Arizona Water Protection Fund Grants Subsidize Arizona Ranchers

The Arizona Water Protection Fund (AWPF) was created in 1994 by the Arizona Legislature to protect and enhance the state’s streams and associated riparian habitat, but it’s been hijacked to provide agricultural subsidies – especially for ranchers.

The environmental purpose of the AWPF was always tenuous, because it wasn’t created as a result of some newfound concern in the Legislature about protecting important natural ecosystems. It was created as a political strategy to make Arizona’s 1993 proposal to repay the multibillion-dollar debt it owed the federal government for the construction of the Central Arizona Project (CAP) canal system more attractive to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR).

The state’s payment proposal had received criticism from Clinton appointees in the USBR, and also from Rep. George Miller, D-CA, chairman of the Natural Resources Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. Furthermore, Arizona environmentalists were encouraging the USBR to reject it because it proposed to increase subsidies for agricultural water users, and also ignored one of the purposes of the CAP, which was “improving conditions for fish and wildlife,” per the Colorado River Basin Project Act of 1968. Environmentalists had also suggested that the CAP financing agreement should include the creation of a trust fund to help pay for projects to restore Arizona’s streams and riparian habitat, and their idea had gained favor in Washington, D.C.

Subsequently, the Legislature’s passage of HB 2590 in 1994 to create the AWPF was designed to preempt the USBR from mandating an environmental trust fund prescribed by the federal government. It was sponsored by state House Speaker Rep. Mark Killian, R-Mesa, a farmer, and the current Director of the Arizona Department of Agriculture.

The bill also created an Arizona Water Protection Fund Commission (AWPFC) to oversee the disbursement of cost-share project grants from the AWPF, with administrative support from the Arizona Department of Water Resources.  The Commission consisted of 15 voting members and four non-voting ex-officio members. The makeup of the voting members was heavily tilted towards agricultural interests, and included only two riparian habitat specialists. Almost all of the voting Commission members were appointed by the Governor or the Legislature.

The bill, however, did require that the AWPF grants approved by the Commission had to be used for projects that provided “for the continued maintenance of the portion of the river and stream and associated riparian habitat enhanced by the project.” And that the projects “directly benefit perennial or intermittent rivers or streams.”

The cost of funding the AWPF was minimized for CAP agricultural water users. The Legislature funded it from the state’s general fund with a $4 million annual appropriation for state fiscal year 1995, $6 million for FY 1996, and a promise of $5 million per year after that. The $5 million annual appropriation could be reduced by an amount equal to the excise taxes collected annually on CAP water sold or leased to purchasers outside of Arizona.

The Legislature kept its promise to allocate $5 million a year to the fund in FY 1997. But they reduced it to only $1.6 million in FY 1998. And by FY 2000, at the end of the Clinton administration, they had reduced it to zero. The total appropriations the AWPF received from the general fund from FY1995 through FY 1999 were about $21 million.

The fund’s other major source of money, the CAP excise tax revenues, initially proved to be meager, with the AWPF receiving only about $483,00 for FY 1998. It didn’t receive any more of this money until FY 2004, when $1.307 million was received. The CAP money peaked at $5.413 million in FY 2008, but began a significant and continued decline in FY 2012. Still, the Commission was able to brag in its FY2013 Annual Report that during the previous 16 years they had been able to award AWPF grants totaling nearly $43 million for 209 projects that had restored, protected, and enhanced riparian habitat in Arizona.

AWPF Grants

Many of the AWPF grants awarded since 1995 have benefited public land ranchers. Most often, it was in the form of helping them pay for new livestock fences and waters. These projects typically purported to protect riparian areas by drawing cattle away from them by building new livestock waters in the surrounding uplands. But they also brought negative grazing impacts to little-used upland areas, and they were sometimes used to facilitate increased cattle numbers. Moreover, if they didn’t completely exclude cattle from the riparian areas, the protection they provided was only partial.

There are also questions about the maintenance requirements for these publicly funded fences. In 2000, for example, AWPF Grant #00-102 was issued for $66,330 to the former owner of the 4 Drag Ranch to build a fence along the ranch’s boundary with the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation. Then in 2011 the ranch’s new owners received AWPF Grant #11-177 for $136,714 to rebuild the boundary fence.

Furthermore, several grants for ranches in the area helped to fund projects that were supposed to be for the protection of upper Eagle Creek and its tributaries. This stretch of the creek is located in the Clifton Ranger District of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest and provides habitat for several endangered species. In 2018, however, the Center for Biological Diversity conducted an on-the-ground assessment of the creek and found that cattle had access to the riparian areas, and were damaging them. Subsequently  on January 13, 2020, the Center filed a lawsuit against the Forest and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife service for violating the Endangered Species Act.

The tables below show the ranches along upper Eagle Creek that benefited from AWPF grants, along with other government assistance.

Government Assistance Program Key
ALLBAWPFEQIPHPCHeritage FundLCCGPLFPLRPPFWPWQIG
AALB - Arizona Livestock Loss Board, Arizona Livestock Loss Board (federal/state)
AWPF - Arizona Water Protection Fund, AWPF Commission (state)
EQIP - Environmental Quality Incentives Program, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (federal)
The EQIP program absorbed the NRCS Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) after 2014.
HPC - Habitat Partnership Committee, Arizona Game & Fish Commission (state)
Arizona Heritage Fund, Arizona Game & Fish Commission (state)
LCCGP - Livestock & Crop Conservation Program, Arizona Department of Agriculture (state)
Note: Open Space Reserve Grants became LCCGP Grants after 2002.
LFP - Livestock Forage Disaster Program, USDA’s Farm Service Agency (federal)
LRP - Landowner Relations Program, Arizona Game & Fish Department (state)
PFWP - Partners for Fish & Wildlife Program, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (federal)
WQIG - Water Quality Improvement Grant, Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (federal/state)
Note: These grants were previously called Section 319 nonpoint source (NPS) water pollution prevention grants.
4 Drag RanchAnchor RanchDouble Circle Ranch
4 Drag/7 Cross A Ranches (Darcy & Gary Ely) - East Eagle/Mud Springs Allotments
YEARSPROGRAMAMOUNTPROJECT NAME
2000AWPF #00-102*$66,330Livestock Water & Fences - Including San Carlos Reservation Boundary Fence
2002WQIG #04-022$45,750Livestock Water
2005LCCGP #05-33$125,000Fencing, Grassland Restoration, Livestock Water
2006WQIG #8-007**$360,930Upper Eagle Creek Watershed Restoration Phase 2
2007-2016EQIP$24,873
2007LCCGP #07-25$125,000Erosion Control, Livestock Water, and Fencing
2009LCCGP #09-36$100,000Watershed Improvement for SE Arizona Ranch Sustainability
2011LCCGP #11-15$125,000Watershed Project for SE Arizona Ranch Sustainability
2011AWPF #11-177$136,714San Carlos Reservation Boundary Fence
2011-2021LFP$257,702
$1,367,299TOTAL 2002 - 2021
* AWPF #00-102 was received by the ranch's previous owner.
** WQIG #8-007 was shared with three neighboring ranches.
Anchor Ranch (Anchor Ranch LLC) - Baseline/Horsesprings Grazing Allotments
YEARSPROGRAMAMOUNTPROJECT NAME
1996AWPF #96-0012$80,626Livestock Waters & Fences
2005LCCGP #05-48$113,803Grassland Restoration and Livestock Water
2007LCCGP #07-44$125,000Livestock Water
2007 - 2010EQIP$30,804
2009LCCGP #09-50$22,693Upper Eagle Creek Restoration, Baseline/Horsesprings Allotment
2011WHIP$27,775
2011-2020LFP$46,787
$442,488TOTAL 1996-2020
Double Circle Ranch (Wilma A. Jenkins) - Double Circle Allotment
YEARSPROGRAMAMOUNTPROJECT NAME
2005LCCGP #05-30$125,000Livestock Water and Fencing
2006WQIG #8-007*$360,930 Upper Eagle Creek Watershed Restoration Phase 2
2006AWPF #06-135$84,448Pasture Division Fence
2007 - 2010EQIP$84,113
2007LCCGP #07-48$125,000Livestock Water
2007WQIG #9-003$95,100San Carlos Reservation Boundary Fence
2008WQIG #10-003$92,294Livestock Fences & Waters
2009LCCGP #09-54$100,000Upper Eagle Creek Restoration, Double Circle Allotment
2009AWPF #09-163$35,356Erosion Control Structures, Phase 1
2011AWPF #11-176$36,866Erosion Control Structures, Phase 2
2011LCCGP #11-34$100,000Upper Eagle Creek Restoration, Double Circle Allotment, Phase 4
2011LFP$10,307
2014-2021LFP$71,954(K. Scott & Wendy K. Bryce)
$1,321,368TOTAL 2004 - 2021
* WQIG #8-007 was shared with three neighboring ranches.
Wilma Jenkins sold the Double Circle Ranch in 2012 to K. Scott & Wendy K. Bryce.
AWPF Grants Hijacked

In 2013 state Sen. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, a member of the Arizona Cattle Growers’ Association, Arizona Farm Bureau, and an advisor to the Hereford Natural Resource Conservation District (NRCD), began to introduce legislation to change the purpose of the AWPF. First, she introduced SB 1288, which reduced the number of voting members on the AWPF Commission from 15 to nine – and none of them were required to be riparian habitat experts. Also, the minimum number of members representing NRCDs was raised from one to five, ensuring that NRCD representatives would have control of the Commission. This changed the focus of AWPF projects because NRCDs, which are regional subdivisions of the Arizona State Land Department, are comprised of local landowners, mostly ranchers, that work to obtain funding for agricultural “conservation” projects. It also created a situation wherein NRCD members were in charge of awarding AWPF grants to NRCDs.

Griffin’s bill also prohibited federal land management agencies, such as the Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management (BLM), from applying for AWPF grants. This was despite that fact that most of Arizona’s remaining riparian areas are located on public lands, and these agencies had previously used AWPF grants to implement successful riparian restoration projects. Republican Gov. Jan Brewer signed the SB 1288 in June 2013.

AWPF grants, however, were still required to be used primarily for the benefit of riparian habitat. Griffin couldn’t change that, so instead, in 2014 she introduced SB 1478 to add other types of projects that could be funded with AWPF grants. The biggest addition was the creation of the watershed improvement program, which allowed AWPF grants to fund projects to destroy woody vegetation in order to promote the growth of grass for cattle forage. The bill also prohibited AWPF grants for projects that included the planting of native mesquite trees – ostensibly because these trees were detrimental to water conservation efforts. This provision ignored the fact that mesquite bosques (forests) are an important and endangered riparian habitat in Southwestern desert bottomlands. The bill also allowed AWPF funds to be used to purchase long-term water storage credits for surface water stored in underground aquifers. Gov. Brewer signed this one too.

Griffin concluded her makeover of the AWPF in 2016 when she introduced SB 1191. It added “measures to increase water availability” to the purposes of the AWPF. It also changed the requirement that AWPF grants directly benefit riparian areas to include the phrase “or that otherwise increase the supply of water.” And it removed a restriction that prohibited more than 5% of the AWPF monies awarded annually from being used for water conservation or research projects. Republican Gov. Doug Ducey signed this one.

The redesigned AWPF Commission held its first meeting in February 2014. No member of the 2013 Commission was present, and rancher Stefanie Smallhouse was the Commission’s new administrative Executive Director. Ms. Smallhouse was a former Executive Director of the Arizona Association of Conservation Districts. (She left the AWPF in November 2017 to become the President of the Arizona Farm Bureau.) Sen. Griffin was a non-voting advisory member of the new Commission.

Not coincidentally, the Legislature resumed making annual appropriations to the AWPF in 2016. They made a general appropriation of $250,000 for state FY 2017, and the same amount for subsequent budget years until FY 2020, when they increased it to $750,000. Additionally, Sen. Griffin succeeded in passing  a supplemental appropriation of $400,000 for FY 2019.

The redesigned AWPF Commission has proceeded to approve grants that have little, if anything, to do with the remaining legal requirement that AWPF projects “directly benefit” riparian areas.

Grants to Kill Trees

Recent AWPF grants were approved to help pay for what were labeled as watershed improvement projects. They involved manipulating native vegetation by killing “invasive” brush and trees in order to try and grow more grass. These types of projects claim that grass is inherently superior to woody vegetation for watershed health. But research has shown that there’s no significant difference in the erosion rates between healthy woody and herbaceous vegetation in the Southwest, as most erosion is caused by the infrequent large rainstorms.

The typical targets of these projects are mesquite trees in the lower elevations, and juniper trees in the higher places. Sometimes the trees were killed mechanically, but they were also killed by the aerial spraying of dangerous herbicides. The real primary objective of these projects was to to grow more forage for cattle.

AWPF Grant #17-188 for $303,975 helped fund a juniper removal project on the Brown Ranch, owned by the descendants of the late influential state legislator Jack A. Brown. The large ranch is a mixture of private, state, BLM, and Forest Service land in Apache County. The project called for mechanically killing “invasive” juniper trees on 2,000 acres to encourage an increase in the amount of herbaceous forage for cattle and wildlife. The AWPF grant, however, wasn’t the only government assistance program that benefited the Brown Ranch. The known list is provided in the table below.

Brown Ranch (J. Albert Brown Ranches, Inc.) - Cerro Trigo, Greens Peak (FS) and Wildcat Creek (BLM) Allotments, State Leases #05-000160, #05-030837, #05-042016
YEARSPROGRAMAMOUNTPROJECT NAME
2009-2021EQIP$511,511
2011-2021LFP$718,094
2017AWPF #17-188$303,975Juniper Tree Removal
$1,533,580TOTAL 2009 - 2021

AWPF Grant #19-194 for  $341,626 helped fund a mesquite removal project on the Davis Ranch, which includes private and state land in Cochise County. Aerial spraying was used to apply three different herbicides over 5,345 acres in order to kill mesquite trees and promote grass growth for the benefit of cattle. Some herbicide, however, drifted from this spraying and resulted in serious complaints from neighboring property owners that were investigated by the Arizona Department of Agriculture, and resulted in a financial settlement. The project’s grant application was submitted by the Arizona Association of Conservation Districts. The ranch’s owner, Fred Davis, is the current chairman of the Whitewater Draw NRCD.

Whitewater Draw NRCD
(Jeff Burgess)

The stated purpose of the project was to “maximize the capture of precipitation.” But the use of herbicides can leave the land practically denuded for several years, with little vegetation to hold the rain or soil during rainstorms. This situation lasts longer when there’s a drought.

Ranchers like to call mesquite trees “invasive,” but that’s a pejorative word that denigrates its role as a keystone plant in Southwest ecosystems. Research (Germano 1983) has shown that many wildlife species are more numerous in areas with mesquite trees, including mule deer. (Mule deer habitat improvement was the justification for this project’s matching HPC grant from the Arizona Game & Fish Department.)

Furthermore, the primary reason for the expansion of woody plants across the Southwest was overgrazing by cattle. It removed the fine herbaceous fuels needed to carry the periodic, relatively mild, natural wildfires that killed young trees and maintained grasslands. There’s also a suspicion that the reason there were historically fewer mesquites in some places was the widespread use of the trees for firewood in the past. Like many other Arizona ranches, the Davis Ranch benefited from other government programs too. A list of the known assistance is provided in the table below.

Davis Ranch (Davis Cattle Co. LLC) - State Lease #05-000238
YEARSPROGRAMAMOUNTPROJECT NAME
2005-2020EQIP$456,135
2007WQIG #9-001*$114,950Whitewater Draw Erosion Control Structures
2015-2021LFP$192,958
2016LCCGP #16-27$48,458Grassland Restoration
2019AWPF #19-194$341,626Aerial Application of Herbicide to Kill Mesquite Trees
2019HPC #18-512$20,000Aerial Application of Herbicide to Kill Mesquite Trees
2022HPC #21-512$4,710Mesquite Treatment
$1,178,837TOTAL 2005 - 2022
** WQIG #9-001 grant was shared among four ranches.
Updates

In March 2020 the Arizona Legislature responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by adjourning after it passed a basic state FY 2021 budget. The budget bill included an appropriation to the AWPF from the general fund of only $250,000.  Griffin, now serving in the state House of Representatives, had introduced HB 2101 in January to provide a $1 million supplemental appropriation to the AWPF, but the bill didn’t pass before the adjournment. Subsequently, no AWPF grants were awarded for FY 2021.

The FY 2022 state budget bill passed by the Arizona Legislature appropriated $1.25 million to the Arizona Water Protection Fund.

On May 26, 2020, I filed an official complaint with Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich regarding the Arizona State Land Department's failure to ensure that the state's Natural Resource Conservation Districts comply with the state's open meeting law.

On August 6, 2021, the Arizona Attorney General’s office finally responded to my complaint when it issued letters which notified the Apache, Chino Winds, and Whitewater Draw NRCDs, which I had named in my complaint, that they were out of compliance with the state’s open meeting law. The NRCDs were given 30 days to verify their compliance. According to the Coconino NRCD's August 26, 2021, meeting minutes, Republican state Rep. Gail Griffin “agreed to intervene” in the matter.

As of September 20, 2021, the Apache, Chino Winds, and Whitewater Draw NRCDs had posted agendas and minutes to the Arizona Association of Conservation Districts website. Many of the state's other local NRCDs, however, still hadn't posted anything there, although a few NRCDs have their own websites. Another Open Meeting Law complaint was filed with the Arizona Attorney General's office September 21, 2021, regarding the noncompliant NRCDs.

The FY 2023 state budget bill passed by the Arizona Legislature appropriated $1.25 million to the Arizona Water Protection Fund.

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this Jeff. I have property in central AZ. The Verde River has a great volunteer org. There are invasive species but man is probably the greatest threat to natural habitat.

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