknowledge the Colorado River is over-allocated and it will only get worse.”

She then urged that any water legislation include three points: Before water is transferred, there needs to be measurable conservation efforts made by the proposed recipient; water transfers don’t necessarily mean the transfer of water rights; and any entity receiving a transfer of water should pay for the impact of its loss on a community.

“I appreciate every one of you as you shared your information … your ideas,” said Barton at the conclusion of the meeting, adding that she is committed to any solution “doing no harm.”

The committee also includes Reps. Frank Pratt from Pinal County and Lisa Otondo and Darin Mitchell, who represent Yuma County.

In addition to Friday’s meeting in Yuma, the group will hold meetings in Sierra Vista on June 14, Flagstaff on June 21, Prescott on June 28 and Payson on July 12, then regroup in Phoenix to go over the input gathered.