Environmental Group Promotes Fake 'Clean Water Team' for CAP Water Board

Lake Mead in March 2018, its water at an elevation at 1088.14 feet above sea level. If it falls below 1,075 feet, Lake Mead will be in a drought.
Lake Mead in March 2018, its water at an elevation at 1088.14 feet above sea level. If it falls below 1,075 feet, Lake Mead will be in a drought. Alex Stephens/Bureau of Reclamation/Flickr
An environmental group has branded four Arizona candidates for the board of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District as the "Clean Water Team."

The problem is, the 15-member board does not deal with cleaning up water. The nonpartisan CAWCD board sets policies for the Central Arizona Project, which brings water from the Colorado River to Arizona cities including Phoenix and Tucson.

The political effort, mounted by the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Defense Action Fund, tells voters, “A clean and reliable water supply is vital for our future," and urges them to vote for candidates who will keep water "clean, safe, and affordable."

“The flier is very misleading, because it basically states that this [clean water] is the job of the CAWCD and it’s not,” said Kathleen Ferris, an expert on water in Arizona and a key figure in the 1980 Groundwater Management Act. Ferris has endorsed and donated $250 to a CAWCD candidate who is not on the flier, Alan Delaney, and donated $250 to Heather Macre, one of the candidates who is.

“If you’re voting for a candidate because you think they’re part of a clean water team, there isn’t a clean water team,” said Ferris, who received the mailers at her home.

This campaign, with its misleading language, demonstrates the importance of this race outside of Arizona, even as it remains overlooked within the state. As the partner of the Environmental Defense Fund, an environmental advocacy group, EDF Action lobbies for rules and laws to protect the environment.

What its fliers don’t say is that the EDF has possible political motivations for wanting certain candidates on the CAWCD board.

The Arizona water district plays a major role in the multistate Drought Contingency Plan, helping to negotiate cuts to Arizona’s various water users should Lake Mead drop into official drought territory with water levels below 1,075 feet above sea level. The federal Bureau of Reclamation gives Lake Mead a roughly 50-50 chance of doing so in 2020. The reservoir on the Colorado River supplies Arizona with 40 percent of its water.

One of EDF's priorities is water conservation, and so it is involved with the steering committee of the Drought Contingency Plan in Arizona to ensure its policy ideas are heard.

click to enlarge
One of the mailers put out by EDF Action.
Courtesy of Kathleen Ferris
“My colleagues and I believe the near-term solution … should emphasize conservation and water sharing agreements,” Kevin Moran, senior director of EDF’s Colorado River program, wrote in a blog post in August about the drought negotiations. Other groups want to do everything they can to avoid or minimize water cuts.

The campaign has a budget of about $285,000 and a reach of roughly 150,000 households in Maricopa County, according to EDF Action. Three versions of mailers are being distributed, all of which Phoenix New Times has viewed or obtained.

“URGENT NOTICE ABOUT YOUR WATER,” one notice blares in white letters on firetruck red background.

This mailer, falsely invoking a warning from a utility company, is the most alarmist of the three. Another has photographs of water flowing from a tap into a glass and a baby being bathed, with the text, “Clean and safe water: vital for life’s great moments.” The third has photos only of the candidates and text urging recipients to “Vote for the Clean Water Team.”

The alleged "team" includes candidates Lisa Atkins, Terry Goddard, Heather Macre, and Daniel Schweiker. All but Schweiker are incumbents. This year, 14 candidates are running for five seats. A term lasts six years.

EDF Action attempted to justify its misleading language as an effort to compete for voters' attention.

“Using the ‘clean water team’ is just a way to try and help voters to remember to vote for all four,” David Kelly, senior manager for EDF Action, told New Times via email. “As you well know, there are many races on the ballot this year and voters are inundated with information every day. We’d love to be able to get into more detail with voters about the policy details involved, but that’s simply not possible in such a crowded electoral environment.”

“The goal of our campaign is to ensure that voters understand the importance of this race and don’t forget to vote to put pro-conservation candidates on the board,” Kelly said. He added that EDF Action’s work was also designed to support the work of its and EDF’s Arizona policy experts, like Moran.

Kelly also said that the CAWCD was, in fact, involved in water quality. The connection was more roundabout than what the fliers would have voters believe, though.

“We view the work of the CAWCD Board as principally organized around the sustainable operation of a critical piece of water infrastructure that helps ensure a reliable and safe supply of clean drinking water for Arizonans,” Kelly said. “Board policies also directly relate to the long-term sustainability of the supply of clean water the CAP projects delivers.”

Similarly, candidate Heather Macre disputed the idea that the CAWCD is not about clean water. Although CAP functions as a water wholesaler, selling it to municipalities and utilities that carry out their own water treatment, “we are constantly looking at and monitoring the quality of water in the canal and on the river,” she said.

The CAWCD is also involved in negotiations that could put new, non-CAP sources of water into the canal, a process known as “wheeling.” The CAWCD would be looking at water quality in those circumstances, Macre said.

EDF Action's campaign is an independent expenditure program, so it would be illegal for any of the candidates to be involved.

Macre said she learned of the mailer through friends the week before last and did not have anything to do with its creation. Atkins said she was unaware of the mailer until a voter brought it to her attention last week. Schweiker and Goddard did not respond to requests for comment.
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Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.