As Drought Deadline Looms, Arizona Lawmakers Take Water 101

The Hoover Dam and Lake Mead.
The Hoover Dam and Lake Mead. Prayitno/Flickr

Arizona legislators and staff are attending closed-door primers on water policy in advance of a critical January 31 federal deadline for the state to approve the Drought Contingency Plan.

The first of three meetings occurred on Friday afternoon and lasted two and a half hours. The session was led by Central Arizona Project general manager Ted Cooke and Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke.

Also in attendance were new and returning lawmakers from both caucuses, including Sine Kerr, Lisa Otondo, Raquel Terán, Becky Nutt, Rosanna Gabaldón, and John Fillmore. About 15 to 20 of their staffers were present too, Senate staff said.

Additional policy primers are scheduled to take place on Tuesday and Wednesday, January 15 and 16. Cooke and Buschatzke would give the exact same presentation during each session, said Mike Philipsen, spokesperson for Arizona Senate Republicans. Legislators could pick any of those sessions to attend, depending on their schedules.

The sessions, which are focused on the Drought Contingency Plan, aimed to teach legislators what the plan entails, which states are involved, and how a shortage on the Colorado River is defined.

Grasping these fundamentals is necessary for legislators to understand and approve a drought plan that Buschatzke would sign on behalf of Arizona .

Senate staff said that the sessions were closed to the media and the public so that legislators and their staff could feel comfortable learning the basics of water policy away from public scrutiny. They were also trying to prevent stakeholders from swaying votes before legislation has even been drafted.

“We’re not trying to exclude anyone,” Philipsen said, outside of the meeting. “We’ll continue to be open about this whole process.”

Primer materials summarized the information accumulated over the last six months of meetings of the Drought Contingency Plan steering committee, which continues to hash out the details of a final plan.

“There’s no political debates. We have two technical water experts in there that are explaining,” said Grant Hanna, a policy adviser for the state Senate. “So it’s purely informational, and it’s been conveyed as such. Education only.”

click to enlarge Ted Cooke, left, and Ted Buschatzke, co-chairs of the Arizona Steering Committee. - ELIZABETH WHITMAN/PHOENIX NEW TIMES
Ted Cooke, left, and Ted Buschatzke, co-chairs of the Arizona Steering Committee.
Elizabeth Whitman/Phoenix New Times
The multistate Drought Contingency Plan spells out how the seven Colorado River Basin states — Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, California, and Arizona — would share cuts to their supply of Colorado River water in the event that the federal government declares a shortage.

The idea is that by leaving more water in the Lake Powell and Lake Mead reservoirs, states will be able to stave off even more catastrophic shortages. Cutbacks would occur when the federal government declares a shortage, which it is more likely to do than not in 2020.

Each state also has an internal plan spelling out how those cuts will be distributed. Within Arizona, drought negotiations have amounted to a fierce tug of war between cities, tribes, farmers and ranchers, developers, and other groups over who will give up some of their supply of Colorado River water, and at what price.

Because of the rapidly approaching federal deadline, signing off on the Drought Contingency Plan is at the forefront of the legislative agenda when lawmakers convene for the new session that starts today. Legislators will have just under three weeks to review and approve an extremely complex plan.

If the Colorado River basin states do not finish a Drought Contingency Plan by January 31, the Department of Interior will ask each state to recommend actions to ward off shortages on the river. Arizona’s drought negotiators have warned that they expect those actions would entail cutbacks far more severe than those Arizona would face under a Drought Contingency Plan.

According to his office, the Drought Contingency Plan is a top priority of Arizona Governor Doug Ducey during the 54th Legislature, and he devoted significant time to the issue during his January 7 inaugural speech. Ducey is expected to address the drought planning again during his State of the State speech today.
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Joseph Flaherty is a staff writer at New Times. Originally from Wisconsin, he is a graduate of Middlebury College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Contact: Joseph Flaherty
Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.