11th-Hour Demands Plus Federal Shutdown Bog Down Arizona Drought Negotiations

The American Southwest is in a prolonged drought that is affecting water supplies like the Colorado River.
The American Southwest is in a prolonged drought that is affecting water supplies like the Colorado River. Sharon Mollerus/Flickr
First, the good news: The negotiators of Arizona’s Drought Contingency Plan have crafted the most detailed, concrete proposal to date laying out how Arizona will deal with expected cutbacks to its supply of Colorado River.

"We're closer than we've ever been, and I think we're in closure range," said Ted Cooke, co-chair of the steering committee of the Drought Contingency Plan and general manager of the Central Arizona Project, after a three-and-a-half-hour meeting Tuesday.

Now, the bad: The partial shutdown of the federal government is squeezing these negotiators. A January 31 deadline set by the government approaches inexorably. Meanwhile, a last-minute push on Tuesday by homebuilders to receive more water in the plan threatens the precarious balance of the existing proposal.

"Right now, not having [our legal counsel] at work is very difficult, for us. It's hard to move forward," Leslie Meyers, Phoenix area manager for the Bureau of Reclamation, told reporters on Tuesday. "It’s hard to get some of the agreements done."

The bureau, which is under the Department of the Interior, remains funded during the shutdown because it's funded through energy and water appropriations. But the Office of the Field Solicitor, which does legal work for the Department of Interior, is not. If the shutdown continues, Meyers said, it was possible that their legal counsel would be brought back to work, albeit with no pay.

"Thank goodness that [the Bureau of Reclamation employees] are still working and not furloughed," said Tom Buschatzke, the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the second co-chair of the drought plan steering committee. 'We'd be in a lot worse shape ... if that was the case."

The Arizona Legislature and Governor Doug Ducey must also approve the plan and authorize Buschatzke to sign it before January 31. The legislative session begins January 14.

click to enlarge Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke, Bureau of Reclamation area manager Leslie Meyers, and general manager of the Central Arizona Project Ted Cooke after a drought planning meeting on January 8, 2019. - ELIZABETH WHITMAN
Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke, Bureau of Reclamation area manager Leslie Meyers, and general manager of the Central Arizona Project Ted Cooke after a drought planning meeting on January 8, 2019.
Elizabeth Whitman
The Drought Contingency Plan is supposed to spell out how all of Arizona's various water users will share cuts of at least 512,000 acre-feet of water out of the 2.8 million acre-feet they take from the river each year. (An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons.) If it goes through, the plan would take effect from 2020 to 2026.

On Tuesday, homebuilder representatives brought talks to a boil again by reiterating a demand for water that generated sharp rebukes from some participants.

Their demand is one of the few remaining outstanding issues of Arizona's Drought Contingency Plan: They want 7,000 acre-feet of water per year to go to developers and homebuilders. The Central Arizona Project, which is putting $65 million into the Drought Contingency Plan, supports the idea. The Arizona Department of Water Resources, along with the city of Phoenix, the private water company EPCOR, the development group Valley Partnership, and several others are against it.

They point out that through a recent agreement for the Gila River Indian Community to supply water to the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District for the next 25 years, developers and homebuilders have plenty of water for the future.

However, that deal requires the Drought Contingency Plan to go through.

Spencer Kamps, vice president of legislative affairs for the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona and a steering committee member, said that homebuilders wanted more certainty than that, given that the Legislature has to approve of the Drought Contingency Plan.

"Any legislation going through the legislative process has uncertainty," he told fellow steering committee members.

What befuddled the members, however, was his demand for more water. Kamps asked, as developers have requested before, for 7,000 acre-feet to be included in the Drought Contingency Plan. This, he said, would be a backstop, just in case the Drought Contingency Plan, and thus the deal with Gila River Indian Community, did not go through.

"I struggle with this, just because what I'm hearing from the Gila River Indian Community is, there's a deal," said Sandy Fabritz, director of water resources for the mining company Freeport-McMoRan and a steering committee member. "It's all contingent on DCP going forward. I don't understand backstopping a deal that's already a deal."

Governor Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community pointed out that the deal signed with the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District was "self-executing." Once the Drought Contingency Plan went through, he would sign it; he was authorized to do so by the tribal council in December.

Sounding strained, he said he thought this matter had been taken care of in December. He added, "I hoped that we wouldn't still be talking about this issue as we're doing today."

Cynthia Campbell, water resources adviser for the city of Phoenix, said that including water for developers was "quizzical at best."

"It's hard to understand how this even works," she said, adding that a major flaw in the request was that it wasn't clear where the additional water would come from. "The city of Phoenix will not support a DCP that includes that," she said flatly.

Doug Dunham, of the private water provide EPCOR, echoed Campbell's comments before Cooke quietly suggested that this issue would not be resolved that day.

Later, Gila River Indian Community Councilman Barney Enos Jr. called the implication that the Community would not live up to its commitments "insulting" and "of more concern than the nonsensical proposal."

The American Southwest is entering its 20th year of a prolonged drought. Climate change promises to make the future even drier, with less precipitation and less of the snowpack crucial for feeding the Colorado River. More than half of Arizona's population lives in drought-stricken areas.

The Colorado River reservoirs Lake Powell and Lake Mead currently sit at 42 percent and 31 percent, respectively, of their capacity, according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Reclamation. Under the bureau's normal projections for Lake Mead, on which Arizona relies for 40 percent of its water, the reservoir will sit 1,068.1 feet above sea level by the end of 2019 — a level that amounts to a Tier 1 shortage that will lead to cutbacks in water supplies.

If conditions are drier than expected, Meyers told the steering committee Tuesday, Lake Mead could fall to 1,062.5 feet above sea level by the end of the year — if a Drought Contingency Plan is put in place. Without such a plan, which spells out how states will leave water in Lake Mead in order to boost its water level, the reservoir could fall to 1,055.5 feet above sea level.

If Arizona and other Colorado River Basin states do not agree on a Drought Contingency Plan by the end of January, the Department of Interior will step in. It will request recommendations from the seven states — besides Arizona, those are Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, California, and New Mexico — as to what the department should do to stave off worse shortages on the Colorado River. Then, it will take action.

Meanwhile, California's Metropolitan Water District said Saturday that it had begun to pump from Lake Mead water that it intentionally stored in that reservoir, citing concerns that a Drought Contingency Plan would fall through. 
On Monday, Governor Ducey said in his inaugural address that securing the state’s water future was one of the biggest challenges for Arizona.

He alluded to stalled Drought Contingency Plan discussions and implied that Arizona was in dark times, when it came to water.

“It’s simple. Arizona and our neighboring states draw more water from the Colorado River than mother nature puts back,” he said. “And with a critical shortfall imminent, we cannot kick the can any further.”
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Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.