As of this writing, our senators and representatives have gutted a program of critical importance to the whole Gila River watershed — the Arizona Water Protection Fund.

Citizens in the ranching and farming communities here in Graham County, and many others in Greenlee and Cochise counties, have been writing, calling and driving to Phoenix to explain why this is a very big mistake. So far, our appeals seem to be falling on deaf ears.

Having some years of regional politics under my belt, it hasn’t been too hard for me to find out at least one of the reasons for this decision: Our legislators have misunderstood the AWPF as a program that only benefits environmentalists and threatened and endangered species. Certainly, some of its grants have gone in that direction since the program is about fixing problems with rivers and water quantity and quality. And that can benefit the species that rely on the waters involved.

But to characterize what AWPF does as focusing on threatened and endangered species is just wrong. What it does is really about problems with water quantity and quality that we have in rural Arizona, problems that are central to our livelihoods and our regional economies. AWPF funds projects that no other federal or state agency will fund.

For example, when it became clear that it was time to get consumers and municipalities in Graham and Greenlee counties to conserve water to make sure that we’ll continue to have enough of it in the future, it was AWPF that paid for a program to help measure water use at a micro-local level and determine how to cut the waste.

Over in Greenlee County, rancher Larry Barney lost topsoil down the river in every major rain. AWPF is shouldering the cost of removing old levees and harmful stands of salt cedar, and planting sturdy native plants that slow floodwaters and hold soils in place. That project is expected to have benefits both up and downstream of the Barney Ranch, too. A lot of the agriculture community is watching this one because it is the first time that this kind of river re-engineering, which is being used successfully in other parts of the country, has been tried in our region.

Ranchers on Upper Eagle Creek were able to turn to AWPF when trespass cows from the San Carlos Reservation were becoming a serious problem. AWPF paid for fences. Here’s what rancher Darcy Ely has to say about that: “We’ve had four wildfires in the last five years. If it had not been for AWPF, rotation of pastures would have been impossible and we might not have survived as ranchers. We also see AWPF as crucial to long-term rehabilitation of the areas burned by the Wallow fire. They have the system established and understand the need for erosion protection after big fires.”

Any further questions, Phoenix? We have more examples whenever you like.

Senator Allen and Representative Barton: Ladies, we need your help on this in the worst way. If you’re still not convinced, please come this way and let us show you around a little. You’ll see what AWPF is doing for our ag community, projects that have ripple effects that benefit the larger community, projects that landowners could never afford to do themselves.

It’s not that we don’t care about wildlife. We do. But we care foremost about our ranchers and farmers, on whom many, many others, I would like to remind you, depend. AWPF has been one of our most important sources of help for difficult, large-scale problems. We have to assume that in cutting it, you simply didn’t understand all that AWPF does.

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