As State Senator in New LD18, Priya Sundareshan will Secure our Water Supply

Priya Sundareshan, a candidate for State Senator in New LD18, spoke at the DGT meeting, on April 21, 2022.

She is a law professor at the University of Arizona and the Director of the Natural Resource Use and Management Clinic at the University of Arizona. She appreciates the importance of making science-based decisions, especially to preserve the environment. Earlier, she was an attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., where she advocated for sustainable federal fisheries management.

Edited transcript

Priya Sundareshan: I’m very excited to be talking to you as today’s speaker. I know I’ve met many of you, if not at a DGT happy hour previously or elsewhere in the community advocating. So I’m really glad to talk about me and my campaign. So I am Priya Sundareshan, and I’m running for the state Senate in the new LD18.

I have a number of priorities that I would like to address for the legislature. I’m just listing them here, and I’ll go into more depth on some of them as I continue talking.

Climate change

But my main priorities are climate change. We have an urgent and increasingly urgent crisis with climate change.

It’s been apparent since the 1990s. We really just haven’t done the work that we needed to mitigate and stop climate change from progressing. And so, we’re getting to the point where our actions need to be more drastic to stave off the worst impacts. Some of those actions that we need to take are a rapid transition to renewable energy away from fossil fuels.

That is one big aspect of what is contributing to climate change, and there are others as well. So there’s a, it’s a kind of whole of society approach, but we have to take whatever steps we can. And there certainly are going to be opportunities. I think that the state legislature can put forward policies that will help promote renewable energy, promote public transportation, and promote agricultural practices that are less contributing to greenhouse gas emissions because there are other greenhouse gases besides carbon dioxide that contribute to climate change.

So climate change is one of my main areas of interest. And it’s an urgent issue. Water is also something that we are reading about constantly in the news. And we’re seeing that our water supplies are starting to dwindle. Climate change is contributing to that.

But the Arizona legislature absolutely has a crucial role in making sure that our water use does not exceed the amount of water available to us in Arizona.

Voting rights

Voting rights are a key issue. We all are aware right now that voting rights are under attack nationally and in the state of Arizona. It’s part of the national and the Big Lie. Many people, certainly not on the Democratic side, but on the right are claiming that fraud in the elections is an excuse to dial back voting rights and restrict the right to vote.

And that is something that we in the Arizona legislature should not be doing. The legislature should be promoting voting rights. We should be promoting access to the ballot. It should not be suppressing the vote or reducing access to voting.

Funding public education. I know that this is an issue that is dear to many people. And I share it as well. I know there are more highly qualified experts on public education here in the audience, including Luci Messing. But, as we all know, Arizona is not funding public education to the levels that it deserves and hasn’t been doing so for decades.

Even when I was in high school, I recall that we had to be fighting against cuts to funding.

Attack on human rights

Something that we’re also seeing the Arizona legislature attacking these days is human rights. Reproductive justice issues, gender equity issues. These are all fundamental rights that we have as people, as in Arizona as men and women. As people of all genders actually, and that’s something the legislature has decided to take on itself. Again, when I say the legislature, I’m speaking about the Republicans who control the legislature. We all know that they are attacking women’s rights.

They’re attacking the right to an abortion. They’re attacking transgender children right now. Truly the most vulnerable people in our society and passing laws going after people’s rights to access the healthcare they need in all of these categories. And in the legislature, I want to make sure that we are not passing laws that reduce people’s access to healthcare.

The healthcare they need affirms their fundamental human rights to be who they are.

Career history

Now I want to take a step back and talk about who I am and give you a little bit of background about myself. I was born here in Tucson, right at Tucson medical center.

I have to say that it has been a wonderful experience growing up in Tucson. And I think it has shaped who I am as a person and my advocacy priorities. I attended the Catalina foothills school district schools from third grade until graduation. I had a wonderful experience.

And I know that the public school experience is not something that is shared by anyone, everyone across Tucson, across Arizona, because of differences in the wealth that is available to people in that district. But it was a wonderful experience. And I want to make sure that education for Arizona is funded to the levels that everybody in Arizona has access to the resources and the support that I did. I was definitely a math and science person in high school.

When the opportunity came up, I attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT in Boston, and studied chemical engineering. That was a very hard degree. But it was also a fun time to be in a cohort of students who care a lot about engineering, math, and science.

But I also knew that I had an interest in environmental law and environmental policy throughout it all. So while I was there, I also minored in environmental policy. So I Was tentatively thinking about how can I work on environmental issues and make that my career? So I came back to Tucson to join the U of A’s law school.

I did a dual degree program at the U of a, which I’m so glad that they offered so that I got a JD (law degree) at the same time as getting a master’s in natural resource economics.

The following summer, I interned at the department of energy, specifically their loan guarantee program. Again, this was focused on trying to figure out why we weren’t seeing some widespread adoption of renewable energy and what the government could do to put up the funds or at least provide that kind of backing that would provide extra confidence to people to build these larger, renewable projects that could help transition us away from fossil fuels.

I joined a nonprofit in DC called Environmental Defense fund. It’s one of the large environmental nonprofits in the US. Then, about a year later, the Trump election occurred, and suddenly at the federal level the entire government was controlled by Republicans, which here in Arizona, we’re no strangers to. But there was a suddenly in crisis mode and wondering whether our bedrock environmental statutes, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, all of that could be under attack that they might take the opportunity just completely to gut them.

And so, I was fortunate to find this opportunity at the U of A, where I teach natural resource law to students as part of my role directing the Natural Resource Use and Management Clinic.

Managing water rights

The Arizona legislature has an opportunity to look at how water law works and can make changes that could fix the issue.

So that’s what I would like to do. These facts highlight where we are because we’re experiencing a mega drought, and climate change is worsening. We live in a desert, and we’re in a drought, so water is already scarce and getting scarcer.

There is a complete just lack of science integrated into our law.

So groundwater and surface water are created as two entirely different resources. The hydrologists will tell you it is crazy because water is groundwater when it’s in the ground, but it’s surface water when it’s above ground. And that water flows between groundwater and surface water, simply depending on the conditions and of the ground of the land.

And so, for the law to treat them as completely different resources creates the circumstances for mismanagement. It is partly to blame for the problems we’re in right now. In Arizona, groundwater is only managed in certain areas.

Thanks to the 1980 groundwater management act. We do have management of groundwater. We’re often what we’re often told is the case. In Texas, where groundwater is completely unmanaged, and it’s just drill as much as you want. There’s no backstop on that.

At least here in Arizona, we do have groundwater management, which was put in place in the 1980s. But unfortunately, that management is only in certain areas in these groundwater management areas. And those are the Tucson basin. There’s a Phoenix basin, Pinal has a groundwater area, groundwater management area.

And then there’s two more up in northern Arizona. Or, and then there’s also something called irrigation non-expansion areas. But beyond that, the rest of the state is completely unregulated and in areas not far outside the residential Tucson areas.

It’s open for pumping as much as you’d like. And we read about the consequences of that, where we see subsidence of the ground because the groundwater has been complete. The groundwater in the aquifer has been drained, so nothing is holding up that ground anymore. And the ground, the surface of the ground collapses in on itself.

And so you see, major sections of highway that have these fissures, and the road is no longer passable and requires construction crews to come out and rebuild the road before it’s able to be traversed. So groundwater management only occurs in those areas.

We can expand the areas in Arizona where groundwater is managed to have a more sustainable approach to our groundwater. Surface water in Arizona, again, is treated differently than groundwater. The rights to surface water in Arizona have been settled for about four decades, and still, to this day, very few of those claims have been resolved. And so there’s some work to do there. And the legislature has been taking a look at what it could do to provide more resources to the many people who have claims so that they can have legal representation.

And there’s much more that the legislature can do to help to help with that. For example, another fact about water in Arizona, the surface water, is essentially “use it or lose it.” This means that if someone has a right to use surface water refers to the water that flows above ground, right in streams and rivers.

Those rights are generally “use it or lose it.” So if you have a right to that water, you have to keep using it every single year. Otherwise, after a period of years, you no longer have the right to that water. And so what that, that leads to is. Even if the circumstances on the ground have changed and say I’m a farmer who has been using a large quantity of water wants to put in more efficient.

Irrigation practices. They may not feel like they should put in those more efficient irrigation practices because then they lose the rights to the rest of the water that they had been using. Now the Arizona legislature did pass a law in, I think it was 2020, that addressed a little bit of that, use it or lose it kind of mentality, but there’s much more to do.

Incentivize efficiency

We can incentivize efficiency in the agricultural areas. There’s much more efficiency that can be incentivized in the urban areas as well. And we, as part of that, want to make sure that water is retained in the ecosystem for the trees, the plants, the fish, and the animals that rely on it in our riparian areas, which are the areas right by the river systems.

And then finally, the final part of our water puzzle in Arizona is the Colorado River. And we also know right now that it too is being impacted by climate change and reduced snowpack in the Rockies. And the amount of river, the amount of Colorado River water that we have been used to getting is decreasing. Interestingly, it was allocated amongst the states based on a year of already unnaturally high flow. So we were never really sustainably using Colorado river water. Ever since it was allocated, I think around 1920 or 1922 was when those allocations occurred.

And then 1950 was when the lower basin states and Arizona, in particular, received its lowest priority to the Colorado River water. So that’s the reason we’re seeing all these news reports about Arizona having to take these pretty drastic cuts. So there exists this crisis on water issues.

We know this because we were reading about it a lot. Aside from the Colorado river allocations, the Arizona legislature should be looking at how we’re managing groundwater and incentivizing efficiency for our water in general so that we are more sustainably managing it. So stepping back again to my experience and career in environmental issues can explain why climate change and the environment are such a big focus for me.

As I mentioned, I minored in environmental policy. I have a master’s degree in natural resource economics. I only say that to underline how important environmental issues have been for me—going back for years. And then I went to DC to practice energy and environmental law, and I gained a very broad understanding of different energy issues.

Including nuclear regulatory issues, which are at the federal level. Very interesting. And then similarly, environmental issues and various statutes can come into play. And then I, as I mentioned, moved into fisheries advocacy with the Environmental Defense Fund. Our work was much more oriented toward advocacy with Congress and advocacy with the administration.

And as I mentioned, when I joined EDF, it was the tail end of the Obama Presidency. And we were all hoping for a Hillary Clinton presidency in which we would be able to advocate for even better protection for the fisheries and, more broadly, all environmental issues. And then, unfortunately, we were disappointed and crushed when the Trump administration came in and Congress was in Republican hands. And suddenly, we were in this situation where our most fundamental environmental statutes could be overturned entirely. So it was a, from 2017 to 18 was a constant battle. Just trying to mobilize people and meet with staff, meet with the representatives in Congress and meet with administration staff members to work through and minimize the damage.

I testified before the ACC, the Arizona Corporation Commission, on their clean energy rules on the environment. Then, last year, I wrote two daily star op-eds, urging the chair to vote in favor of those clean energy rules. But unfortunately, the chair, who is from Tucson, Lea Marquez Peterson, did not vote in favor of the clean energy rules.

That’s something that I want to, in the legislature, want to make sure that we are promoting clean energy, whether it’s by working with the corporation commission or perhaps moving forward in the legislature to promote renewable energy. And then some of you may know that the Arizona Democratic Party recently adopted a go-solar resolution this year. And that was something that I authored and worked with the Democratic Party state Party’s environmental council to push forward. So I hope that we have not completely given up on federal action because we must act now on climate.

We’re knocking doors. Please join us if you can. We’re gaining endorsements. I’m happy to have just received the Arizona List endorsement.

Kevin Dahl of the Tucson City Council also endorses me. And I’m working on endorsement questionnaires to be able to add more to that list. I’ve got to do some work on fundraising. I have pledged not to accept fossil fuel or utility PAC money. And I think that’s important, so voters know that I am committed to working on climate change.

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