Film: “Groundwater”

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Filmmaker Michael Schiffer of “Lean on Me and “Crimson Tide” fame has made a documentary about what it took to pass the 1980 Arizona Groundwater Management Act, a law considered one of the most important water laws in America. The film will have its debut October 28 at the Phoenix Art Museum. Schiffer and Kathleen Ferris, the executive director of the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association, will discuss the film and the importance of the groundwater management act.

TED SIMONS: Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon." A new documentary looks at the importance of Arizona's historic groundwater management act. And it's time again for another visit with ASU physicist and best-selling science writer Lawrence Krauss. Those stories next on "Arizona Horizon."

VIDEO: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the friends of eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

TED SIMONS: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. A special session of the state legislature to deal with school funding could be called as soon as tomorrow. Senate president Andy Biggs is advising lawmakers to be ready to vote on a proposed deal to settle a lawsuit that was filed by school districts after lawmakers repeatedly failed to include inflation adjustments in education funding. The proposal includes, among other things, increased distribution from the state land trust, which could require a voter-approved change to the state constitution. This special session is expected to last up to three days. Film maker Michael Schiffer of "Lean On Me" and "Crimson Tide" has made a new documentary about what it took to pass Arizona's landmark groundwater management act.


TED SIMONS: The film debuts tomorrow at the Phoenix art museum. Michael Schiffer joins us now to talk about this film, and we also welcome Kathleen Ferris, the executive director of the Arizona municipal water users association. Good to have you both here. Thanks for joining us.


TED SIMONS: Start with you and get the conversation going here. What exactly is groundwater?

MICHAEL SCHIFFER: That's question one on the film and we went around and did man on the street interviews and woman on the street interviews and nobody knew. That is one of the important aspects of telling the story of Groundwater because people walk around and think it is canal water or puddles, but it is critical of the survival of this region. What it is, is water that accumulates in the aquifers and some of which has been there for hundreds of millions of years. And so making sure we don't pump it dry is critical. That is what the theme of this film -- one of the themes of the film.

TED SIMONS: To make a documentary on Arizona's groundwater management act, let's talk about the act and what exactly happened back then and why it was necessary.

MICHAEL SCHIFFER: Well, it was necessary because people were pumping the state dry. And people noticed that it wasn't going to be in Arizona unless something was done to preserve the groundwater. And the reason that the film got made Kathy wound up directing this groundwater management study commission and there was a war going on between the farmers and the miners and the cities. And they had to come to terms. None of them had ever compromised in their lives. These were men who fought it out to the death. And she got caught in the middle of it. She was 28 years old. She got caught in the middle of it and they had to come to terms. They had to realize that something was bigger than their own personal interest.

TED SIMONS: We saw in the trailer, former senator Jon Kyl saying that it almost blew up about twice a week. It sounded like contentious discussions.

KATHLEEN FERRIS: It was amazing. We met so that finally when we got the group of negotiators together that Bruce Babbitt mediated these negotiations. We met for six months, probably 400 hours, and that's what John Kyle is referring to. Those were slug it out kind of discussions.

TED SIMONS: Issues, issue number one, who has the right to pump.

KATHLEEN FERRIS: That's absolutely the first issue. Who has the right to pump groundwater. Back in those days the farmers said they owned it, owned the groundwater beneath their property and you couldn't take that right away from them.

TED SIMONS: Didn't they also say basically if you're nice to us, we will go ahead and sell it to you?

KATHLEEN FERRIS: Well, kind of, they did say that. Famous line from tom Chandler from Tucson, we're not going to buy your farms so that you can move to La Jolla and raise martinis.

TED SIMONS: Serious conflict, how do you make a documentary over negotiations for a groundwater management act? That doesn't sound like a lot of car crashes and chases.

MICHAEL SCHIFFER: Kathy wanted to honor the men she worked with, men and women she worked with back then. And so we convened those guys that we could get in front of a camera, and that included people from the salt river project. The mining association. Jim Bush is 92 years old, as sharp as the day that I was born, right? And we got -- we interviewed them and we pieced together their personal perspectives and Kathy was interviewed also. We pieced together their personal perspectives and we were fortunate to get governor Babbitt himself and senator Kyl. Senator Kyl representing agriculture in this thing and agriculture was taking a beating because they had always sort of like called the shots. And out of that, we tried to let them tell the story in their own words as much as possible by counter - by cutting in between their different perspectives and it is pretty humorous at times.

TED SIMONS: Any residual sort of - did they hold on to their positions --


KATHLEEN FERRIS: It is really lovely actually. They are extraordinarily proud of this as a group. They are so proud of what they felt they were able to accomplish, and they look back at it very fondly. Almost all of them. Maybe one exception, but almost all of them look back at this as the highlight of their career.

TED SIMONS: Is that what you found as well?

MICHAEL SCHIFFER: Yes. As I was doing this, it started out as the story of the 1980 groundwater management act. It became clear to me that it was a bigger story than that even. That it was a story of how you make good law into democracy. And politics so fractured today, and these people came from warring factions and found that higher ground. And so it is a story -- subtitle of the thing, enact a law for the common good. I hope it is kind of a -- I hope it is kind of an inspiring story about the need to for people to work together.

TED SIMONS: We saw Governor Babbitt saying that sometimes a stick is needed. Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't like CAP basically a threat to CAP was put out there, either fix this or CAP goes under?

KATHLEEN FERRIS: Absolutely. And that threat was orchestrated by Bruce Babbitt who worked with Cecil Andrus, then secretary of the interior, to make that threat real so that we could force people to the negotiating table and deal with the issue.

MICHAEL SCHIFFER: It was kind of a trick, but -- bamboozled everybody into doing the right thing. They scared them. We are going to take away this canal. True or not Babbitt was -- he really -- he called Babbitt his buddy and he said I want you to threaten us.

KATHLEEN FERRIS: Called Andrus --

MICHAEL SCHIFFER: He called Andrus his buddy, I want you to threaten us and I'm going to have to complain.

TED SIMONS: So, based -- almost a good cop, bad cop thing.



TED SIMONS: In short order, deal done.

KATHLEEN FERRIS: Six more months of negotiations.

TED SIMONS: Relatively --

KATHLEEN FERRIS: Six long months of negotiations.

TED SIMONS: What was Arizona like pre-1980 management act, post? What changed?

KATHLEEN FERRIS: Here is the biggest take-away from this. We were over drafting in the Phoenix Tucson Penal county areas by 2.5 million acre feet a year, that's enough for over six million people. By 2010, that overdraft had been reduced to 178,000 acre feed.

TED SIMONS: My goodness.

KATHLEEN FERRIS: It is remarkable. What you see now we don't have the battle among farmers for this dwindling groundwater supply like they do in central California. Because the farmers rights were limited, and we also put limits on new growth for urban use as well. 100 year --

TED SIMONS: Indeed. Last question. What do you want folks to take from the film?

MICHAEL SCHIFFER: You know, there is a lot of cut and slash documentaries about the end of the world and how bad things are. And they're good and they're really important. This is a documentary that really is a -- to me, meeting these men was an inspiration. I would hope that people would see this and be inspired and say it is possible to make good law. No matter what may be going down today.

TED SIMONS: Arizona at times can be a can-do state, correct?

KATHLEEN FERRIS: Correct. Absolutely.

TED SIMONS: Congratulations on the film. Thank you for being here. We appreciate it.



Schiffer and Kathleen Ferris:The executive directors of the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association

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