PHOENIX - The Arizona Legislature advanced bills Wednesday creating a $100 million fund to respond to a wildfire emergency after hearing dire warnings from state officials and praise from worried leaders of rural counties and cities amid a brewing fight on the role of climate change in driving blazes and drought.
The votes were nearly unanimous after a joint session of Arizona House and Senate committees that hear natural resources bills, with only one Democrat opposing the appropriation because it did not do anything to address climate change.
The Legislature is meeting in a special session called by Gov. Doug Ducey to quickly boost funding for firefighting and recovery efforts as the state is in the midst of a historic drought and fires have been ravaging the state. The House and Senate are expected to overwhelmingly approve the legislation Thursday, even as lawmakers remain split on an overall spending plan that contains a massive tax cut.
Firefighters reportedly faced water shortage while fighting fires
It took about four and a half hours, but ultimately, the House and Senate Natural Resources Committees voted to advance a fire suppression bill.
The $100 million bill aims to help fight devastating wildfires in Arizona, and fund resources to clear hazardous brush, but during the special session, a hot-button issue – Climate Change – was addressed and debated on.
John Truett, the top fire official in state Department of Forestry and Fire Management, said firefighters have been dealing with critical fire weather for the past several weeks and that situation is only getting worse with this week’s heat wave and a growing number of lightning strikes.
Several major fires are burning in the state, and the region is so hot that some large aerial tankers can’t fly and helicopters are having trouble finding places where they can pick up water to drop on the flames, Truett said.
"Lake San Carlos is so low that we couldn’t take out of that," Truett said. "A lot of the (water) tanks are out, and some of the ranchers with their tanks, they’re dry, and even if there is water we’re not taking those because we’re going to leave those for the cattle."
Throughout Thursday’s four-hour hearing, Democrats brought up climate change as the driving force, but the stage was set when Forestry and Fire Management Director David Tenney declined to be drawn into that debate.
"There’s people with strong feelings on both sides of that issue and there’s even probably more than two sides," he said after Democratic Sen. Kirsten Engel asked him to address "the elephant in the room."
"What I can assure you is that we recognize at our agency that, whether it’s man caused or nature, not a lot we can do about it," Tenney said. "Bottom line is we’re in the middle of a really bad drought and things are drier than we’ve ever seen them. So, conditions have changed."
"Upstream of this challenge in this fight is climate change. Just the reality of this situation," said State Rep. Aaron Lieberman (D). The lawmaker represents Legislative District 28, which covers a portion of Phoenix and Scottsdale.
State Rep. Lieberman tweeted a photo of Arizona's Fire Management Officer, John Truett, speaking with the State Legislature. State Rep. Lieberman said Truett told lawmakers that they can't send helicopters to scoop water out of some lakes, because the water levels are too low.
"Of course there's a Climate Change. That's what happens to the Earth. Thank the Lord. Happens every year. Climate Change happens every decade, happens every century, millennium," said State Sen. David Gowan (R). State Sen. Gowan represents Legislative District 14, which covers all of Cochise and Greenlee Counties in Southeastern Arizona, as well as portions of Pima and Graham Counties.
"Fire is a natural process. What is unnatural are our irresponsible activities that only fuel fires to be worse than they would have been on their own, and that's what we should have called a special session for, not just this," said State Sen. Juan Mendez (D). State Sen. Mendez represents Legislative District 26, which covers portions of the East Valley.
The $100 million includes $25 million this budget year to pay for 720 state prisoners to clear brush and other flammable material under direction of state forestry officials and some contract clearing operations. Ducey proposed that spending in his January budget plan. There’s also $75 million for firefighting efforts, to help affected municipalities, people and property owners recover and to prepare for flooding and other fallout from large fires so far this fire season.
Fires have been burning with increasing frequency across Arizona in recent years as hotter temperatures and a 20-year drought combine with overgrown forests to fuel large blazes. The governor’s January budget proposal noted that state firefighting costs exceeded $39 million in the last five years while appropriations were only about $20 million.
Water officials detail plans to keep Phoenix from drying up
From heat and wildfires, to a drought and record low water levels at Lake Mead, Arizona is dealing with a lot of issues right now, but water experts in the Valley insist we are still in good shape.
The state is expected to hit Tier 1 water shortage on the Colorado River sometime in 2022, and while a water shortage is troubling, especially for farmers, state, cities and utilities have been planning for it for decades.
"There’s no reason for any kind of restriction. This is not a short term problem. It’s a long term, anticipated result. We knew this was coming," said Cynthia Campbell with the City of Phoenix Water Resource Management.
Phoenix has a diversified water portfolio that includes water from the Colorado River, Roosevelt Dam, and the Verde Water System in Northern Arizona, to name a few.
Meanwhile, customers have also cut usage by 30% as the city's population increased. In addition, there is a new pipeline being built below the city to move water from one thirsty patch to another.
Water officials detail other contingency plans
Phoenix city officials also have a plan if push comes to shove.
"When water cuts from the Colorado River start coming, there’s a priority system," said Vampbell. "Phoenix happens to have some of the highest priority water in Central Arizona."
Meanwhile, the Salt River Project is sitting on 1.5 million acres of water that are stored underground.
The water storage facility. which is about 69% full, is considered a savings account water supply that goes hand in hand with its snow melt reservoir system, which is more like a checking account.
In addition, SRP is always planning ahead with things like meteorologist predictions and climate change models.
"We’re feeling OK. That’s about our long-term planning that we do. 50 to 100 years out. We don’t ignore science of climate change, and we’re always looking to better manage our water supply," said Tim Skarupa, SRP's Surface Water Lead.
There are some simple ways people can help with the water shortage, such as ditching thirsty plants for desert landscaping, install low flow showers and toilets, and checking for leaks and breaks in the plumbing system.
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