What Is Happening With the Colorado River Drought Plans?

GREELEY, Colo. – The seven states that rely on the Colorado River for water haven’t been able to finish a series of agreements that would keep its biggest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, from dropping to levels not seen since they were filled decades ago.

Five states — Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming and Nevada — are done. So is Mexico. But California and Arizona failed to meet a Jan. 31 federal government deadline to wrap up negotiations and sign a final agreement.

The Colorado River is stressed. Simply put, the vast, highly managed system of reservoirs, rivers and streams has a fundamental imbalance between supply and demands, a gap that’s growing in size due to long term warming and drying trends in the Southwest.

The Drought Contingency Plan, made up of agreements between the river’s Upper and Lower basins, is designed to rein in water use and — at least for six years — prevent the whole system from crashing.

An irrigation canal near Poston, Arizona, carries water from the Colorado River to alfalfa fields. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

Without the plans in place, Bureau of Reclamation commissioner Brenda Burman said she’ll be forced to take matters into her own hands. Burman has issued a new March 4 deadline for states to finish the plans, or she’ll begin collecting comments from the state’s governors on how to solve the region’s water-scarcity conundrum.

“We’re at a point where two roads are diverging in the woods,” Burman told reporters Feb. 1. “And we need to decide which path we’re going to follow.”

The first path is the one the seven states are on now, where the parties are working collaboratively to finish the plans and put them into action themselves. Some language in the plans would then need approval by Congress and the president.

The other path, Burman said, involves invoking the federal government’s “broad authority” to manage water distribution in the river’s Lower Basin (Arizona, California, Nevada and northern Mexico). But as tensions rise in some of the areas where the plans remain unfinished, some users are ready to challenge that federal authority.

Let’s go through a few points to understand where the drought plans stand now:

1. Arizona Did and Didn’t Meet the Deadline

Hours ahead of the Bureau of Reclamation’s deadline of midnight Jan. 31, a group of Arizona lawmakers and water users gathered in the Capitol to watch Gov. Doug Ducey sign a resolution giving the state’s top water official the ability to sign onto the Drought Contingency Plan.

The signing was a celebration, a culmination of months of discussion in the state that laid bare hard truths about Arizona’s water past, present and future.

Earlier in the day, as the Legislature prepared to vote on the measure, House Speaker Rusty Bowers talked about just how hard it’s been.

“There are hundreds and hundreds of people who’ve worked on these two bills that we have before us,” said Bowers, a Republican from Mesa. “All kinds of associations and groups have focused their attention on this. And we hope that this, as has been declared, this first step, will be beneficial to all of us.”

Negotiations brought in some groups that hadn’t been included in the past, such as the Colorado River Indian Tribes, who live in western Arizona.

“This was our first run at (the Drought Contingency Plan) and we were very confused,” tribal Chairman Dennis Patch said. “And we’re a lot smarter now. We hope to continue to work with the state on all water issues that come up.”

Dennis Patch is chairman of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, whose land straddles the Arizona-California line. Patch was involved in negotiating Arizona’s portion of the Drought Contingency Plan. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

But while Arizona was celebrating its milestone, the federal government crashed the party, saying the state hadn’t done enough for the deal to be considered “done.” Leading up to the deadline, the federal government had been vague on what “done” actually meant. That led to claims that the goalposts for completion had been moved at the last minute.

Commissioner Burman said additional agreements among the state, individual water districts and tribes were left incomplete. The federal hammer would remain poised until those groups signed on.

“We met the deadline and the federal government is NOT in charge of our water,” Ducey spokesman Patrick Ptak said in an email to reporters. “It’s time for others to do the same.”

2. River’s Biggest User Calls the Deadline ‘Coercion’

California’s Imperial Irrigation District, the single largest user of Colorado River water, hasn’t been shy about its concerns over the declining Salton Sea in drought negotiations.

Since early 2018, the district’s board has said it won’t sign a broader deal until more resources are provided to manage the Salton Sea’s expanding shoreline and its spiking salinity levels. A 15-year-old agreement led to a transfer of water from the district to growing cities in Southern California. That and increasing irrigation efficiency have led to the decline of the lake, which relies mainly on farm runoff, causing environmental and public health problems as it shrinks.

California, too, was singled out by Burman for failure to meet her Jan. 31 deadline, a fact that ruffled feathers at IID.

“No federal coercion was needed to reach this point of near completion,” district board member James Hanks said at a Feb. 5 special meeting. “And we don’t need it now.”

Hanks said Burman has “dodged questions” about Salton Sea mitigation funds, and about Reclamation’s role in addressing the lake’s growing list of problems. He also challenged whether the federal government truly has authority to meddle in Colorado River allocations and entitlements.

Although the Drought Contingency Plans focus their attention on preserving water levels in Lakes Mead and Powell, Hanks said the Salton Sea is part of the broader Colorado River system, too, and its future should be included in the negotiations.

“Are the golf courses of Phoenix, the fountains of Las Vegas more important than the public-health crisis at the Salton Sea?” Hanks asked.

IID is seeking to secure a federal match of $200 million in farm-bill funds for projects at the Salton Sea. Those funds have not yet been allocated. In December, IID board members said they’d support the Drought Contingency Plan if three conditions were met, one being that the board would be able to vote on a full package of agreements when they were done. That hasn’t happened yet.

Exposed shoreline at the fast-declining Salton Sea has contributed to the Imperial Valley’s high rates of adult and childhood asthma. Funds to mitigate the lake’s condition has thrown a wrench into the completion of broader agreements on the Colorado River. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

Water managers seem to agree that states need to use less water from the river. But when it comes down to who actually uses less, that’s when the tension starts to rise.

“This is where the rubber meets the road, or where the raft meets the river, I don’t know what the metaphor is,” said John Berggren, a policy analyst with Western Resource Advocates, a Boulder, Colorado, environmental group.

“That’s where you get into the issues and get into the real wickedness of the problems because you’re dealing with people’s livelihoods, you’re dealing with people’s values, you’re dealing with long-term, fundamental changes to winners and losers.”

Western Resource Advocates receives funding for some of its work from the Walton Family Foundation, which also provides funding for KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.

3. Once the Plans Are Done, Harder Negotiations Begin

If they’re finished, these deals are scheduled to expire in 2026.

Some have criticized the Drought Contingency Plans for not going far enough to solve the region’s water problems.

Even the name of “Drought Contingency Plan” seems to suggest we’re dealing with a temporary dry period, rather than an overall shift in climate.

John McClow is general counsel for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District and an alternate commissioner on the Upper Colorado River Commission.

“Most of the policymakers in the West are persuaded that we have aridification rather than drought,” McClow said. “Many folks now are saying, ‘This is what we can expect. It’s not going to get better.’”

For now, that shift is in the attitude of leaders, and it isn’t taking center stage in water policy. The current plans have been crafted as a response to shortcomings in river guidelines agreed to in 2007, when water leaders were grappling with the first few years of a dry period that has lasted two decades.

Climate change and over-allocation are thorny issues that will come up almost immediately once Drought Contingency Plans are finished.

The 2007 guidelines are set to expire in 2026, and water managers are required to begin negotiating that new agreement next year. McClow said as soon as water managers wrap up these Drought Contingency Plans, they immediately have to take on a new set of even harder negotiations, and the current process to keep the reservoirs from crashing will likely make that renegotiation only marginally easier.

“It’s going to be hard no matter what,” McClow said. “Both basins have ideas about things that need to be fixed and they’re not compatible in some cases. It’s going to be a difficult negotiation.”

Those talks are supposed to render a long-term solution. But the weather in the near term adds a degree of uncertainty, too. Many streams in the basin are projected to have less than average flows throughout this spring and summer, a symptom of an ongoing drought hangover from 2018.

And that could end up adding even more pressure to the river and the people in charge of managing it.

Even so, the process in Arizona has some water managers hopeful about the next round of talks there.

“Over the last five to 10 years what I’ve noticed as a positive is, those tribalistic instincts seem to be going away,” said Shane Leonard, general manager of the Roosevelt Water Conservation District in central Arizona. “They’re definitely still there. But they’re not as hard as they used to be.”

Luke Runyon reports for KUNC, based in Greeley, Colorado. Bret Jaspers reports for KJZZ in Phoenix.

Push for Salton Sea Improvements Complicates Colorado River Drought Plan

SANTA MONICA, Calif. – Arizona and California aren’t done with finalizing a plan that would establish how states in the Colorado River Basin will ensure water for millions of people in the Southwest, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said Friday.

Despite Arizona lawmakers meeting Burman’s deadline to sign off on a plan to keep Lake Mead’s water levels from hitting critically low levels, agreements with Native American tribes and other water users still need to be signed.

The legislation Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed authorizes the Arizona Department of Water Resources to execute the relevant interstate DCP agreements, Burman said, adding, “Arizona is unique in the need for state legislative action to approve the DCPs, and this important step may indicate that finalization of the DCPs is imminent.”

Related story

Arizona Lawmakers Agree on Crucial Drought Contingency Plan

Even so, Arizona and California need to complete “necessary work,” Burman said in a conference call Friday with reporters.

One challenge comes from the Imperial Irrigation District, a water utility that serves the Imperial Valley in southeastern California. It hasn’t signed California’s plan because it wants $200 million to restore the vanishing Salton Sea, the state’s largest lake.

The Interior Department has requested the governors of the seven Colorado River Basin states to submit recommendations for steps the agency should take to handle severe and prolonged drought. Arizona, California and Nevada still are working on a drought plan for the Lower Basin; Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico reached an Upper Basin agreement in December. The Interior Department will intervene if states can’t agree to a plan by March 4.

Under the plan Ducey signed Thursday, Arizona, California and Nevada would share cutbacks to manage water shortages through 2026. The Upper Basin drought contingency plan also runs through 2026.

Burman acknowledged the Jan. 31 deadline she set in mid-December was aggressive, but said, “Unfortunately … the DCP in the Lower Basin is still not complete. Like I told the seven basin states in December, close isn’t done.”

The shallow, briny Salton Sea, which is California’s largest lake, has high levels of pollution. It is a major recreation area and a key stop for migrating birds.(Photo by LindaDee2006/Flickr)

Why the Salton Sea is a Sticking Point

The Salton Sea, which spans 8,360 square miles in the low desert of southeastern California and northern Mexico, formed in 1905 when the rampaging Colorado River flooded and broke through an irrigation canal. For 18 months, the Salton Basin filled with river water to create the lake. Since then, the lake has been sustained primarily by agricultural runoff.

More than a century later, it’s drying up. According to the Desert Sun, the briny lake is becoming a toxic dust bowl, causing human health problems. The evaporation and exposed toxins also pose a threat to sport fishing, migratory wildlife and the Salton Sea State Recreation Area.

Robert Schettler, a representative of the Imperial Irrigation District, said the district is invested in the Lower Basin drought contingency plan and isn’t trying to stop it.

“We’re partners, (with California) and we’re trying to help, but people need to see how important the Salton Sea is,” Schettler said. “Conservation is great, but it’s having a negative impact on the sea.”

Farmers are using less water, which means less runoff flowing into the lake, he explained. Schettler said pollution and an increase in dust as the shoreline recedes is a major health concern in the region and needs to be addressed.

California approved a project to build wetlands and to control dust, but the state estimates the cost would be more than $400 million. The state needs an additional $200 million, which it wants in exchange for agreeing to the DCP.

In an email, Henry Martinez, Imperial’s general manager, said the district “will continue to work diligently to reach agreement on outstanding DCP issues.”

Why California is Taking Water from Lake Mead

As Arizona deliberated over its drought contingency plan, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California already had begun withdrawing about 250,000 acre-feet of Lake Mead water for storage in California reservoirs. The utility, which is entitled to the water under current agreements, had limited the amount it had taken from Mead in the past two years, and it was able to store a record amount of water in 2017, a very wet year.

The decision by Metropolitan to withdraw water from Mead was a pressure tactic and defensive measure. Nineteen million people in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties depend on water from Metropolitan, which has stated the water would be returned if the drought contingency plan isn’t passed.

California encourages residents to conserve water through policy, outreach and promoting technology that uses less water. Despite steady population growth in Southern California, Metropolitan’s peak demand for water was in 1990.

“It’s a remarkable story of basically 25 years of concentrated investment in drawing down demand,” Jeffrey Kightlinger, Metropolitan’s general manager since 2006, said in a Metropolitan podcast. “All the devices in your house, getting people to transform the landscapes in their gardens have really turned Southern California into good stewards of water and driven down our demand to the point that we can balance with a lot less imported water.”

Despite the strides to secure California’s future water supplies, Kightlinger believes more needs to be done.

“An emergency is coming,” he said. “We already take more (from the Colorado River) than what’s put in. We (Californians) don’t have the luxury of waiting.”

Kightlinger said storing water for dry years and reducing demand are the best ways to address the dwindling water supply in the Colorado River.

Why Lake Mead Matters

Lake Mead, south of Las Vegas, is the largest reservoir on the Colorado, followed by Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah line. Utah, Colorado Wyoming and New Mexico depend on water from Powell. Arizona, Nevada and California draw water from Mead.

As of Feb. 1, Lake Mead’s water level stood at 1,085 feet above sea level, according to USLakes.info, 143 feet below full pool. If it drops below 1,075 feet above sea level – which could occur next year – the Bureau of Reclamation will declare an official shortage and mandate water cutoffs. At 1,050 feet, stricter cutoffs would be imposed.

Kightlinger said Metropolitan wouldn’t be able to withdraw stored water in Lake Mead if cutoffs are enforced.

The Bureau of Reclamation projects that Lake Mead’s water will drop to a critical level by 2020, regardless of Metropolitan’s withdrawal. Scientists say the dwindling water levels are a result of nearly 20 years of drought, growing populations in the Southwest, increased use by farmers growing year-round crops and climate change.

In the worse-case scenario, Lake Mead would be declared a “dead pool” at 895 feet above sea level. Hoover Dam, which draws water from Mead to provide power to more than 8 million people, would stop generating electricity, and Lower Basin states would be cut off from water supplies.

Water users in Mohave, La Paz and Yuma counties all rely on the Colorado as their primary water source, according to the Arizona Department of Water Resources, and the Central Arizona Project provides on average 1.5 million-acre feet of Colorado River water to Maricopa, Pinal and Pima counties annually.

Arizona Lawmakers Agree on Drought Contingency Plan

ELOY – Arizona lawmakers beat a midnight deadline set by the federal government by just a few hours Thursday, agreeing on a plan to balance drought and water supplies in the Colorado River Basin.

The goal is to keep water levels in Lake Mead from plummeting so low there wouldn’t be enough water for the millions of people throughout the Southwest who depend on it. For Arizona, that could mean losing about a seventh of the state’s annual water allotment to the Central Arizona Project, which provides much of the state’s water.

The Colorado River Basin spans nearly the length of Arizona, but its impact is felt across the Southwest. See a larger version of the map here. (Graphic courtesy U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Reclamation)

Although Arizona has signed off on the drought contingency plan, California’s Imperial Irrigation District may delay the basin-wide deal. According to the Desert Sun, the district wants $200 million to restore the Salton Sea.

Water managers expect Mead’s levels to drop low enough that by May of this year, there would be a shortage declaration and reduced water allocations. The plan Arizona approved will mitigate those cuts.

Arizona was the last of the three Lower Basin states to approve a Drought Contingency Plan, and it’s the only state that required legislative action to put the plan in place. If Arizona had missed the midnight deadline, the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which manages water and power in the West, said it would impose its own drought plan on the entire Colorado River Basin.

The plan is a stop gap approach to manage water shortages and will be in place until 2026. Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, which make up the Upper Basin, signed their drought contingency plan in December.

“Lake Mead is essentially overallocated,” said Sarah Porter, who directs the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University. “There is more water going out of Lake Mead than coming in.”

What the Drought Plan Would Do

According to Porter, part of the plan sets a schedule of voluntary cuts that users agree to take to keep lake levels sustainable. The plan also designates rules on when users can take water out of the reservoir.

The plan, which had bipartisan support, aims to keep lake levels high enough to try and avoid a catastrophic shortage in Arizona.

“Arizona has a really hard task because we would take the largest cuts of any of the users, and we need to have our legislature approve singing on to DCP,” Porter said.

What’s Behind the Plan?

The 19-year drought has forced Southwestern states to orchestrate a plan for more sustainable water usage from the Colorado River.

If the lake levels dip too low, Arizona consumers could also see higher water rates.

This isn’t the first time Arizona has experienced hard policy reform to ensure there’s a water supply.

The lower basin agreed to a plan similar to the DCP in 2007, though the cuts weren’t nearly as dramatic as those Arizona faces now.

“We’re looking at significant decreases in Colorado River deliveries,” Porter said.

The Bureau of Reclamation will declare an official shortage and water cutoffs if Lake Mead’s water level drops below 1,075 feet above sea level. That hasn’t happened yet, but water managers predict it could occur as early as May. At 1,050 feet, stricter cutoffs would be imposed.

Who Would Suffer the Most?

Arizona has sealed a bittersweet arrangement that addresses how water users would share the pain of a water shortage, Porter said.

Pinal County farmers will be among the first users to take a cut if there’s a drought declaration.

“Long term, those Pinal County farmers are looking at needing to have other supplies of water,” Porter said. “The DCP has included provision for those farmers to be able to develop or redevelop infrastructure to pump groundwater out and they can use groundwater for their operations.”

Brian Rhodes, who farms 15,000 acres of land near Eloy, believes that will be devastating for the agriculture industry.

“Without some type of mitigation proposal, the alternative is Pinal County farmland no longer becomes viable for a large percentage,” Rhodes said. “That is detrimental for not only the farmers like myself, but you’ve got so many industries that are being supported by the farming operation.”

Pinal County ranks in the top 2 percent nationwide in the total value of agricultural sales, according to a study from the University of Arizona’s Agriculture and Resource Economy.

Rhodes says regardless of the Legislature’s decision Thursday, agriculture still will be forced to increase sustainability efforts.

“Even under the mitigation and other proposals that are on the table, we’re still looking at a lot less available water going forward,” Rhodes said. “The drought is something that’s out of anyone’s control. We’re going to all have to adjust to a new frontier as far as water availability and from what we’ve been used to.”

The plan provides farmers with more water than they would receive if lawmakers had been unable to reach a decision, said Dave Roberts, chief water resources executive for Salt River Project.

“I wouldn’t say they’re in good shape, but they’ll be better off than they would have been,” he said.

Cronkite News reporter Lillian Donahue contributed to this story.

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.

Shutdown, additional water requests could disrupt Arizona drought plan

PHOENIX – The partial federal government shutdown is affecting Arizona’s painstaking work on an internal drought plan, although not enough to delay a federal deadline set for the end of this month.

The Bureau of Reclamation remains open, Phoenix-area manager Leslie Meyers said, noting that the bureau’s funding was appropriated in September. The legal counsel for her office, however, is part of the Department of Interior, specifically the Office of the Field Solicitor. They are furloughed. The shutdown began Dec. 22.

“Right now, not having them at work is very difficult for us,” Meyers told reporters Tuesday, Jan. 8. “It’s hard to move forward.”

Interior department lawyers have been working with Arizona’s two biggest water agencies, the Central Arizona Project and the Arizona Department of Water Resources, to hammer out the various agreements required to finalize the state’s plan to deal with expected drought in the Colorado River Basin, which supplies millions of people Arizona and six other Western states. Arizona is the only basin state that requires legislative approval for the drought contingency plan, known as the DPC, to be implemented.

The Steering Committee for the Arizona Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, made of key water stakeholders in the state, met Tuesday for the first time since Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman set a Jan. 31 deadline for parties to have passed the DPC.

The broad DCP covers the entire Colorado River Basin and is an effort to prop up Lakes Mead and Powell, the major reservoirs for the river system. Arizona and a few California water agencies are the last holdouts amid intrastate negotiations.

If the shutdown does not end soon, Meyers guessed Burman would try to get some of the Department of Interior attorneys declared essential to get them back to work (albeit with no pay).

The deadline, however, is still firm.

“The deadline really was a work-back from dates that are hard-wired into agreements and other things,” Meyers said. For example, the DCP’s “shortage designations,” which would mandate any cuts to deliveries from Lake Mead in 2020, will be set according to an August hydrology report.

The Jan. 31 deadline also provides time for the Bureau of Reclamation to decide on a separate course of action if Arizona and the California entities do not approve the DCP.

However, the ongoing shutdown is not the only unresolved issue.

At Tuesday’s steering-committee meeting, the temperature in the room seemed to jump a few degrees during a discussion of so-called mitigation water for home builders. Mitigation has largely focused on providing farmers in Pinal County with water to ease them off Colorado River water and onto groundwater. Higher-priority water users also are getting mitigated because they also face cuts under the DCP.

Home builders are likely to get access to water through a separate but related deal between the Gila River Indian Community and the CAP’s groundwater replenishment arm, known as the CAGRD. The Tribal Council has approved it, pending state approval of the drought contingency plan.

That isn’t enough certainty for Spencer Kamps of the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona. His group, along with the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association, wants the Arizona DCP to include 7,000 acre-feet of mitigation water for development for the first three years of a shortage declaration (21,000 acre-feet total). If the DCP passes and the Gila River tribe’s deal with CAGRD deal is executed, the provision would be removed.

Kamps’ concern is that Arizona’s internal DCP, whatever its current form, may get changed by the Legislature, making it unsatisfactory to the tribe.

“What condition is DCP in when it goes through?” Kamps asked. “Ultimately, nobody knows what that’s going to be. We hope it’s the deal that ultimately passes here. But if that’s modified in any way, then that creates uncertainty. We’re just trying to address it.”

Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community said the CAGRD deal is ready to go if and when Gov. Ducey signs the package securing the state’s drought plan.

“The council will not revisit the issue unless Governor Ducey does not sign the DCP legislation,” Lewis said. He also promised to ask his Tribal Council for permission to send a letter clarifying that fact.

A group representing big developers, however, disagreed with the homebuilders’ request for mitigation water.

“At this point, I don’t know where we’re going to come up with 21,000 acre-feet of water,” said Cheryl Lombard, CEO of Valley Partnership. “I just don’t see the need for it. In fact, we’re one of the only entities, if not the only entity, getting new water out of this entire discussion.”

Other issues also remain unresolved. The legislative session starts next week.

Central Arizona farmers face tough choices planning for water cuts

PHOENIX – Farmers between Phoenix and Tucson, in Pinal County, are in a tough spot as Arizona continues critical negotiations over expected cuts in Colorado River water allocations.

Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the Colorado River system, is likely to be “in shortage” in 2020. A shortage declaration from the Bureau of Reclamation would trigger mandatory cutbacks for some large water users in Arizona.

But the risk goes deeper than that. Reclamation projections say Mead is uncomfortably close to even lower levels – to the point where no water can be released, a situation known as “dead pool.” In an effort to keep the system relatively healthy, the seven states in the Lower and Upper basins of the Colorado River are finalizing a plan to prop up Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two largest reservoirs in the country. On top of that, Arizona is working on an internal deal to figure out precisely who gets a water cut, and how.

Serious questions

At a recent public meeting of the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan Steering Committee, a group of eighth-graders attended as part of their own study of water. One of their questions was, “Should some stakeholders or cities get their water shut off, or should everybody be put on a water limit?”

In response, Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, said planners “know what the answer is” to the question of who gets cut first.

“But sometimes we don’t like what the answer is,” he continued. “That’s why we’re all meeting here, is to see if there’s a way to agree to still – respecting how the priorities work – make agreements among ourselves that the outcome might be different than just kind of the default outcome of what the priorities dictate.”

The default outcome is tolerable for some groups and intolerable for others.

Shane Leonard, general manager of the Roosevelt Water Conservation District in Maricopa County, is a member of the state’s Drought Contingency Plan Steering Committee. (Photo by Bret Jaspers/KJZZ)

Pinal County reality

In the “intolerable” column is Kelly Anderson of Pinal County. A third-generation farmer, he grew up in a house on property he now owns on the outskirts of Maricopa, south of Phoenix. He grows decorative wheat millet for Hobby Lobby and other crafts stores, as well as regular wheat. He also leases fields to alfalfa farmers.

Anderson, a former mayor of Maricopa, sits on the board of the Maricopa Stanfield Irrigation & Drainage District. Along with other irrigation districts and water users, the MSIDD is slated to lose all its Colorado River water during a Tier One shortage under the proposed Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan.

“The good times with the CAP water is over,” he said. “We’re going back to the way it was in the ’70s.”

Anderson knew he would have to fully return to groundwater by 2030, but Pinal County farmers had planned for there to be some river water until then. Long-term drought and overallocation have led to Lake Mead falling faster than the basin states expected, which is why a new plan is needed.

But the drought-contingency plan threatens to make the cutoff for Pinal County farmers much more sudden, which is why they’re fighting to keep some river water as a bridge to a future of pumping groundwater.

“It would give us a longer period of time to work on wells, to budget, to do capital improvements, some bonding to help with those types of projects,” he said. “With the drought, it just brought things to the forefront much, much quicker.”

The backstory

There is a reason why farmers in Pinal County are near the back of the line when it comes to doling out river water. In the early 2000s, they swapped more secure rights for a lower priority as part of the Arizona Water Settlement Agreement. This water was subject to availability and would be phased out by 2030. It helped cities and the federal government settle Native American water claims.

In return, the farmers got more than $162 million in debt relief and cheaper water prices.

Attorney Paul Orme has represented Pinal County irrigation districts for years. He said when the Arizona Water Settlement deal and a 2007 drought plan known as the Interim Guidelines were drawn up, circumstances were different.

“We didn’t have anything on the horizon like what we’re facing now,” he said. “I think most folks who are objective in this process say, you know, this should be a share-the-pain kind of situation and we’re taking the big hit of the pain up front.”

He argued that the Drought Contingency Plan ultimately is meant to protect higher priority water by preserving Lake Mead’s long-term health. Pinal County farmers will not have guaranteed access to CAP water after 2030.

Shane Leonard is general manager of the Roosevelt Water Conservation District, which serves agricultural and residential customers in Maricopa County. He said there are legitimate concerns over the economic impact to the state if Pinal County farmers were to lose their river water through a shortage declaration. But he also said politics is at play.

“There are going to be some key folks down at the Legislature that want to know that we at least tried to mitigate some of Pinal County’s issues,” said Leonard, who along with Orme is one of almost 40 members of the drought plan’s steering committee.

Ultimately, it is lawmakers and the governor who give the state the authority to sign on the dotted line with California, Nevada and the Upper Basin states. While acknowledging his clients’ legislative support, Orme said it’s only as strong as the case for fairness they can make.