As Pieces of Arizona Drought Plan Fall in Place, CAP Insists on Signing Rights

Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam in 2010.
Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam in 2010. mariordo59/Flickr
A longstanding disagreement over whether the Central Arizona Project has the right to sign Arizona's Drought Contingency Plan will likely resurface today, possibly holding up recent progress for a final agreement with the state.

Much has happened in the past week. A controversial offer by the Central Arizona Project that generated both criticism and concern was pushed off the table, for now. The Gila River Indian Community Council approved a major deal Wednesday that would supply the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment with water it desperately needs in order to assuage developers’ concerns about building in the desert.

But one major remaining issue — one that has sunk drought talks in years past — is the legal question of whether the Central Arizona Project will be allowed to co-sign Arizona's Drought Contingency Plan alongside the Arizona Department of Water Resources. The Central Arizona Project holds its monthly board meeting at its headquarters in north Phoenix, beginning at 8:30 a.m.

“The board of CAP is still concerned about the issue of signature,” Terry Goddard, a board member, said on Wednesday.

The Central Arizona Project operates a 336-mile canal that transports water from the Colorado River to Maricopa, Pima, and Pinal Counties, and it has an elected, 15-member board representing those central Arizona counties. The Department of Water Resources is tasked with ensuring a long-term water supply for the entire state.

The board of the Central Arizona Project must approve of any DCP before it can head to the Arizona Legislature, which will then authorize Tom Buschatzke, the ADWR director, to sign. But Goddard implied the board would not do that without first receiving co-signing status.

"I don’t see how we could, consistent with our obligations,” he said. “I think we have to insist on being one of the players at the table.”

He said he expected the board to put forward a motion today saying it favored the progress made at the latest meeting of the DCP Steering Committee — with a footnote.

“We still need to have our place at the table,” Goddard said. “We’ll have to have that caveat.”

That board’s demand comes out of its responsibilities to taxpayers, Goddard said.

The board is authorized to levy one property tax on the three counties of up to 10 cents per $100 of assessed value, and another property tax of up to 4 cents per $100. Both taxes are currently levied at the maximum amounts.

In a special meeting on November 15, the board authorized the use of up to $60 million to create a conservation program that would help obtain water for mitigation under a DCP.

Given that funding, “I don’t see in good conscience how the board can pass a blank check,” Goddard said. “We would not be doing our duty as elected officials, if we did not make sure that we had a way to be at the table if, in fact, there is any failure of the parties to carry through the contractual agreements of the DCP.”

Sally Lee, a spokesperson for the Department of Water Resources, said the department was not able to comment on the issue of signing.

In the most recent public clash over this issue, in mid-November, the Department of Water Resources argued that only the department has the legal authority to represent the entire state of Arizona.

Goddard pushed the issue, asking what harm it would do for the Central Arizona Project to be a signatory, “given that we’re the major institution in the state to cut back on our use and to provide significant cash to make mitigation happen?”

“The state’s authority is not up for sale,” Nicole Klobas, an attorney with the Department of Water Resources, shot back.

Since then, the latest kerfuffle triggered by the CAP board — over another issue — has only just been smoothed over.

“The state’s authority is not up for sale,” Nicole Klobas, an attorney with the Arizona Department of Water Resources

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At the latest DCP Steering Committee meeting, which took place on November 29, board member Karen Cesare presented a “Friendly Amendment” that drew criticism from State Senator Lisa Otondo and ADWR Director and Steering Committee co-chair Tom Buschatzke.

Both of them penned letters to DCP Steering Committee members on Monday, pointedly criticizing an offer by the Central Arizona Project in the amendment to pay for water from the Colorado River Indian Tribes.

That offer, it appeared, would have effectively used the tribes' water to offset losses to the Central Arizona Project under a DCP, rather than remaining in Lake Mead for the purposes of boosting the reservoir's levels, known as system conservation.

By Tuesday, it turned out that the CAP's offer was irrelevant.

Then, last Friday — three days before Otondo and Buschatzke sent their letters — Margaret Vick, special counsel for water resources to the Colorado River Indian Tribes, wrote an email to Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project and co-chair of the Steering Committee. Vick sent it to Buschatzke, and Leslie Meyers, of the Bureau of Reclamation, as well. Since the Friendly Amendment was presented the day before, she wrote, some stakeholders were “concerned” that the Colorado River Indian Tribes’ water would not remain in Lake Mead.

“We do not want there to be any misunderstanding about our intention to only create System Conservation that will stay in Lake Mead,” Vick continued. In order to avoid holding up DCP talks, “we want to confirm that the CRIT water will be System Conservation.”

On Monday, Cooke responded to Vick, saying that although the Central Arizona Project “would still be willing to provide a financial backstop,” he agreed to “move forward on the basis of your message."

The following day, after Otondo’s and Buschatzke’s letters had been made public, Cooke wrote an email to Buschatzke, copying the entire CAP board and steering committee.

“Most of the Steering Committee may be unaware of the correspondence that I shared with you yesterday morning, prior to your letter being sent,” Cooke wrote. CAP’s offer to buy CRIT water was “no longer needed,” he said, citing “feedback from CRIT representatives.”

He concluded, "We have truly made much progress in the last few weeks, and I think we are close to wrapping up ... discussions very soon." 
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Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.