With Days to Go, Arizona Lawmakers Introduce Drought Plan Legislation

The Central Arizona Project canal, in Pinal County.
The Central Arizona Project canal, in Pinal County. Elizabeth Whitman/Phoenix New Times
With a critical federal deadline just two days away, Arizona lawmakers have introduced legislation for a Drought Contingency Plan aimed at preventing the Colorado River from falling to catastrophically low levels.

Legislators in the House and Senate introduced joint resolutions Monday that would authorize Arizona to sign the interstate Drought Contingency Plan. The window to vote on and pass this legislation is shrinking rapidly — Arizona has until January 31, per the federal government — and the bills still must pass several procedural hurdles before reaching a full vote.

The Senate joint resolution must go through the Water and Agriculture Committee, while the House version has been assigned to the Natural Resources, Energy and Water Committee.

In December, Brenda Burman, the commissioner of the federal Bureau of Reclamation, gave the seven Colorado River basin states — Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming — until January 31 to agree on a joint Drought Contingency Plan. If they do not, the federal government will step in and come up with its own plan to protect the Colorado River.

Arizona is the only state that has not signed off on the plan. It is also the only state that requires legislation to do so. Draft versions of possible legislation were first circulated nearly two weeks ago, as stakeholders and legislators have continued to argue over demands for more money and water.

On Monday evening, House Speaker Rusty Bowers also introduced a separate set of bills to tweak existing law. These changes would allow Arizona to implement a separate internal plan to distribute cutbacks among Arizona water users that are laid out in the interstate Drought Contingency Plan.

Technically, these bills do not have the same January 31 deadline as the legislation authorizing Arizona to sign off on a Drought Contingency Plan. Drought negotiators have said they do not want to see legislation for Arizona's internal plan to be left behind, even if the state signs off on the multistate plan.

The bills related to the internal plan would create a fund for groundwater infrastructure for Pinal County farmers; another fund to pay water users to leave water in Lake Mead, the reservoir on the Colorado River from which Arizona takes its water; and amend laws spelling out how a water user can earn credits for storing water underground.

On Monday, Arizona Senate President Karen Fann introduced legislation to the same effect, in a 28-page package.

SB 1227 now sits in the Senate Water and Agriculture Committee. The House bills were referred to the Natural Resources, Energy and Water committee, where it is scheduled to be heard Tuesday afternoon.

The consequences of missing the January 31 deadline worry state leaders and key stakeholders. If the federal government is allowed to dictate cutbacks to states' supply of Colorado River water, Arizona will lose far more water than the 18 percent it currently stands to lose under a Drought Contingency Plan.
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Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.