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Among the biggest tasks for Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs: addressing the drought

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Arizona is one of the fastest growing states in the country. But a 23-year-long megadrought means it's now facing a reckoning over water that could derail its booming economy. It's now seeing more cuts in water from the shrinking Colorado River than any other state. Arizona's new Democratic governor, Katie Hobbs, says overuse of that river is the challenge of our time.

KATIE HOBBS: My administration has a lot of priorities, but none of it matters if we run out of water.

CHANG: NPR's Kirk Siegler spoke with Governor Hobbs about the state's water crisis, and he joins me now from Phoenix. Hey, Kirk.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK. So it sounds like Hobbs is taking office during this time when Arizona is sort of at this tipping point because this megadrought, it's threatening the economic and housing boom, especially in Phoenix where you are. What is she planning to do about it exactly?

SIEGLER: Well, Ailsa, this is Arizona, so let's start with the politics. Hobbs says her predecessor, Republican Governor Doug Ducey, was hiding the seriousness of this drought. She recently just made public a report that shows there's a lot less groundwater in the Phoenix area than people want to acknowledge. Like, when you drive out into the sprawling West Valley here, you see housing development after housing development still going up despite the megadrought. You know, it doesn't look like a place that's about to run out of water. But Hobbs told me there just isn't enough water to sustain all this growth. And for too long, Arizona politicians, in her mind, haven't been straight with the public about how dire the situation really is.

HOBBS: I just think there was a lack of real, I guess, honesty with the people of Arizona about the situation we're in and just kind of wanting to say, oh, we have enough water, we're fine. And that's really not the case. If we don't take action now, we won't have enough water.

SIEGLER: Is there a point where we have to say that we can't grow anymore in this state?

HOBBS: There might be. I don't think we're there yet. But I think if we don't really address these issues head on, look at the reality of the situation with water, look at how quickly we're growing, then we will get to that point.

CHANG: And I understand that Governor Hobbs - I mean, one of the things that she wants to do is try and modernize Arizona's groundwater laws, which are now, like - what? - 40 years old. That sounds kind of daunting, though, to just change the laws, right?

SIEGLER: It is, especially in the West when we're talking Western water law. But there is some support for this, I'm hearing, you know, to align these laws with the new drier reality we're facing. But it is a daunting task. But, you know, there's an acknowledgment that you, you know, can't maybe have so much uncontrolled growth or farmers can't keep growing so many thirsty crops like cotton and alfalfa in the desert. You know, Ailsa, what's been happening here as Arizona's Colorado River water deliveries are cut, farmers and cities are just resorting to pumping more water out of the aquifer. And Arizona has been pretty progressive with storing a lot of water in the aquifer, especially its Colorado River water, in the ground anticipating this very day. But, you know, climate change is just accelerating this, and it's colliding like we've been talking about with this huge population boom.

CHANG: Right. So I hear the governor saying, OK, it's time for her state to face this new reality. But, I mean, Arizona has pretty polarized politics. So how do you get everybody to face this reality together?

SIEGLER: That's an understatement. I mean, she's trying to focus on policy when the far-right Republicans in this state, let's be clear, are still focused on the election, claiming without any evidence that she was illegitimately installed as governor. You know, all politics is national. So you remember, Ailsa, her opponent, Kari Lake - well, she's right now traveling the country, making similar baseless claims, you know. Katie Hobbs told me this is all a big distraction.

HOBBS: I mean, I don't pay attention to what my former opponent does. But what is a little daunting is the legislature that we have that has really, in these first few weeks of their session, kind of shown that they're not interested in working together. They were elected by the same people who elected me. And we have these tough challenges we have to come together to work on.

SIEGLER: So while they're focused on politics, Ailsa, you know, this megadrought is persisting despite some recent snow here and rain in Arizona. And the federal government could come in any day and mandate more and much bigger water cuts across the board.

CHANG: That is NPR's Kirk Siegler, joining us from Phoenix. Thank you, Kirk.

SIEGLER: Glad to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
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