Update: Arizona Approves Drought Plan to Fanfare but Feds Aren't Cheering

Joseph Flaherty
Governor Doug Ducey, flanked by lawmakers and other water stakeholders, signs legislation authorizing Arizona to approve the Drought Contingency Plan on January 31.
This story was updated at 10:50 a.m. on February 1, 2019.

Although Arizona approved legislation to join the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan before Thursday night's deadline, the federal government says the plan is unfinished.

In a press call on Friday morning, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said Arizona and California are still not done, despite the January 31 deadline she set for states last year.

As a result, the Bureau of Reclamation has submitted a notice to the Federal Register asking for recommendations from governors of the seven Colorado River Basin states "for protective actions Interior should take amid ongoing severe and prolonged drought," according to a statement from the bureau.

“Completion of drought contingency plans is long overdue. Action is needed now," Burman said in the release. "In the absence of consensus plans from the Basin states, the federal government must take action to protect the river and all who depend on it — farmers and cities across seven states.”

The bureau will accept input from the governors for a 15-day period beginning on March 4.

Original story continues below:

With seven hours to spare before a midnight deadline, Arizona lawmakers approved a drought plan on Thursday that prepares for cuts to the state's water supply from the Colorado River and allocates money and resources to ease the pain for waters users like farmers.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation warned Arizona and other states in the Colorado River basin that they had until January 31 to approve the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, a stopgap to prevent Lake Mead's water level from falling to critical lows.

Arizona was the last state to approve the agreement (one irrigation district in California was still a holdout on Thursday evening) and the only state to require the approval of the Legislature.

A joint resolution authorizing Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke to sign the DCP on behalf of Arizona passed the House unanimously with one absence, and passed the Senate with a vote of 29-1. Governor Doug Ducey signed the plan immediately, hailing the three-state Lower Basin DCP between Arizona, California, and Nevada as an historic achievement.

Missing the deadline would have meant uncertainty for Arizona's Colorado River supply if the government declared a shortage beginning in 2020. Failing to approve the DCP would have left the cuts to Arizona's water up to the discretion of the U.S. Secretary of the Interior.

And even though Arizona finalized the plan at the eleventh hour, Speaker of the House Rusty Bowers argued that the DCP was the product of years of work.

"This wasn't done at the last minute, not even close. There's elements of this that have been hammered out for two-and-a-half years," Bowers told Phoenix New Times after the governor signed the legislation. For months leading up to the new legislative session, a Drought Steering Committee of various stakeholders wrestled with the question of how to ration a reduced supply of water.

Even as Arizona approved the drought plan on Thursday evening, a little-known irrigation district in southeast California was still locked in negotiations with the federal government over $200 million in funding as part of the DCP, the Palm Springs Desert Sun reported, making it unclear whether the DCP states would meet the deadline after all.

Nevertheless, as they cast their votes, Arizona lawmakers cheered the drought plan as a bipartisan effort that accomplished the most urgent item of the legislative session.

Calling the drought plan "a heavy lift," House Majority Leader Warren Peterson thanked lawmakers on the floor. “This is so huge for the economy," Peterson said.

Other legislators were less triumphant.

"It is absurd and perilous to think that the 19-year mega-drought that we find ourselves in today has nothing to do with climate change," Representative Kirsten Engel, a Democrat, said on the floor. "In fact, it has everything to do with climate change, and it is not going to go away.”

The good news, Engel said, is that with the DCP, Arizona is taking a first step to protect water levels in Lake Mead and shore up the agricultural sector, but the state must do more.

The drought plan will go into effect in the event that the federal government declares a critical shortfall on the river, which will occur if Lake Mead drops below 1,075 feet above sea level in 2020. The Bureau of Reclamation estimates the odds of this shortage happening to be greater than 50 percent.

Arizona water users including tribal authorities, cities, industries, and farmers will all experience cuts if the government declares an official shortage. The supply of Colorado River to Arizona will be reduced by at least 512,000 acre-feet of water, with an acre-foot translating to about 326,000 gallons.

Pinal County farmers stand to lose a significant portion of their water under the drought agreement, and their agents have lobbied assiduously for compensation in return, pointing to the economic impact of agriculture for the county.

The drought plan lawmakers approved on Thursday allocates $9 million from the state for irrigation districts in the county to develop infrastructure like pipes and wells to access groundwater, instead of relying on surface water from the Colorado River.

Money for the farmers got a last-minute boost in the House Natural Resources, Energy, and Water Committee on Tuesday. An amendment from Representative Gail Griffin proposed allocating $4 million more for farmers, adding to $5 million that lawmakers had already agreed upon.

Those funds are on top of another $5 million pledge from the board of the Central Arizona Project canal.

Three Democratic dissenters voted against the omnibus water legislation on the Senate floor: Juan Mendez, Andrea Dalessandro, and Martín Quezada.

Mendez, a liberal Democrat from Tempe, was the only "no" vote on the resolution authorizing Arizona to sign onto the DCP. He told Phoenix New Times by phone on Thursday that cast his vote out of disappointment.

The plan did not address climate change, Mendez said. He characterized the water shortage as a crisis "years in the making."

"Nothing I saw in the plan looked like it was reacting to the problem. It looked more like a shuffling around," Mendez said.

click to enlarge A gate in the Central Arizona Project canal in Pinal County, Arizona. - ELIZABETH WHITMAN/PHOENIX NEW TIMES
A gate in the Central Arizona Project canal in Pinal County, Arizona.
Elizabeth Whitman/Phoenix New Times
But for the governor, the drought plan was a top priority during the 54th Legislature.

Ducey signed the DCP authorization and omnibus legislation quickly, just 30 minutes after it passed in the House. At a signing ceremony in the historic Capitol building, Ducey framed the DCP in grand terms, comparing it to Arizona's Groundwater Management Act of 1980.

The governor also signed an executive order creating a Water Augmentation, Innovation, and Conservation Council made up of legislative leaders, Buschatzke, and others.

"There's a lot more more work to be done to ensure that Arizona is prepared for a drier water future," Ducey said.

With Arizona and much of the Colorado River basin already experiencing a protracted drought, scientists say it's likely that rising heat and aridity from climate change will continue to affect the water supply in the years ahead.

At the signing ceremony, Ducey was asked how climate change will shape future water negotiations, but he shied away from the concerns expressed by lawmakers like Mendez and Engel.

"It's certainly something that will become part of this discussion," Ducey said. "I'm very hopeful for a wet winter this winter, and next winter, but I also think that we have to plan ahead because we are seeing changing weather patterns. And that's the responsible thing to do."

Steven Hsieh and Elizabeth Whitman contributed reporting.