As Deadline Looms, Arizona Cancels Another Drought Planning Meeting

Lake Mead in 2012
Lake Mead in 2012 Bureau of Reclamation/Flickr
A major public meeting in Arizona that was scheduled for Thursday to discuss plans to deal with a potential drought on the Colorado River has been canceled. Again.

For the second time in two weeks, the 38-member steering committee for Arizona's Drought Contingency Plan needs more time to negotiate and will not meet as planned, the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Central Arizona Project said in two announcements on Monday and Tuesday.

Sally Lee, spokesperson for the ADWR, said that steering committee members were notified at around 2 p.m. on Monday and on Tuesday. Last month's canceled October 25 meeting was called off with even less notice — less than 48 hours' worth.

Initially, organizers said Thursday's steering committee meeting would be replaced with a private workgroup meeting to discuss mitigation. But by Tuesday, that private meeting had been canceled too, per steering committee co-chairs Tom Buschatzke, director of the ADWR, and Ted Cooke, general manager of CAP.

In the context of these drought negotiations, mitigation essentially means compensating for water cuts to farmers by giving them a supply of water cobbled together from other users. The subject has been contentious throughout drought negotiations, and it is a major factor in the recent cancellations.

"Stakeholders participating in mitigation discussions have indicated that there are still major areas of conceptual disagreement that are not likely to be reconciled" before Thursday, the cancellation notice on the Central Arizona Project's website read on Tuesday.

As of Tuesday at 4:30 p.m., that posting still stated, inaccurately, that the steering committee meeting would be replaced with a workgroup meeting.

A more up-to-date notice from the ADWR on Tuesday said that when that workgroup meeting was scheduled, "we anticipated that delegates who were working on comprehensive mitigation proposals would be ready to share them" at Thursday's meeting.

That turned out not to be the case.

"We have been informed by certain parties that they need more time to refine their proposals," ADWR's statement continued. "When it becomes clear that the time is right to hold the next meeting, we will set a date and inform you."

Organizers offered a similar justification when they canceled the meeting at the end of October. In a statement at the time, CAP said it was calling off the meeting “to give time for additional discussions and analysis.”

The steering committee's final meeting is scheduled for November 29, but given the last-minute cancellations of the last two, whether that meeting will indeed take place remains to be seen. The weeks between now and the canceled October 25 meeting have been filled with a flurry of private meetings, proposals, private negotiations, and letters of protest among Arizona's water users and their representatives.

Since July, a steering committee of about 40 representatives from cities and municipalities, farmers, legislators, and tribes have met publicly every two weeks, with the exception of the last meeting and the one planned for Thursday.

By the end of November, the committee is supposed to negotiate how potential water cuts would be distributed among the Arizona's water users, if Lake Mead enters into an official drought in 2020. Arizona's own negotiations are part of a broader effort by seven states to deal with the potential drought on the Colorado River.

The odds of this are about 50/50, according the federal Bureau of Reclamation. A Tier 1 drought shortage is declared if the Lake Mead reservoir’s levels drop below 1,075 feet above sea level. At 5 p.m. on November 6, its levels stood just above 1,078 feet. Lake Mead supplies Arizona with 40 percent of its water.

Heather Macre, a board member of the Central Arizona Project who does not sit on the steering committee but is familiar with the negotiations, said that everyone was concerned about making the November deadline. But she also suggested it was somewhat flexible, because Arizona needs to get legislative approval for its plan, and the legislative session doesn't begin until January.

"Even if we have it mostly done by November and we’re still tweaking in December, we can get it to the Legislature in January," Macre said. No one really wanted to do that, she added.

"I don't want to push the deadline any more than anyone else does," she said. "I think we can get it done by the end of the month. And if we don’t, we still do have a little bit of time." 
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Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.