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Ted Cooke, left, and Ted Buschatzke, co-chairs of the Arizona Steering Committee.EXPAND
Ted Cooke, left, and Ted Buschatzke, co-chairs of the Arizona Steering Committee.
Elizabeth Whitman/Phoenix New Times

In the Nick of Time, Arizona Drought Talks Take Tentative Step Forward

Arizona water users cautiously supported a plan Thursday that laid out how they would share cuts to the state’s supply of Colorado River water under a multistate Drought Contingency Plan.

During a meeting of the 38-member Steering Committee, representatives from municipalities, tribes, agriculture, irrigation districts, the Arizona Legislature, and other sectors largely agreed that the plan was not perfect, but it was workable.

After nearly six months of contentious negotiations, the breakthrough came just two weeks before Arizona is scheduled to join fellow Lower Basin states Nevada and California at a meeting of the Colorado River Water Users Association in Las Vegas. There, the expectation was, Arizona would confirm that it had a viable internal framework to implement the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP.)

Until Thursday, it was not clear that Arizona would be capable of pulling that off.

The plan would still need to be finalized, but stakeholders and observers are far more optimistic than they were at the last public forum that discussed the DCP, two weeks ago.

Thursday’s plan “really only came to final fruition the Friday after Thanksgiving and a little bit Monday morning,” Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said at the beginning of Thursday's meeting.

Then, he and co-chair Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, presented the plan. It had two major elements. One was that it would compensate farmers, cities, and tribes for the Colorado River water that they would lose if the river enters a shortage. The plan’s second component would offset the water pulled from the Colorado River for this compensation, which is also known as mitigation.

The plan contains different scenarios for mitigation, depending on how severe the shortage becomes. Key details of the plan still need to be sorted out, especially funding.

The Arizona Drought Contingency Plan Steering Committee, during a three-and-a-half-hour meeting on Thursday.EXPAND
The Arizona Drought Contingency Plan Steering Committee, during a three-and-a-half-hour meeting on Thursday.
Elizabeth Whitman/Phoenix New Times

Nevertheless, the plan, which would take effect in the year 2020, is a potential roadmap for Arizona under the seven-state Drought Contingency Plan — an attempt to stave off catastrophic shortage on the Colorado River.

Projections from the federal Bureau of Reclamation show that the reservoir Lake Mead, which supplies Lower Basin states, has a 57 percent chance of hitting a Tier 1 shortage in 2020. Lake Mead would sit at 1,075 feet above sea level, or lower, under a Tier 1 shortage. At a Tier 2 shortage, the water would drop below 1,050 feet above sea level, and at Tier 3, 1,025 feet.

Depending on the severity of the shortage, Arizona would lose between 512,000 to 720,000 acre-feet of water from the Colorado River per year, until 2026. (An acre-foot is roughly 326,000 gallons.) These cuts represent a sizable increase from pre-existing drought guidelines, negotiated in 2007.

That framework specified that in a Tier 1 shortage, Arizona would lose 320,000 acre-feet of its annual allocation of 2.8 million acre-feet. But drought came quicker than the 2007 guidelines, which were supposed to last until 2026, allowed for, and so the DCP is intended to address this accelerated arrival of a shortage on the Colorado River.

However, the question of how Arizona water users, particularly cities, tribes, and farmers, would distribute those cuts among themselves has been beyond contentious. In the last five weeks, two meetings of the Steering Committee were canceled to give stakeholders more time to negotiate in privacy, which some contend is more productive.

A few key things coalesced at the right time in order for this new plan to emerge, and for it to garner the broad support that it did.

One was support from the office of Governor Doug Ducey, including a proposal Thursday to provide $30 million in appropriations to fund the DCP. On November 13, Ducey published an opinion piece in the Arizona Capitol Times urging “compromise from every stakeholder.”

“We see this as a serious proposal,” said Hunter Moore, policy advisor to the governor, during Thursday’s meeting. “Our administration is serious about moving the DCP forward in a very measured, well-thought-out way.”

Another was a flurry of private meetings and negotiations managed by four key players — the Bureau of Reclamation, the Arizona Department of Water Resources, the Central Arizona Project, and the Gila River Indian Community — to arrive at a plan that was not perfect, but good enough.

In the past two weeks, those four groups held separate meetings with stakeholder groups, said Cynthia Campbell, Steering Committee member and water adviser for the City of Phoenix.

“In public meetings, people feel like they have to take positions,” she said, describing the more-private “shuttle diplomacy” as more efficient and effective. She pointed out that in Thursday’s meeting, “No one said, ‘This can’t work,’ or, ‘It violates our fundamental principles.’”

Some members of the Steering Committee, as well as other stakeholders in Arizona’s water scene, have criticized private meetings, suggesting that all negotiations should be public.

“We tried to incorporate all of what we heard, in this plan,” Buschatzke said during Thursday’s meeting. He apologized to some water users, saying that although he reached out to various groups to get their feedback on the plan, those invitations were issued with late notice.

“For every three-hour meeting, there’s probably 20 hours of prep time, at least,” Karen Cesare, a board member of the Central Arizona Project board who also sits on the Steering Committee, told Phoenix New Times after Thursday’s meeting. That gathering was scheduled for three hours (it ran about a half-hour over) and followed two packed weeks of private talks between stakeholders.

Several Steering Committee members and public attendees said that the seeds for Thursday’s plan were planted two weeks ago, during a special meeting of the board of the Central Arizona Project. That day, the board offered a bare bones proposal that was quickly rejected by most stakeholders, in part for its suggestion that users consume water that had been stored in Lake Mead for the very purpose of maintaining water levels.

By Thursday, that idea had been replaced with the option of consuming conserved water and then replacing it, a process known as offsetting.

“The biggest key with this program is that it has an offset plan,” Warren Tenney, director of the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association, told New Times. Tenney, whose group represents 10 municipalities in Maricopa County, is not on the Steering Committee, but has been a close and vocal observer of the negotiations.

Many stakeholders expressed optimism, although obstacles and objections remain before a final plan can be hammered out.

There is the question of who will sign the Drought Contingency Plan for Arizona — at its special meeting two weeks ago, the CAP board put forward, then withdrew, a motion for it to co-sign with the Arizona Department of Water Resources. The board, unlike the department, does not represent the full state of Arizona, and the motion led to a heated exchange between board members and ADWR representatives.

This power struggle could yet derail progress on Arizona’s DCP plan. The tension resurfaced in the middle of Thursday’s meeting when Cesare presented a surprise “friendly amendment” to the plan. It aimed in part to set aside water for developers — another source of contention in these talks — that Thursday's plan did not.

Cesare later told New Times that the amendment addressed certain gaps in Thursday’s plan. She said she could not say whether or not the CAP board would support Thursday's plan in its next board meeting, on December 6.

Funding remains an issue, too. The CAP board has authorized $60 million to compensate water users to leave water in Lake Mead. The governor has proposed to secure $30 million in his 2019 budget. The Walton Family Foundation has also offered money.

That funding is significant, but it doesn’t cover all components of the plan.

Farmers, for instance, objected to the part of Thursday’s plan under which they’ll receive mitigation water from the Colorado River only for the first three years of the plan. Starting in 2023, they’ll lose that water and will have to start tapping into groundwater.

That mean they will have to develop infrastructure to access that groundwater, but where the money will come from to do so is not clear.

“The funding needs to be identified and confirmed at some point in the very near future,” Cooke said during Thursday’s meeting. He added that farmers would be expected to use existing federal cost-share programs, which are application-based. “It’s a very important component of the plan,” Cooke added.

Paul Orme, who represents farmers in Pinal County, said during the meeting that the plan accelerated groundwater development by eight years, without a clear path for funding. Under severe drought conditions, he added, farmers could be forced to fallow at least 40 percent of their fields.

Later in the meeting, Governor Stephen Roe Lewis, of the Gila River Indian Community, offered to sacrifice the community’s dollars through those federal programs, for the sake of farmers in Pinal County.

“We will give up our place in federal funding and support Pinal ag instead,” he said. “We’ll work with them as they transition to pumps.”

Significant work remains for stakeholders in the two weeks before the Las Vegas meeting. The Steering Committee will likely schedule another meeting within a week, said DeEtte Person, spokesperson for the Central Arizona Project, adding that there could be a mix of public and private discussions.

(Above: Materials from Thursday's meeting, including the proposed plan.)

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