Johnson's Waterloo?

Big Red is back. Governor Jane Hull shed her Granny Hull get-up and came out swinging last week after her Democratic challenger, Paul Johnson, accused her of taking campaign cash from Nevada developers thirsty for Arizona's water.

Hull has a 30-point lead in the polls. She could have scoffed at the charge, as she has at the rest of Johnson's barbs, and gone back to counting her contributions and cooing over her grandkids. But she dropped the Granny Hull gimmick in a flash. Developers, water attorneys, even the guy Johnson cited as his inside source on the supposed secret water negotiations disavowed Johnson's accusations.

Hull held a press conference and called Johnson "a piece of whatever."
You go, girl.
Johnson did nothing to help his cause. I've seldom seen sloppier campaigning. Johnson himself has taken money from Vegas developers, and had gone so far this summer as to write a letter requesting money from Del Webb, whose CEO, Phil Dion, had hosted the now-infamous Las Vegas fund raiser for Hull on July 15. (For the record, Dion, who also happens to be the chairman of Hull's finance committee, spurned Johnson's request for cash, although Johnson had received a couple of small contributions from individual Del Webb employees earlier in the campaign.) And contrary to Johnson's claims, Del Webb says it's building a 12,000-home development near Henderson, Nevada, without Arizona water.

More important, Johnson hasn't delivered the goods. He hasn't offered up any proof that Hull and Nevada water interests are plotting. Herb Guenther--who is a Democratic candidate for the state Senate, a Yuma-area water official and Johnson's so-called source--told the press that Arizona and Nevada water officials haven't met in a year, since before Hull was governor. Proposals that would have Arizona sell water to Nevada were floated during the Symington administration.

Of Guenther's remarks, Johnson now says, "I knew exactly what Herb Guenther was going to say, but I guess I didn't set the expectation exactly right of the reporters."

And Johnson sticks by his original gripe. "I don't have a problem with her [Hull] meeting with them [the Nevada contributors]. I don't have a problem with her building up relationships. That's good stuff. It should happen. We do need to talk. You need to talk to everybody involved in the process. But it changed the minute she took a check."

Johnson says he never claimed there was a quid pro quo between Hull's acceptance of contributions and Nevada's purchase of Arizona water. He says he doesn't need to demonstrate one to prove his point--that Nevada will soon be out of water (and it will) and developers like Del Webb depend upon water to build their homes and turn profits (and they do) is enough to demonstrate that Hull may not have Arizona's best interests in mind.

That said, the Johnson campaign came on way too strong with way too little. The empty onslaught continued this week in the form of television commercials in which Johnson vows that if he's elected governor, Nevada won't get one drop of Arizona's water.

As one Arizona political consultant puts it, "They're doing it like somehow this is Chinatown, and Paul Johnson is Jack Nicholson. Give me a break."

By now, the local press has labeled Johnson's political career--not to mention his chances at becoming governor--DOA.

Paul Johnson's political aspirations may be DOA, but his charge shouldn't be. The irony is that for all his fumbling, Johnson has hit on one of the most important political issues in Arizona--water--and he raises legitimate concerns about our governor's interests in protecting that commodity.

Jane Hull knows that. Why else would she shoo her grandkids and don the Big Red costume?

As is often the case in political debates, neither candidate has a tenable position.

Jane Hull is wrong when she says it is ludicrous to imagine that Nevadans--including developers and Kenny Guinn, the state's Republican nominee for governor and a former Del Webb board member--would contribute $31,000 to her campaign with the goal of currying favor so they can get more Arizona water for less money.

Does she think they just want to be friends?
But Paul Johnson is equally wrong when he says we should never, ever consider selling Nevada a drop of water. That is a naive statement, a political ploy, and one that could jeopardize a delicate, bipartisan process that took years to negotiate and is designed to protect Arizona from losing a lot of water to California by selling a little bit to Nevada.

Some history: The state's founders did one thing right--they protected Arizona's water. From the state's earliest days, our leaders demanded a lion's share of water from the Colorado River--2.8 million acre-feet a year. (An acre-foot covers an acre to the depth of one foot, 326,000 gallons--enough to meet the needs of two average households for a year.)  

California--always Goliath to Arizona's David when it comes to water demands--balked at the feds' water allocations, and it wasn't until 1963 that the U.S. Supreme Court finally settled the issue and gave Arizona the water it wanted.

Trouble is, even with the Central Arizona Project in place, Arizona hasn't been able to use that water. The plan was that CAP water would be used for agriculture until cities grew enough to need the water. But Arizona agriculture couldn't afford the high-priced CAP water, and Californians began making noises about changing the law and siphoning off some of Arizona's water. Arizona officials, who estimate that we'll be using our capacity by 2027, panicked.

At the same time, Arizona's congressional fortunes were changing. Strong leaders like Barry Goldwater, Carl Hayden, Ernest McFarland, John Rhodes Jr. and Mo Udall had protected the state's water interests. But the first four were long gone and Udall was resigning from Congress, giving up the chairmanship of the powerful Natural Resources Committee. His replacement, U.S. Representative George Miller of California, immediately began talking about reallocating water.

In fact, Arizona may well have lost water to California, if it weren't for the change in power in the House in 1994. With the Republicans in charge, Arizona had more clout.

But not necessarily enough. Senator Harry Reid of Nevada was--and is--a close friend of President Bill Clinton's. Arizona water officials continued to fret about the state's future water supply. Nevada has enough water now, but is estimated to run out early in the next century. Arizona couldn't hope to repel California while battling with Nevada.

As it stood then, Arizona was losing 800,000 acre-feet of water a year to California. According to the "Law of the River" (yes, it's really called that), if one state is not using its water allocation, another can use it. So Arizona water officials came up with a concept to "bank" the water underground, to save our allotment each year for future use.

California and other states with water shortages would never stand for that. Further, it costs money to store water. Why not get paid for the water and appease the needy states now, while reserving enough for Arizona's future? The concept of interstate trading was born. Arizona officials figured they had enough water allotted to the state to bank hundreds of thousands of acre-feet each year, and still sell a small portion--say, 100,000 acre-feet a year. This wouldn't amount to more than the proverbial drop in the bucket for California, but it would go a long way toward meeting Nevada's needs while turning Nevada into a much-needed ally.

Beginning in the early 1990s, water banking took place on an ad hoc basis. It's usually recharged into the ground, or offered to farmers at a discount, as a substitute for groundwater. In 1996, the Arizona Legislature approved a water-banking bill that allows for formal banking to be used by cities as a hedge against drought. Last year, Arizona banked 300,000 acre-feet, and for the first time used its entire Colorado River water allocation.

With the exception of a pilot program in the mid-1990s that sold 50,000 acre-feet of water to Nevada and California, Arizona has yet to sell any excess water, banked or otherwise. Interstate pacts that would allow water sales have not been written. Before they can be, federal rules must be put in place, and then Arizona and Nevada must hammer a specific agreement.

The federal rules should be completed by the end of the year. They must then go to Congress for 60 days; Congress has only the authority to yea or nay. So it will likely be next spring before Nevada and Arizona can hold official negotiations.

But the reality is that Arizona and Nevada have been talking water for years.

While Arizona gubernatorial candidates debate semantics--"brainstorming sessions" versus "meetings" versus "official negotiations"--in Nevada, that state's candidates for U.S. Senate are telling the people the deal is all but done.

In a recent debate between incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator Harry Reid and his foe, U.S. Representative John Ensign, the Republican challenger said, "Senator Reid's been working, I've been working, Governor Miller's been working, our water district's been working with Arizona trying to get some of their unused allocation where we can bank that underground . . . so that we can have the type of water for the quality of life that we need in southern Nevada for the next 60-70 years. That's very close to having an agreement."

Arizona's legislature has made sure Nevada will not have free rein in the official negotiations, when they do happen. The water-banking legislation has many built-in protections for Arizona. Water can only be sold after Arizona gets as much water as it needs, and even then, no more than 100,000 acre-feet can be sold each year. A trading state will take its water directly from the Colorado River, but must pay for the underground storage costs accrued by Arizona. Arizona can renege on the deal at any time.  

But the specific terms of the agreements--like cost and amount of water--will be left to Arizona and Nevada officials. The governor does not have direct control, but she or he could certainly have tremendous influence over the outcome of the negotiations.

Here's why.
By statute, the Arizona Water Banking Authority will negotiate the terms of the contract with Nevada. There are five board members--three private citizens and two public officials, the president of the board of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (an elected body) and the director of the Department of Water Resources (DWR). The DWR director has the most power, i.e., veto power. For a contract to be approved, the director and two other board members must approve.

The DWR director serves at the pleasure of the governor. The private citizens are appointed by the governor to six-year terms.

We need a governor who will negotiate wisely. If that means selling water to Nevada, fine. But the governor must get the best terms possible for Arizona, and that includes making certain that if we do sell water to Nevada, it can demonstrate where it will get replacement water in 30 years, when we can't afford to sell any more.

Paul Johnson has a point when he raises the question of the governor's interests in Arizona water versus Nevada development.

Too bad no one's listening.

Contact Amy Silverman at 229-8443, or online at

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