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Arizona: Ahead on Water

Arizona, once known as a bastion of conservatism, has had one of the nation’s most progressive ground water management laws since 1980. Now, the state is pioneering again. The Legislature has passed, and Gov. Bruce Babbitt signed this week, a far-reaching measure to protect well water from contamination by pesticides, industrial chemicals and other toxics.

The new law recognizes the importance of ground water supplies as the major source of drinking water for the growing state. It presumes that all underground aquifers are for drinking purposes and cannot be contaminated. Babbitt told Times staff writer Bill Curry that the legislation recognizes the reality that surface water supplies are about as fully developed as they ever will be. “We must conserve our aquifers for drinking water,” he said.

California needs to recognize the same fact. While water debates have focused on development of new supplies from Northern California rivers, a substantial amount of Southern California’s water comes from wells, and will in the future. A trend is to pump surface-flowing waters into the ground for storage, presumably subjecting them, too, to the risk of wayward chemicals. Chemical contamination has been known to be a growing problem in California for some time. The state Legislature has struggled over legislation to protect and clean up aquifers, but the issue remains unresolved.

It is likely, however, that Californians will have the opportunity to vote in November on a ballot initiative titled the “Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986.” Among other things, the proposed law would prohibit the contamination of drinking water with chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects. The initiative is sponsored by a variety of groups and individuals including the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund.

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The new Arizona law stemmed from such a movement. Babbitt, a national leader in seeking strong ground water legislation, endorsed the initiative and then persuaded legislators and other interests to get on board.

The legislation was hammered out during intense negotiations conducted by Babbitt. It was the same process he used to get the earlier ground water legislation.

There is, of course, time for the California Legislature to do the same thing and negate the necessity of a statewide vote in November that is quite likely to result in such a law--and should, if Sacramento fails to act.


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