4 Obstacles Facing Arizona As It Finishes A Drought Plan

By Bret Jaspers
Published: Tuesday, January 15, 2019 - 10:09am
Updated: Wednesday, November 6, 2019 - 11:33am

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On the first day of the legislative session, water led Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s State of the State address. More specifically, he wants a drought plan finished — one that keeps the Colorado River system at healthy levels.

Drought and over-allocation means Lake Mead is at risk of dropping really low. Taken to the extreme, power generation there could stop. Water could be stuck in the lake.

Doug Ducey
Bret Jaspers/KJZZ
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey at his 2019 State of the State address on Jan. 14, 2019.

The Drought Contingency Plan is an attempt to stave that off.

There are lots of reasons to get the deal done. Despite significant progress, a few obstacles remain.

1. Time.

Stakeholders have been working on a deal for months, and off-and-on for years. But Arizona’s work on a Drought Contingency Plan — legislatively speaking — must now happen at lightning speed. Gov. Ducey referenced the federally-imposed deadline of Jan. 31.

“Doing so will require compromise,” Ducey said in his address on Monday. “No one stakeholder is going to get everything they want. Everyone is going to have to give.”

There’s already been a lot of giving through both public and private negotiations that formally started over the summer. Still, other states in the Colorado River basin have approved the larger plan, and aside from a few California water districts, Arizona is the holdout everyone’s watching as it writes an internal deal.

If Arizona misses the deadline, the Reclamation Commissioner has said she will ask the other basin states for their recommendations on what kind of cutback regime to impose.

2. Stakeholders Aren’t Done.

The public and private negotiating process outside the Legislature still isn’t finished.

Rusty Bowers
Bret Jaspers/KJZZ
Rusty Bowers

Last week, home builders asked for water in the current proposal in case a related deal with the Gila River Indian Community (GRIC) fell through. GRIC Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis insists as long as the drought plan happens, so will that related deal. It would provide hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water for groundwater replenishment over 25 years, enabling more development.

“I went back to my council and we clarified that. In fact, I signed a letter. I sent that to the Arizona Department of Water Resources and CAWCD [on Monday] afternoon,” Lewis said after the State of the State speech.

The Central Arizona Water Conservation District runs the Central Arizona Project canal system.

So if the Gila River Indian Community says that separate deal is absolutely happening, is that enough for House Speaker Rusty Bowers?

“I don’t answer questions like that,” Bowers said with a laugh after Ducey’s speech. “I want to make sure it’s all good, all the way. And it’s getting there. We’re gonna get there.”

Bowers, a Republican from Mesa, is a key figure because he decides which bills hit the House floor to get voted on. He traveled the state last year as part of roving public meetings on water and has been looking out for Pinal County agriculture and development.

Lisa Otondo
Bret Jaspers/KJZZ
Arizona state Sen. Lisa Otondo, a Yuma Democrat.

“Now with this last big area in central Arizona,” he said, referring to farmland in Pinal County, “we want to make sure that if and when growth takes those and when they sell, that there’s sufficient water to not just do them, and thank you very much, but also whatever takes their place.”

3. Water Policy Is Oh-So Complicated.

Bowers said the Legislature will have informational meetings with lawmakers, then put bills in committee and go concept by concept.

State Senator Lisa Otondo, a Democrat from Yuma and part of the Drought Contingency Plan Steering Committee, wants to see the bills.

“We need to see the language, and then also continue to, with staff of course and stakeholders, walk many other members on both sides of the aisle through the legislation. And have them have a better understanding,” she said.

4. The Partial Federal Government Shutdown.

That’s right — the border wall clash is affecting Colorado River planning. Last week, the local office of the Bureau of Reclamation said its legal counsel has been on furlough. And the federal Department of Agriculture is needed as well, according to Pinal County Republican House member T.J. Shope.

Shope said the government needs to reopen “so that way, we can begin restarting negotiations with the USDA about drawing down federal funds to help out” with groundwater infrastructure in Pinal County.

That information might not come by the Jan. 31 deadline.

UPDATE: Jan. 18 — A spokesperson with the Bureau of Reclamation said two Department of Interior lawyers have been called back to work on DCP — without pay.  At least one USDA agency that gives grants to farmers, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, has been open during the shutdown.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

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