‘Borrowing from the future’: What an Emerging Megadrought Means for the Southwest

PHOENIX – It’s the early 1990s, and Park Williams stands in the middle of Folsom Lake, at the base of the Sierra Nevada foothills in Northern California. He’s not walking on water; severe drought has exposed the lakebed.

“I remember being very impressed by the incredible variability of water in the West and how it’s very rare that we actually have just enough water,” said Williams, who went on to become a climate scientist at Columbia University. “It’s often the case there’s either too much or too little.”

Williams is the lead author on a report out this month in the journal Science detailing the extent of drought conditions in the American West.

The report found the period from 2000 through 2018 to be the driest 19-year span since the late 1500s, and the second driest since 800. In simpler terms, it’s an emerging megadrought, which is a drought that typically lasts decades.

“Drought conditions during the 2000s have actually been on average as severe as the driest on 20-year periods of the worst megadroughts of the last millennium,” Williams said in an interview with Cronkite News. “The cause is a combination of natural climate variability and human caused climate change.”

What sets this emerging megadrought apart from others, such as those recorded in the 1200s and 1500s, is that human activity is increasing the severity. Although past megadroughts had natural causes, the report found this natural phenomenon has been made worse by humans.

Nancy Selover, Arizona’s state climatologist since 2007, said there’s more to learn about the impact people have had on this recent drought, although she does classify Arizona as being in a megadrought now.

“I’m sure we’re contributing a little bit. I’m not sure how much we’re contributing,” Selover said. “It’s model output. And models are designed not to predict what’s going to happen, they’re designed for us to understand them and learn how the system works.”

It’s important to understand the difference between deserts and droughts, said Kathy Jacobs, the director of the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions at the University of Arizona.

“I think making a distinction between sort of living in a desert where it’s hot and dry, and understanding that we could be entering into decades long shortage situations that really throw all of our water supply projections for a loop is a really important distinction,” Jacobs said.

To make that distinction, Williams and his team employed methods first used in 1937 by researchers at the University of Arizona, who discovered the width of the annual growth rings in tree trunks corresponded to moisture availabilities, or soil moisture.

“Our measurement of drought is really a combination of tree ring records that come up to 1900,” Williams said. “And then that, stitched together with our climate derived estimates of soil moisture, brings us up to 2018.”

He said a megadrought isn’t a multidecade period in which every year is dry, but instead an extended period when the occasional wet years don’t come close to making up for the predominance of dry years.

If the concept of an emerging megadrought seems abstract, there’s a reason. Williams said people might not feel the immediate impact of water sources depleting due to groundwater pumping in California, Arizona and other states.

“We’ve been pulling out groundwater at a far faster rate than it actually gets replenished, and that has allowed us to get through this drought,” Williams said. “We’re basically borrowing from the future.”

Selover said it’s a future that’s likely to include more people in the Southwest.

“We now have more people here, so drought is a more significant issue than it ever was before,” she said. “We need to be very, very careful about how we deal with our water and how we deal with our temperature. Because those things going forward are going to be decreasing water and increasing temperature.”

The Colorado River is one example of decreasing water resources. Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico depend on the river for water, but the amount of water each state is promised has been consistently overallocated.

“Each state is actually guaranteed more acre feet of water out of the Colorado River every year than actually flows in the Colorado River in an average year,” Williams said. “We’ve had an unsustainable relationship with the Colorado River for the last century, independent of climate change.”

Jacobs said it’s a relationship that hasn’t been properly addressed, especially considering the cultural significance the Colorado has to many people in the Southwest.

“It’s really important to recognize both, tribal, and environmental uses of water in both the main stem (of the river) and the tributaries,” Jacobs said. “Letting the river actually be a river and flow is something that’s valued by some people. Whereas now, we have essentially dried the entire river out so it does not reach the sea.”

Williams suggests that water in the 1,450-mile-long Colorado be reallocated as one way to improve the river’s condition. That’s difficult when the demands for water are so high.

Last year, after years of negotiations, President Donald Trump approved the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan which outlines how much water the seven Colorado River Basin states can take from the river if reservoirs at Lake Powell and Lake Mead drop to critical levels. Despite the plan, Williams said the river still is in danger of drying up.

“The fact that the normal average year is actually getting drier and is projected to keep getting drier in the Colorado River means that we’re probably going to have to revise how much each state is allocated on the Colorado River substantially,” Williams said.

Beyond that, Jacobs stresses the need to elect representatives to the Arizona Legislature who care about the environment and to reach out to current legislators so they know how important tighter water regulations are to Arizonans and the state’s economy.

“Most of the people who come here for tourism are coming because they want to see the beautiful parts of the state,” Jacobs said. “Many of those beautiful parts are connected to rivers and water supplies. There are billions of dollars generated by the state’s economy by people who are here for ecotourism, and we could easily build that into a much more profitable path.”

At the end of the day, the spirit of continued water conservation efforts can be traced back to that image of a young Park Williams on Folsom Lake. The lesson learned, he said, is how precious water is.

“The stakes for humans are higher than they’ve ever been before,” Williams said. “And as we change the climate, one of the things that is most predictable is that the distribution of water is going to change. Trying to figure that out before it really becomes a crisis, I think, is one of the most valuable things we can do.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Activists cite rising heat deaths, pollution, fires in asking Phoenix to declare climate emergency

PHOENIX — Meet Claire Nelson, one of several activists who gathered Monday in front of City Hall to call on city officials to declare a climate emergency.

She is also 17.

A fulltime climate activist, Nelson switched to taking all online classes to focus on her work. That’s why instead of sitting in front of a computer screen, she’s standing at a lectern, representing Arizona Youth Climate Strike and acting as master of ceremony for the event.

“We’ve seen that the city of Phoenix hasn’t been taking adequate action on climate change,” she said. “And this is a crisis and it’s affecting our young people and our vulnerable communities.”

Nelson introduced many voices that have an interest in adapting to a warmer, drier climate. More than 10 Arizona organizations endorse the proposal, including the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, Tiger Mountain Foundation and Extinction Rebellion.

The groups came together to draw attention to specific reasons a climate emergency should be declared – citing a rise in heat related deaths, the increasing severity of wildfires and air pollution, and the increased focus on commercial and residential development as among the reasons.

“The proposal entails first of all, declaring a climate emergency,” said Jean Boucher, an environmental researcher at Arizona State University and member of Extinction Rebellion who was at the protest. “So you can imagine if your house is on fire, the first thing you want to do is let everybody know, ‘Hey, fire, the house is on fire.’ And then after that, what are the appropriate actions?”

The push to declare a climate emergency in Phoenix comes on the heels of a similar effort in Flagstaff this year. The City Council is considering passing a resolution later this month after residents petitioned the city. It would establish the goal of making the city carbon neutral by 2030 and would revise the goals of the Flagstaff Climate Action and Adaptation Plan to sync with the U.N. report on global carbon emissions, which scientists say is driving climate change.

For Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club, the appropriate actions will be determined in conjunction with Phoenix, the fifth largest city in the nation and among the fastest growing. She hopes to meet with city officials this month.

Sydney Perkins, 18, was one of more than a dozen people who gathered outside Phoenix City Hall to ask officials to declare a climate emergency. (Photo by Madison Staten/ Cronkite News)

“A lot of it has to do with doing more sooner, and making sure that what’s in the plans is actually reflected in the budget that they (Phoenix) put together,” Bahr said. “Because that’s often where we see action on many issues, including climate, fall down is that they put together a plan or they sign a resolution, but then they don’t reflect the actions that are needed in the budget.”

Phoenix officials have invited the Sierra Club to meet with them to discuss the issue. They point to their heat mitigation programs, and the city’s recent induction into the global C40 Cities Network as concrete action they have taken toward meeting sustainability goals set for 2050.

“Climate change, and a warming planet, threatens public health, infrastructure, and our economy,” Mayor Kate Gallego, told Cronkite News in a statement. “Issues of extreme heat and poor air quality – if unaddressed – will have severe repercussions and hinder our city’s continued success. The city of Phoenix is fully committed to addressing this challenge head on.”

In the meantime, Nelson will continue her efforts going with the Youth Climate Strike, and she implores others to get involved.

“There are a whole bunch of amazing climate organizations,” Nelson said. “The first step would be to follow us on social media. … We can usually direct you to any environmental organization that would fit you best or that you want to work with. There are plenty of ways to get involved.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Snowbirds: Why are white pelicans wintering in Arizona?

PHOENIX – American white pelicans breed in Canada and the upper Midwest, and they typically winter near the Gulf of Mexico and coastal Southern California. However, more of these enormous wetland birds are wintering in Arizona because of the state’s prime living conditions.

Dropping water levels in their natural habitats make the pelicans easy prey for predators, so the birds have found refuge when they migrate south for the winter, settling in the Sonoran Desert’s man-made lakes for imported fish and balmy weather.

“Right now when these birds nest at the Great Salt Lake, their nesting island used to have water all around it and it was free of any predators like coyotes,” said Tice Supplee, director of bird conservation at Audubon Arizona. “Well, now it’s connected to the mainland, and coyotes can come out to where they nest.”

White pelicans are dependent on wetlands for survival. The carnivores forage in shallow, open water, and when they’re vulnerable to hunters, their migration course shifts. Fortunately, Arizona’s reservoirs, community lakes and ponds have an assortment of imported fish to feast upon.

“The fish here (in Arizona) are not native,” Supplee said. “They’re tilapia and were put in here to manage the weeds. The pelicans have found great winter restaurants.”

White pelicans aren’t the only breed of pelicans seen in Arizona. Brown pelicans, which dive-bomb to feed and tend to stay near coastal waters, are known to head to Arizona to escape coastal storms, but wildlife specialists historically had them transported out of the state because of lack of suitable habitats. But with the abundance of large lakes, ponds and reservoirs across the state, brown and white pelicans are staying longer during our cooler winter months.

“North American pelicans are very different from your brown pelican, which are on the coasts,” said Peggy Coleman of Birding-Arizona, a bird photography and advocacy group. “North American pelicans are more inland on lakes and ponds and whatnot.”

With central Arizona a magnet for pelicans, birders and nature lovers have more chances to photograph these unexpected guests.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Millennials Use Technology to Ensure the Future of Arizona Ranching and Farming

PHOENIX – The median age of a farmer or rancher in Arizona is 55 to 64. It’s part of a nationwide trend as fewer young people go into agriculture. But three Arizona millennials are hoping to use their passion and the technology they grew up with to ensure the future of the state’s agribusinesses, which generated $23.3 billion in 2017.

In a rural stretch of Arizona between Phoenix and Yarnell, two cowboys struggle to get a stubborn cow to stand up and move through a narrow wooden chute. She’s lying down because there’s no room to turn around. The cow is one of a dozen or so roped by Ty Sorrells, who rides into rough country on horseback to round up stray and feral cattle; he found these near Lake Pleasant.

Garrett Lacey, a livestock officer for the Arizona Department of Agriculture, looks over the cows, which will be trucked to a ranch and auctioned off. Lacey needs to inspect them before that. He writes down how many bulls and heifers are in the bunch.

“The auction requires us to make sure that Ty didn’t steal these cows,” said Lacey, who’s in his early 20s and one of the youngest livestock officers in the agriculture department.

That’s where Lacey comes in. His paperwork, which Sorrells signs on Lacey’s iPad, is proof that the cowboy is legit.

“At the sale barn, they’re going to ask Ty for his paperwork, so that paperwork is going to match the load that they’re coming in,” Lacey said.

To inspect livestock before they’re transported or slaughtered, Lacey drives his truck hundreds of miles for his job, listening to podcasts to pass the time.

To him, being a millennial in agriculture means using technology to help things along, such as having people send self-inspection paperwork to his phone instead of making a trip for one or two head of cattle.

“It’s super nice where … where I can just … text me or email and I’ll email it, I’ll send a screenshot, and it’s gone,” Lacey said.

And he’s all over cowboy social media, where people show off their roping catches – legal or not. Lacey monitors Snapchat and YouTube for any kind of illicit activity, but most of the time, he said, it’s difficult to determine where videos were taken or whether the cow technically was captured illegally.

Lacey finishes his paperwork for Sorrells’ cattle before heading to his next assignment.

On our ride-along, we pass through the part of metro Phoenix where he grew up, which he says shaped his life path.

“This is what I knew. We always ran around and played in the river bottom,” Lacey said.

That’s the kind of background you’ll often hear about when speaking with young farmers and ranchers. Many take pride in being a multigenerational farmer.

Alexander Khan does not fit that definition. The 24-year-old rancher is a graduate of Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix and heading to law school soon. His family just bought a cattle ranch near Perkinsville, northwest of Cottonwood.

“I also am really drawn to the work that’s involved, the lifestyle and everything that goes into having an operation that is closely connected to the land,” Khan said.

The Census Bureau says more than 2,500 Arizona farmers are younger than 35, and almost half are Native American. In addition, most of the operations run by young producers are beef, sheep and goat ranches.

Khan, too, thinks his generation realizes the potential in using the technology they grew up with to make a better ranch.

“A lot of people my age are coming together and talking about what they’re doing on their ranches and how they’re incorporating data tools and new technology to make ranching more effective, more sustainable and more profitable as well,” he said.

Ty Sorrell rounds up strays and wild cattle to sell at auction – but first he must be able to prove he didn’t steal them. (Photo by Casey Kuhn/KJZZ)

And Khan isn’t just talking about the environment.

“Just kind of making sure these things are sustainable not only ecologically but sustainable as lifestyles and business practices that we can carry into the future,” he said.

The high cost of entry, which includes buying expensive land, harvesters and material, can be a major barrier for young producers.

“The average farm story is, you’re one bad crop away from total failure,” Khan said.

Selwyn Justice has the farming background Khan does not; he says his family has farmed in America since the 1600s.

Justice, 30, runs a U-pick citrus farm in Surprise. And he really knows his citrus, growing 76 varieties.

“We also have the cara cara, which is a pigmented navel that a lot of people mistake for a variety of blood orange, which it’s not. But speaking of blood oranges, we have a couple of blood oranges, too,” he said.

Justice has diversified by using his farm as more of an education experience. He also helps a friend, who found Justice through Facebook, grow his cactus in a small nursery plot.

In addition, Justice is a member of the National Young Farmers Coalition, an advocacy group that hosts seminars, such as a legal presentation on water rights in Arizona. The federal government also has funding and support programs for new farmers.

The future of farming rests in millennials’ hands, with a look toward more sustainability to keep farming a viable career moving forward.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

4 Obstacles Facing Arizona as It Finishes a Drought Plan

PHOENIX – On the first day of the 2019 legislative session, water led Gov. Doug Ducey’s State of the State address. More specifically, he wants a drought plan finished — one that keeps the Colorado River system at healthy levels.

Drought and over-allocation means Lake Mead is at risk of dropping really low. Taken to the extreme, power generation there could stop. Water could be stuck in the lake.

The Drought Contingency Plan is an attempt to stave that off.

There are lots of reasons to get the deal done. Despite significant progress, a few obstacles remain.

Doug Ducey

Bret Jaspers/KJZZ
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey at his 2019 State of the State address on Jan. 15, 2019.

1. Time.

Stakeholders have been working on a deal for months, and off-and-on for years. But Arizona’s work on a Drought Contingency Plan — legislatively speaking — must now happen at lightning speed. Gov. Ducey referenced the federally-imposed deadline of Jan. 31.

“Doing so will require compromise,” Ducey said in his address on Monday. “No one stakeholder is going to get everything they want. Everyone is going to have to give.”

There’s already been a lot of giving through both public and private negotiations that formally started over the summer. Still, other states in the Colorado River basin have approved the larger plan, and aside from a few California water districts, Arizona is the holdout everyone’s watching as it writes an internal deal.

If Arizona misses the deadline, the Reclamation Commissioner has said she will ask the other basin states for their recommendations on what kind of cutback regime to impose.

2. Stakeholders Aren’t Done.

The public and private negotiating process outside the Legislature still isn’t finished.

Last week, home builders asked for water in the current proposal in case a related deal with the Gila River Indian Community (GRIC) fell through. GRIC Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis insists as long as the drought plan happens, so will that related deal. It would provide hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water for groundwater replenishment over 25 years, enabling more development.

“I went back to my council and we clarified that. In fact, I signed a letter. I sent that to the Arizona Department of Water Resources and CAWCD [on Monday] afternoon,” Lewis said after the State of the State speech.

The Central Arizona Water Conservation District runs the Central Arizona Project canal system.

So if the Gila River Indian Community says that separate deal is absolutely happening, is that enough for House Speaker Rusty Bowers?

“I don’t answer questions like that,” Bowers said with a laugh after Ducey’s speech. “I want to make sure it’s all good, all the way. And it’s getting there. We’re gonna get there.”

Bowers, a Republican from Mesa, is a key figure because he decides which bills hit the House floor to get voted on. He traveled the state last year as part of roving public meetings on water and has been looking out for Pinal County agriculture and development.

“Now with this last big area in central Arizona,” he said, referring to farmland in Pinal County, “we want to make sure that if and when growth takes those and when they sell, that there’s sufficient water to not just do them, and thank you very much, but also whatever takes their place.”

3. Water Policy Is Oh-So Complicated.

Bowers said the Legislature will have informational meetings with lawmakers, then put bills in committee and go concept by concept.

State Senator Lisa Otondo, a Democrat from Yuma and part of the Drought Contingency Plan Steering Committee, wants to see the bills.

“We need to see the language, and then also continue to, with staff of course and stakeholders, walk many other members on both sides of the aisle through the legislation. And have them have a better understanding,” she said.

4. The Partial Federal Government Shutdown.

That’s right — the border wall clash is affecting Colorado River planning. Last week, the local office of the Bureau of Reclamation said its legal counsel has been on furlough. And the federal Department of Agriculture is needed as well, according to Pinal County Republican House member T.J. Shope.

Shope said the government needs to reopen “so that way, we can begin restarting negotiations with the USDA about drawing down federal funds to help out” with groundwater infrastructure in Pinal County.

That information might not come by the Jan. 31 deadline.

Why does Raúl Grijalva matter for public lands and the environment?

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – The Trump administration and Congress have systematically dismantled many Obama-era environmental regulations. Now, Democrats finally have control of the House and the committee with the most power over public lands – the House Committee on Natural Resources. Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona will be the new chairman, and he couldn’t be more different from his predecessor.

For one, Grijalva has been one of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s most vocal critics. Over the past few years, he has questioned Zinke about his spending on office furniture, his approach to shrinking Bears Ears National Monument, and about whether he suppressed scientific findings he didn’t agree with.

Zinke is the subject of at least three ethics investigations. As chair of the House Natural Resource Committee, Grijalva now has the power to push for more transparency in those inquiries. But Zinke is just part of the problem, the Tucson Democrat said.

“I think that if he were to resign or be sent away,” Grijalva said, “the legacy of kind of turning over Interior to the fossil fuel industry and the extraction industry is not going to go away. So there’s still things to look at.”

He was one of several members of Congress who boycotted President Trump’s inauguration in 2017. But he also made headlines when he worked closely with the current chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Rob Bishop, R-Utah, with Bishop, the current chair of the committee, about the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Now that he will have the formal power of leading a committee, Grijalva promises to look at environmental issues.

“What I think you can expect is a return to giving prominence to the conservation side that hasn’t been there in the last two years,” he said. “And any legislation that continues to rip away at our bedrock environmental laws, we’re not going to waste time on it.”

Grijalva said he also plans to focus on issues in Indian country, on protecting wildlife and the Endangered Species Act, preserving public lands, and the elephant in the room – climate change.

“Climate change has been scrubbed from the discussion,” Grijalva said. “Peer review has been severely handicapped. Panels of scientists have been eliminated and you don’t talk about climate change, you don’t talk about science anymore when you’re making decisions.”

He wants to change that. But Kathleen Sgamma, president of the industry group Western Energy Alliance, is not thrilled about a Democrat, specifically a politically progressive one such as Grijalva, taking the helm and, as she sees it, stirring things up.

She called Grijalva “extremely hostile to oil and natural gas development, economic development – ranching, mining, timber – any kind of development on federal lands.”

She said she’s not worried about losing too much ground, though – mainly because of partisan gridlock in Congress.

“It’s unfortunate that Congress cannot come together and find some compromises on natural resource issues,” she said, “but that’s just the nature of Washington, D.C.”

Others, though, have more faith in Grijalva’s ability to move things forward. Kieran Suckling, director of the environmental nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, is among them.

He argued Grijalva has “been able to broker deals Republicans both in the House and the Senate to protect the environment.”

Suckling is not a fan, however, of the current chair: “Bishop is really one of the most anti-environmental congressmen in Congress.”

Suckling sees Grijalva as an ally, and for good reason. Grijalva is on the advisory board of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute and has been vocal about prioritizing the environment.

For his part, Bishop issued a written statement in response to the transition.

“We look to continue being active next Congress as we move into doubling down on President Trump’s top notch environment and energy policies,” he wrote.

Whether he’ll be able to do that with Grijalva at the helm is an open question, but Grijalva is hopeful there will be bipartisanship on the committee. Still, regarding common ground with the former chair, Grijalva was modestly optimistic.

“We both like baseball,” he ventured. “I don’t know if we sometimes see the sky the same color, politically speaking, probably rarely. But you know that’s part of what we need in this Congress is a level of civility and respect for one another’s opinions. He’s shown that to me and I hope I’ve shown that to him.”

Grijalva will take over the chairmanship in January 2019.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.


Arizona PBS/Cronkite News’ Alexis Egeland and Imani Stevens contributed reporting to this piece.

The 1922 agreement that governs the Colorado River is flawed. Why not fix it?

GREELEY, Colo. – Colorado River water managers have plenty to argue about, including how they should deal with lower water levels caused in part by higher temperatures, long-term drought and increasing population.

But there’s one thing on which nearly everyone who relies on the river can agree. The foundational document that divvies up the water – the Colorado River Compact, first signed nearly 100 years ago – is not easily altered. And the word renegotiation is bound to cause political ripples.

The late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., learned that lesson the hard way.

In summer 2008, McCain was the Republican nominee facing President Barack Obama. Colorado was considered a swing state.

Water scarcity issues are always top of mind for Western politicians. That’s why when reporter Charles Ashby, then with the Pueblo Chieftain, now with the Grand Junction Sentinel, got McCain on the phone and asked him why Colorado voters should trust an Arizonan when it comes to water.

“I thought that was relevant because he’s downstream on the Colorado River,” Ashby said, “and Arizona and Nevada and California are big water users.”

Because of population growth and dwindling water supplies, McCain said he’d be in favor of renegotiating the document that divvies up the river among the seven U.S. states that rely on it. Ashby was floored.

“I knew immediately that was a no-no, at least for politics here in the state of Colorado,” Ashby recalled. “And so I said to him, ‘Are you sure you want to say that? Because that won’t go over well up here.’”

Their phone connection kept cutting out, but McCain called back twice to double down on his idea. Sensing a big scoop, Ashby called a few other Colorado politicians to get their reactions. Prominent Democrats and Republicans agreed that McCain was out of line. Colorado’s sitting Democratic senator at the time, Ken Salazar, went so far as to say the Colorado River Compact would be renegotiated over his dead body.

“Then-Governor Bill Ritter said to me after that story ran, he said, ‘Charles, that story may have delivered the state to Obama,’” Ashby said.

McCain eventually walked his comments back after a thorough lashing in the press.

But with one sentence, he had touched a nerve in Western water politics.

“A lot of it is just the word choice: renegotiation,” said Doug Kenney, a water policy expert at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Some of Kenney’s work is funded by the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.

Renogotiation is a word that inflames decades-old tensions in the vast watershed, Kenney said – Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah in the Upper Basin, and Arizona, California and Nevada in the Lower Basin.

“I think a lot of the parties think it’s scary simply because it’s a little scary to negotiate when not all the parties have the same political power,” Kenney said.

That power imbalance is what brought regional political leaders to the table in 1922, when the Colorado River Compact was signed. The desert Southwest was beginning to grow rapidly, and rather than acquiesce all of the river’s flow to the sprawling cities and cropland of Southern California, water managers felt it was in their best interest to come to an agreement to divvy up the river among themselves. The alternative was conflict and litigation.

Each basin was to receive 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year, which the basins allocated among themselves. The Upper Basin opted for percentages, with Colorado receiving the largest share. The Lower Basin chose to parse it into discrete, fixed portions, with California and Arizona receiving the largest amounts.

Conventional wisdom about the math underlying the compact goes something like this:

Water managers used the available data to figure out how much water they had to work with; however, the time period they examined had been uncharacteristically wet. Soon after the compact’s signing, the river returned to its more normal flows, and right from the start, the compact didn’t mesh with reality. More water existed on paper than in the river, creating a gap between supplies and demands that continues to today. So the story goes: It was no one’s fault, just a historical fluke.

John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s water resources program, says that conventional wisdom is wrong. Allocating more water than was available was the politically expedient thing to do. He’s finishing a book with Colorado River expert Eric Kuhn on what water managers of the 1920s knew about the river’s flow and when they knew it. They found that scientists with the highly respected U.S. Geological Survey were complaining about the inflated numbers even before the compact was signed.

“They all concluded the same thing, ‘You’re basing this on an unusually wet period. You need to take into account dry periods. There is really less water than you think,’” Fleck said. “And all those scientific experts were ignored.”

Today, there’s broad consensus about the compact’s math problems. Although it was scoffed at a decade ago, McCain’s proposal to renegotiate has support among some environmentalists, including Jen Pelz, wild rivers program director with WildEarth Guardians. She says the only way to fix the river’s fundamental supply-demand problem is to go back to the beginning.

“It’s just like curing illness, right? You have to get at the source,” she said.

Old agreements among states to manage water in the West don’t reflect modern realities, like climate change or broader environmental concerns, Pelz said. Compacts for the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers allocate every drop for human use. There’s value in leaving water in rivers for recreation and ecosystem health, she says.

“I think that is a huge problem, and I think that we don’t want to have that conversation because it’s hard,” Pelz said.

The river’s foundational problems are front of mind these days as Colorado River water managers are attempting to finalize new agreements called Drought Contingency Plans, designed to boost declining reservoirs and cut back on water use throughout the watershed. Pelz says the plans don’t go far enough.

“It’s all like shuffling chairs on the Titanic,” she said. “The ship is sinking still. And if you shuffle all those chairs around and you make it look pretty, it’s still not going to make any difference.”

Reopening the Colorado River Compact would require the support of people like Pat Tyrrell, the Wyoming state engineer. And he is not interested.

“No, I would never advocate going back to the compact,” he said.

There’s a work around, he says. Rather than renegotiate the original document, water managers like him come up with new agreements that build on it and address some of the compact’s bad math. But throwing the whole thing out would be a mistake.

“If it were to go away, there would be a free for all,” Tyrrell said. “There is no magic second compact sitting in the wings behind it, and the battle between Arizona, California and Nevada against us four Upper Basin states would be brought anew.”

Although water managers today have no appetite for changes to the compact, it’s uncertain the compact’s framers meant for it to be immutable. When Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover was selling the deal to Congress, he hedged the agreement’s finality. In 1926, Hoover told members of a House committee that if the deal could “provide for equity for the next 40 to 75 years, we can trust to the generation after the next to be as intelligent as we are today.” And that those future water leaders “will settle it in the light of the forces of their day.”

In his Ph.D. dissertation at University of Colorado, Jon Berggren, now a water policy analyst at Western Resource Advocates, summarized Hoover’s testimony as suggesting that, “at least from Hoover’s perspective, the negotiators of the compact did not intend to make the original allocations of the compact static.”

Hoover gave the original agreement a shelf life of 75 years.

“He underestimated us a little bit, didn’t he? We’re still here making it work,” Tyrrell said. “We have shown in the Colorado River Basin the ability to adapt, even in areas where the compact may may feel constraining.”

The word “adapt” seems to go over a lot better with Colorado River water managers than the dreaded “renegotiation.”

This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

Hunters help safeguard Arizona’s deer and elk from chronic wasting disease

GREER – On a chilly fall morning in eastern Arizona, families taking part in a youth hunting camp awoke before dawn to hunt elk.

Gage Martinez, 14, was one of the last to shoot an elk, but by midmorning, it was skinned and hanging from a tree by its hind legs.

“I was so excited, my hand was shaking,” Martinez said.

Meanwhile, three Arizona Game & Fish Department biologists gathered around the elk’s head. One of them used a small knife to cut into the animal’s cheek to remove the lymph nodes, which will be sent to a lab in Colorado to be tested for chronic wasting disease, or CWD.

CWD is a neurodegenerative disease found in deer, elk and moose populations. It’s prevalent in Colorado, Utah and New Mexico, which neighbor Arizona. Infected animals become unresponsive, emaciated and eventually die.

So far, regular testing and strict laws have kept Arizona CWD free. But that could change quickly.

“It’s a big challenge,” said Anne Justice-Allen, a wildlife veterinarian with Arizona Game & Fish. “It may be an impossible challenge, because states that we didn’t think were going to get it now have it.”

Anne Justice-Allen, a wildlife veterinarian with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, pulls out the lymph nodes from an elk’s cheek. The nodes will be sent to Colorado for chronic wasting disease testing. (Photo by Stephanie Morse/Cronkite News)

Last year, CWD was found in Montana. The year before, it was discovered in Arkansas. The disease now has been detected in 24 states, where it has reduced herds by 20 to 40 percent.

“We need to make sure that wildlife populations are healthy because they really play an important role in keeping the landscape and the environment sustained,” Justice-Allen said.

Researchers are trying to learn more about the disease and to find a vaccine, but right now there is no cure.

“In Colorado and other states, we don’t know how to eradicate it,” said Travis Duncan, a spokesman with Colorado’s Park and Wildlife Department. “All we can do is manage it.”

Hunting season is key

Hunters are on the front line of Arizona’s efforts to keep the disease at bay.

There is no way to determine whether a deer or elk has CWD until the late stages of the disease, when physical symptoms appear.

“You may have seen signage or posters with sick-looking deer that lead us to believe anyone can visually identify it,” Duncan said. “But in reality, most deer with CWD look perfectly healthy and you would never be able to tell.”

David Drever, a biologist intern with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, writes information about the elk and where it was killed on a slip paper to be included with the lymph node sample. The department hires extra interns in the fall to help with chronic wasting disease testing. (Photo by Stephanie Morse/Cronkite News)

There is no blood test for CWD, so the animal must be dead to collect and test a lymph-node sample.

“That’s part of the reason why managing it through hunting and testing the deer that people harvest is the best option we have,” Duncan said.

Hunting season is the only time of the year when Arizona Game & Fish can regularly test for CWD. The goal is to test as many animals as possible during this time.

Last year, the department tested more than 1,200 samples statewide, and officials hope to test even more this year.

“Our goal is to test enough animals on an annual basis to try and make sure we can detect it if it’s present in even just 1 percent of the population,” Justice-Allen said.

Arizona Game & Fish opened a new testing center in Springerville to help with this goal, and Justice-Allen and her team are going to more hunting camps this season to collect samples and spread awareness.

“We’re talking to hunters and letting them know what we’re doing out here and why it’s important that we’re doing the disease-monitoring project and taking samples,” said David Drever, a biologist intern with Game & Fish.

Not all hunters, however, process the meat themselves or take the time to voluntarily provide their animal for testing, so the department pays professional taxidermists and meat processors to fill in the gaps. Justice-Allen said about half of the samples Game & Fish tests are collected from these sources.

Rusty Rogers, a hunter and a committe member of the White Mountain Chapter of the Rocky Mountian Elk Foundation, worries about the possibility of CWD coming to the state. He said all it would take is one case of CWD to devastate deer herds. (Photo by Stephanie Morse/Cronkite News)

Arizona quick to act

Beyond testing, Arizona has strict laws related to captive deer management and how deer meat is handled. Experts say these measures are another key part of the state’s success at keeping CWD out of the state.

Arizona has banned traditional deer farms where private owners raise deer to hunt or sell byproducts because of concerns about the potential role these farms could have in spreading CWD.

But zoos and animal sanctuaries, such as Grand Canyon Deer Farm near Williams, are allowed to keep captive deer.

Amy Kravitz, a biologist at the deer farm, said the farm submits deer for disease testing anytime one dies. The farm also needs special permission from Game & Fish to import deer, she said, and can only bring in animals from CWD-free states.

The state also bans people from bringing whole deer carcasses or central nervous tissue – the brain and spinal cord, which contain the highest concentrations of the protein that causes CWD – into Arizona.

In addition, Arizona is one of only a few states to ban hunters from using deer urine or grain feed as bait to attract game, due to concerns these methods can cause the disease to spread more quickly.

“Some of these things occur in other areas of the country,” Justice-Allen said. “Here we’re cautious and just don’t allow it.”

An uphill battle

Despite such efforts, chronic wasting disease has continued to spread since it was first detected in wild deer populations in Colorado in 1981.

“It’s something that we’re always thinking about and concerned about,” Justice-Allen said.

This is part of the reason why Arizona Game & Fish has redoubled its efforts in recent years to collect more samples. The disease, however, often is spread by natural deer movement, which can’t be controlled. Wild deer can travel 50 to 100 miles, so it’s possible CWD infected deer from a neighboring state can cross into Arizona.

“In some states like Montana, where it was just detected last year,” Justice-Allen said, “it’s probably been there for a year or two before they found it.”

If the disease comes to Arizona, state workers and hunters hope it will be discovered in a few months instead of a few years.

“We try very hard to manage our herds to keep them at a maximum level, and all it would take is one serious case of CWD to just throw everything out of balance,” said Rusty Rogers, an avid hunter and committee member for the White Mountain chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

The quicker Game & Fish can respond, the greater the likelihood it could limit the spread of the disease.

The department would have to remove the infected deer and any other deer that could have come in contact with the infected animal and its waste.

In other states after CWD was detected, officials released bonus tags to hunters for trying to keep the deer population down, and instituted mandatory CWD testing.

A long road ahead

The Arizona Game & Fish Department spends about $70,000 on CWD testing each year, which is around 27 percent of its wildlife-health budget.

The department hires extra interns in the fall to help operate the Springerville testing station and another one in Kaibab, pick up samples from taxidermists and meat processors, and monitor hunting camps.

“It’s a lot easier for us to keep diseases out than it is to try and control them once they’re here,” Justice-Allen said.

Knowing their game is safe to eat also provides hunters with peace of mind.

“To be clear, it has never been found to cross the species barrier from deer or elk to humans,” Drever said, “but it is still a concern that people have had in their minds of ‘Do I want to eat an animal that has a disease?’”

Despite Arizona’s success so far, experts don’t expect the threat to ease anytime soon.

“This is something that we have to manage over the course of the next 10 to 15 years and maybe even beyond, who knows,” Duncan said. “It’s going to be a decades-long fight, not just year-to-year.”


-Video by Jordan Dafnis

Renewable energy proposition defeated in Arizona

PHOENIX – Arizona voters have overhelmingly rejected a proposition that would have required the state’s regulated utilities to get 50 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2030.

The current standard which sets a goal of 15 percent renewable energy from wind and solar by 2025, will remain the benchmark that governs the 16 regulated electricity providers.

Matthew Benson, spokesman for Arizonans for Affordable Electricity, which fought against Prop. 127, said in an email statement Tuesday night, “Arizonans support clean energy, but not costly, politically driven mandates. Arizonans support solar power and renewable technology, but not at the expense of an affordable, reliable energy supply. Arizonans prefer to choose our own energy future rather than have it dictated to us by out-of-state special interests.”

Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona, which supported Prop. 127, thanked backers for their support in a tweet.

“Together we stood up to the corrupt fossil fuel industry and moved Arizona towards more renewable energy. We sent a message to @apsFYI and their politicians that there’s a price to pay for the corruption of our politics.”

Supporters argued it was time to take advantage of one of the state’s most abundant resources: sunshine. Opponents said new energy mandates would result in higher costs for ratepayers.

Troy Rule, an environmental and sustainability law professor at Arizona State University, said, “The failure of Proposition 127 will be spun by some utilities as a sign that Arizonans don’t value renewable energy.”

In an interview with Fox News, Paul Bracken, a Yale University political science and management professor, said the state could be a testing ground for how other states deal with renewable energy standards.

“People who would like more sustainable energies are using the threat of a ballot initiative to put pressure on the state institutions of government and on the power companies themselves to change,” Bracken said. “I think one of the arguments in Arizona, is that for a state with its position in sustainable resources like solar it’s gone very, very slow in terms of particular solar but also wind — it hasn’t done as much as it should – so it could really influence Arizona Public Service and others to move in this direction.”

In an interview earlier this fall with Cronkite News, Lincoln Davies, a law professor at the University of Utah who studies renewable energy policy, said propositions like Prop. 127 are not unique to Arizona.

“The idea of these laws was to drive down the cost of renewables over time so that they could be scaled up as technologies and be used across the grid,” Davies said.

Similar initiatives were on the ballot in Nevada and Washington. Twenty-nine states have renewable portfolio standards that mandate electric utilities generate a certain amount of total energy from renewable sources. California and Hawaii share the highest future requirements: 100 percent renewable energy by 2045.

The two groups for and against Prop. 127 spent millions of dollars for campaign signs and radio and television ads to get their messages out.

Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona raised more than $23 million to support Prop. 127, according to Ballotpedia. NextGen Climate Action, an environmental advocacy organization founded by California billionaire Tom Steyer, provided 95 percent of group’s funds.

Arizonans for Affordable Electricity was largely backed by Pinnacle West Capital Corp., the parent company of Arizona Public Service Co., the state’s largest provider of electricity, and raised more than $31 million to oppose Prop. 127, according to Ballotpedia.

Davies said it’s not surprising to see large utility companies spending millions of dollars to oppose mandates such as Prop. 127.

“As the grid has started to evolve,” he said, “as solar has become a really powerful influence in terms of how electricity is getting produced in the United States, you’re starting to see pushback from a lot of utilities and other political constituencies in different states against some of these measures, especially as they become more stringent.”

The road to the polls has been mired in controversy. Arizonans for Affordable Electricity filed suit in Maricopa County Superior Court in July, claiming a number of signature-gathering violations by Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona. Lawyers for the group also said the initiative’s language about “clean” energy was misleading to petition-signers.

Judge Daniel Kiley in August rejected arguments to remove Prop. 127 from the ballot. The lawsuit was appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court, which also sided with the defendants, effectively keeping the initiative on the ballot and giving Arizona voters a say in the state’s renewable energy makeup.

“Most Arizonans understand that solar could be a really huge resource here,” said DJ Quinlan, a spokesman for Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona. “And right now, we’re just not doing it.”

In September, Prop. 127 was again the center of debate. Initiative supporters argued that language added by Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s office to the initiative’s explanation in the voter ballot guide, which the Secretary of State’s Office creates, could make the measure less likely to pass, according to azcentral.com.

The language involved potential costs to consumers. The phrase “irrespective of cost” was added by the Attorney General’s Office regarding utilities meeting the new energy standards. One official from the Secretary of State’s Office called the added language “eyebrow raising,” according to the azcentral.com article, because that language was not part of the ballot measure itself.

Rule said Prop. 127, even though it was defeated, “excited a base of young people toward renewable energy policy. The result of all of this is advancement of renewable energy policy in the state.”

Renewable energy proposition electrifies supporters and opponents

PHOENIX – More than $40 million has been spent to fight for and against a ballot initiative that would change the future of Arizona’s energy mix. Proposition 127 has also been the subject of an Arizona Supreme Court lawsuit and a battle over claims that language from the Attorney General’s Office undermined the initiative.

If approved by voters Nov. 6, it would mandate the state’s regulated utility companies to get more of their energy from solar, wind and other renewable sources.

Supporters say it’s time to take advantage of one of the state’s most abundant resources: sunshine. Opponents say new energy mandates will result in higher costs for ratepayers.

In an interview with Fox News, Dr. Paul Bracken, a Yale University political science and management professor, said the state could be a testing ground for how other states deal with renewable energy standards.

“People who would like more sustainable energies are using the threat of a ballot initiative to put pressure on the state institutions of government and on the power companies themselves to change,” Bracken said. “I think one of the arguments in Arizona, is that for a state with its position in sustainable resources like solar it’s gone very, very slow in terms of particular solar but also wind—it hasn’t done as much as it should – so it could really influence Arizona Public Service and others to move in this direction.”

What the two sides say

Prop 127 would mandate that Arizona utility companies get 50 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2030. The Arizona Corporation Commission sets the current standard at 15 percent by 2025; if the initiative passes, the mandate will be included in the state Constitution.

Arizona ranks second behind Nevada in solar energy potential. Yet in 2016, solar accounted for about 5 percent of the state’s net electricity generation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Wind energy supplied less than 1 percent.

The group Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona collected hundreds of thousands of signatures to get Prop 127 on the ballot to change that mix.

However, Arizonans for Affordable Electricity filed suit in Maricopa County Superior Court in July, claiming a number of signature-gathering violations by Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona. Lawyers for the group also said the initiative’s language about “clean” energy was misleading to petition-signers.

Judge Daniel Kiley in August rejected arguments for removing Prop 127 from the ballot. The lawsuit was appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court, which also sided with the defendants, effectively keeping the initiative on the ballot and giving Arizona voters a say in the state’s renewable energy makeup.

“Most Arizonans understand that solar could be a really huge resource here,” said DJ Quinlan, a spokesman for Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona. “And right now, we’re just not doing it.”

However, Matthew Benson, a spokesman for Arizonans for Affordable Electricity – also known as No on Prop 127 – said Arizonans can expect a hefty increase in utility costs if the measure passes.

“For the typical Arizona family, that means a $1,000 or more in added utility costs over the course of the year,” he said, arguing that low income families and seniors living on fixed incomes would be hit the hardest.

In September, Prop 127 was again mired in controversy. Initiative supporters argued that language added by Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s office to the initiative’s explanation in the voter ballot guide, which the Secretary of State’s Office creates, could make the measure less likely to pass, according to azcentral.com.

The language involves the potential costs to consumers. The phrase “irrespective of cost” was added by the Attorney General’s Office regarding utilities meeting the new energy standards. One official from the Secretary of State’s Office called the added language “eyebrow raising,” according to the azcentral.com article, because that language is not part of the ballot measure itself.

Supporters of Prop 127 also contend Brnovich is in the pocket of Pinnacle West Capital Corp. – the Phoenix-based parent company of Arizona Public Service, the state’s largest utility – because the company donated $425,000 to use against Brnovich’s opponent in the 2014 elections. The money was donated to the Republican Attorneys General Association, which spent $1.8 million to attack Democrat Felecia Rotellini in that election cycle.

Opposing views

Millions of dollars for campaign signs and radio and television ads have been raised by the two groups – and the messages are polar opposite.

For example, Arizonans for Affordable Electricity contends that Prop 127 would force the closure of the nation’s largest nuclear power plant, Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Tonopah, just west of Phoenix. Palo Verde supplies at least 27 percent of Arizona’s electricity, according to the Energy Information Administration, and employs more than 2,500 people, according to APS, which is one of the operators of the facility.

“Closing current power plants, bringing online new resources and all of these costs get passed along to guess who? Ratepayers,” Benson said. “That’s the reason ratepayers will see their costs go up drastically if this becomes part of the Constitution.”

Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona refutes the idea that Palo Verde would shut down.

“Palo Verde, we believe, is here to stay for its whole life cycle, and we’re supportive of that,” Quinlan said. “Having 50 percent renewable energy sitting next to 30 percent clean energy is a very compatible and healthy thing for our state.”

Nuclear energy emits lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions, making it comparatively “cleaner” than such sources as coal or natural gas, according to Lincoln Davies, a law professor at the University of Utah who studies renewable energy policy in the U.S. and on a global scale.

The group also argues that new infrastructure would be needed to bring more renewable energy to the electrical grid, and that means jobs.

“What would happen is a pretty substantial and markable increase in our solar industry right away, which could really bring in a lot of good jobs and actually cut down on costs,” Quinlan said.

Where the money comes from

Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona has raised more than $18 million to support Prop 127, according to campaign finance reports. NextGen Climate Action, an environmental advocacy organization founded by California billionaire Tom Steyer, provided more than 99 percent of funds for the group.

Arizonans for Affordable Electricity is largely backed by Pinnacle West Capital Corp., and has raised more than $22 million to oppose Prop 127, according to campaign finance reports.

Davies said it’s not surprising to see large utility companies spending millions of dollars to oppose mandates like Prop 127.

“As the grid has started to evolve,” he said, “as solar has become a really powerful influence in terms of how electricity is getting produced in the United States, you’re starting to see pushback from a lot of utilities and other political constituencies in different states against some of these measures, especially as they become more stringent.”

Similar initiatives are on the ballot next month in Nevada and Washington. Twenty-nine states have renewable portfolio standards that mandate electric utilities generate a certain amount of total energy from renewable sources. California and Hawaii share the highest future requirements: 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. Arizona renewable energy standards are currently set at 15 percent by 2025.

“The idea of these laws was to drive down the cost of renewables over time so that they could be scaled up as technologies and be used across the grid,” Davies said.

The last day to mail in ballots is Oct. 31.


–Video by Rachel Carlton