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Does it make sense to build in a desert? Yes, Arizona's leaders maintain, despite an ongoing drought with no end in sight. Above, Sun City, Arizona.EXPAND
Does it make sense to build in a desert? Yes, Arizona's leaders maintain, despite an ongoing drought with no end in sight. Above, Sun City, Arizona.
Ken Lund/Flickr

Arizona Water Leaders Lean on Developers to Support Drought Plan

As the Colorado River teeters on the brink of shortage, water leaders in Arizona are begging developers to pressure legislators to sign off on a drought plan, while also aiming to reassure those developers that despite a drier future, it's safe to come to Arizona and build.

“We need all of you to go to your favorite legislator and express your support for the Drought Contingency Plan,” Tom Buschatzke, the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, told a group of 250 development industry representatives and others during a breakfast meeting Friday. “I implore you.”

He called the plan “a delicate balance” among many different parties in Arizona — cities, tribes, farmers, and others — adding, “It’s very easy for the whole plan to quickly fall apart.”

The Arizona legislature has until January 31 to create a law that allows Arizona to sign on to a multistate Drought Contingency Plan and also implement an internal plan spelling out how water users will share cuts to Colorado River water. Those cuts are likely to happen in 2020, when the federal government expects to declare the river to be in an official shortage.

Without a drought contingency plan, the federal government will step in and impose cuts far more severe than Arizona would face with one, Arizona leaders expect. This outcome would put the state in an uncertain, unpredictable position, they say.

At the breakfast, a weary-looking Buschatzke, along with Ted Cooke, his equally worn co-leader in Arizona’s drought negotiations, tried to explain why the plan was so important for the state. They’d given some version of the same spiel many times over the past few months — privately to legislators, publicly, during panels at educational events on water — but this audience was different.

In a desert state where leaders have presented a unified, singular message about how growth drives the economy, the need for certainty about the future of water is paramount.

Without that security, developers, who comprise one of the state’s most influential industries, have no reason to come, and no reason to stay — an idea that local and state leaders alike publicly and regularly acknowledge.

“The growth is evident all around us,” Governor Doug Ducey said in his inaugural address in early January. “Every day, more people are moving here.”

A few days later, Phoenix interim mayor Thelda Williams urged fellow City Council members to vote to increase water rates  in order to fund the infrastructure necessary for Phoenix to deal with shortages on the Colorado River.

“A lot of our economy is based on continued growth,” she said. “The reason we continue to get new corporations here is because we’ve always been able to say, ‘Water is not a problem; we have it for 100 years.’”

But the next few years, never mind the next century, promise to be very dry. Decades of careful water management insulated many people from the reality that Arizona’s water is limited. Projected shortages on the Colorado River, against the backdrop of a drier, hotter climate, have recently started to draw attention to the future of water security in this arid state.

What people care about is whether they have water coming out of the tap, and how much it costs, said Cheryl Lombard, the president and CEO of Valley Partnership, the development advocacy group that hosted Friday’s breakfast. Now, they no longer take both for granted. “People are starting to wonder,” she told Phoenix New Times after the event.

The idea that Arizona’s water future is secure, despite drought and shortages, is “the biggest economic message we can have out there,” Lombard said. “Homeowners … they really need that security.”

Between groundwater, Colorado River water, and other supplies that could emerge through technology like desalination, Arizona had enough water, she said. It just needed the money to move it to the right places.

And the first step to thriving in a drier future is the Drought Contingency Plan, along with all the side deals — big or small — that accompany it. At least, that was the carefully crafted message that Buschatzke, Lombard, and others seemed keen on sending.

At Friday’s meeting, Buschatzke and Cooke tried to strike a balance. They emphasized that a looming shortage on the Colorado River is dire, and real enough that developers should support the Drought Contingency Plan, but they also explained the plan as helping the state successfully transition to a drier future.

“Academic scientists are warning us: This is the future,” Buschatzke said, aiming his red laser pointer at a graph that showed the risk of Lake Mead, the reservoir on the Colorado River that Arizona draws from, dipping to catastrophically low levels between now and the year 2026.

Cooke took the podium. The Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District, an entity that is vital to developers by helping them meeting legal requirements to have sufficient groundwater, was in a good position right now, despite the drought on the Colorado River, Cooke said.

That security was thanks in large part to a deal that the district had all but secured with the Gila River Indian Community, which would provide the district with 900,000 acre-feet of water (an acre-foot is 326,000 gallons) over 25 years. The nearly closed deal was “monumental,” Cooke said. “Having certainty in hand is the important baseline,” he added.

The reason the deal is only nearly closed, and not signed, sealed, and delivered, is because it is contingent upon the Drought Contingency Plan getting through the Legislature.

But unlike Buschatzke, Cooke did not beg developers to call their legislators and demand they pass the Drought Contingency Plan.

Instead, he warned that the Drought Contingency Plan is based on good faith. Parties are still working out side agreements, which are separate from the legislation and don’t have to be finished by January 31, but in some cases those agreements, which lay out exchanges of water and money, still depend on its passage.

“It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg thing,” Cooke said. “There needs to be a good deal of trust.”

Governor Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community stepped up, reiterating the message that the Drought Contingency Plan was Arizona's best bet for a secure water future — and with it, future growth.

The plan wasn’t perfect, he said, but “without it, we are left with doubt and ambiguity.”

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