Arizona Drought Talks Stumble Over Proposed Water Cuts to Indian Communities

Drought negotiations in Arizona hit a snag this week over the fairness of proposals that an Indian community says would cut water to tribes while boosting the supply to agriculture.

This week, a public meeting for Arizona’s Drought Contingency Plan Steering Committee that had been scheduled for Thursday was called off with less than 48 hours’ notice. In a statement, the Central Arizona Project, which is hosting the talks, cited a need “to give time for additional discussions and analysis.”

Arizona is one of seven states working on a joint effort to address a looming potential drought on the Colorado River. Since July, a steering committee comprised of about 40 representatives from cities and municipalities, farmers, state legislators, and tribes have held public meetings every two weeks as they negotiate how potential water cuts would be distributed among them, should Lake Mead enter into an official drought in 2020.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation puts those odds at roughly 50/50. A Tier 1 drought shortage is declared if Lake Mead’s levels drop below 1,075 feet above sea level. At noon on October 26, its levels stood just below 1,079 feet. The reservoir supplies Arizona with 40 percent of its water.

The cancellation of the latest public meeting comes about a week after the Gila River Indian Community sent a letter to the leaders of the steering committee, Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, and Ted Cook, general manager of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District.

In the letter, sent October 19, Governor Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community rejected the latest proposal, calling it “patently inequitable.”

One of the factors he cited was the agriculture mitigation pool, a supply of water pulled from other sources that would make up for water cuts to farmers.

“It would provide more water to the Ag Pool than [the Ag Pool] would receive under the 2007 Interim Guidelines,” he wrote. Nor did the proposal fully mitigate the Non-Indian Agriculture (NIA) priority pool, he added, even as it put “certain CAP water users in a better position” than they would’ve been otherwise.

The letter laid out several principles that the Gila River Indian Community wanted to see in a drought contingency plan. Any plan, Lewis wrote, would need to reduce the use of water from Lake Mead, rather than continuing to draw water from the reservoir in order to lessen the impact of drought cuts. Such a plan would also need to seek to fill up the lake, he wrote.

Lewis called for a plan in which all “water users should bear some of the pain of the cuts … No one group of water users should be protected from the consequences of the adoption of [the Drought Contingency Plan].” This fundamental principle of fairness, he wrote, “is of particular concern to tribes because we are more often than not the ones expected to sacrifice when others do not.”

His final principle staunchly rejected any plan that would force tribes to give up tribal water rights.

The tribe is being asked to accept major cuts to their water, while farmers would receive more than double the water they would’ve received without the drought plan, according to Don Pongrace, counsel for the Gila River Indian Community. No Drought Contingency Plan can be adopted without the Gila River Indian Community's consent.

“The sense that we can somehow be pressured into a possible agreement for a 721,800 acre-feet cut without compensation is absolutely insane,” Pongrace said. “And yet that was publicly made as a proposal.”

At the last public meeting, on October 10, tempers flared when the Central Arizona Project shared draft numbers for next year’s water orders indicating that the NIA priority pool would face extensive cuts under a drought contingency plan. Numbers from previous years had suggested the NIA pool would be affected by drought cuts, but not so severely.

The meeting also highlighted a major point of contention throughout these negotiations: the agriculture mitigation pool. Farmers are first in line to receive water cuts, and so they have called for other water users to contribute to a separate supply of water that would help offset those cuts.

The previous numbers helped agricultural interests justify this pool, which was supposed to compensate for the water they would lose under a Drought Contingency Plan as compared to the cuts they would have received under interim guidelines set in 2007.

Under the 2019 order numbers, however, the agricultural sector would receive more water than it would’ve received under the 2007 guidelines. For a drought plan that was supposed to ensure everyone shared the pain of water cuts, the fact that agriculture stood to gain struck the Gila River Indian Community, as well as other participants, as unfair.

After that meeting, leaders offered another proposal, Pongrace said, which the Gila River Indian Community rejected in its letter.

Of the current NIA pool, about 52,000 acre-feet go to seven Valley cities annually. Another 149,000 acre-feet go to two tribes, including the Gila River Indian Community, according to slides from a briefing in June by the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Central Arizona Project.

Although Thursday’s public meeting was canceled, Governor Lewis met with drought negotiation leaders on Wednesday, according to Pongrace. There, the community presented an alternative to the other proposals it had received and subsequently rejected, he said.

“We believe it’s a viable alternative,” Pongrace said. The Gila River Indian Community would continue to refine the plan, which he declined to share with Phoenix New Times.

Other stakeholders are also concerned about the equitability of drought negotiations and the way proposals thus far appear to be directed at benefiting agricultural interests.

“The direction of these conversations has been going the wrong way,” Cynthia Campbell, the city of Phoenix water attorney who sits on the Steering Committee, said. “They’ve been pursuing a conversation that has been more focused on mitigating agriculture instead of Lake Mead.”

“They’re being put in a better position than they would’ve been if they don’t even do a drought contingency plan,” Campbell said, referring to agriculture. “And that is fundamentally unfair, especially when that’s being done at the expense of the water users in the NIA pool.”

Phoenix is one of the seven Valley cities that draw water from the NIA pool and would lose water under cuts to it.

Stefanie Smallhouse, president of the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation, who sits on the Steering Committee, declined to comment for this story.

The Steering Committee has two more public meetings, in addition to the workshops and unofficial smaller meetings, in which to work out a Drought Contingency Plan that can be taken to the Arizona State Legislature for approval. Those public meetings are scheduled for November 8 and November 29.

Read Governor Lewis' letter to drought negotiation leaders here:
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Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.