The Colorado River’s precipitous decline pushed Arizona lawmakers to deliver Gov. Doug Ducey’s $1 billion water augmentation fund — and then some — late Friday, their final night in session.
Before the votes, the growing urgency for addressing the state’s oncoming water shortage and the long timeline for approving and building new water projects nearly sank the legislation.
Just over a week after the federal government warned that the seven states that use the Colorado must make major new cutbacks by next year, Democrats held out until they got an additional $200 million commitment for water conservation, which they argued could help Arizonans much faster than the costlier seawater desalination plan that the governor has touted.
Some of the water importation schemes that had been discussed would require multiple billions of dollars and interstate or international partnerships, making this three-year investment effectively a fund for down payments for big-ticket pipes or treatment plants. The water conservation measures, such as grants to help cities reduce turf grass, could be cheaper.
One after another, a bipartisan stream of legislators picked up a microphone in a two-day blitz for the package to say that spending to plug the emerging holes in Arizona’s water supply was critical to the state’s future. They eventually passed it as Senate Bill 1740 with just one dissenter in each chamber.
“We’re going to need it,” Republican House Speaker Rusty Bowers told colleagues, "and we should all get used to the idea that we’re going to have to pay what water costs in order to stay here.”
"Arizona is putting our money where our mouth is," said Rep. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford.
Sen. Lisa Otondo, D-Yuma, said the effects of a two-decade drought are “frightening” and farmers in her district need a legislative fix as they’re asked to take voluntary reductions in river water.
“The situation is real,” she said. She offered the amendment adding a conservation fund.
Drought forces river users to adapt
The U.S. 100 years ago split the Colorado’s bounty from headwaters to sea among seven states and, ultimately, Mexico, based on the assumption that it would supply at least 20 percent more than it has so far in this century. The result has been plunging reservoirs in the face of major population growth.
Arizona is not in imminent danger of failing to supply its residents, though a first-ever mandated cutback of Colorado River water through the Central Arizona Project canal has inflicted economic pain and fallowed farm fields in Pinal County this year.
Before this year, Arizona could take from the river 2.8 million acre-feet, a water-measuring unit of roughly 326,000 gallons apiece. An acre-foot could supply about three households for a year, though much of the water goes to farms. The river typically accounts for about a third of the state's water supply.
This year’s shortage has cut CAP pumping by more than 500,000 acre-feet, and the state was bracing for more cuts next year when the commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation this month told Congress that the states sharing the river need a plan to shed at least another 2 million between them.
Continuing reductions through this decade could cause cities such as Phoenix to dip into reserves they’ve stored underground. In future years, though, on-river communities such as Yuma that never expected to face shortages may suffer.
In pressing for the water legislation, Arizona Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke invoked the prospect of “dead pool," in which Lake Mead drops too low to pass water through Hoover Dam. In that case, it won’t matter who has superior water rights downstream. Likewise, dead pool upstream at Lake Powell could dry up the Grand Canyon.
“The stakes are high,” Buschatzke said, adding that even a lower-flowing river out of Hoover Dam could slash farming along the river, where growers have traditionally enjoyed the most senior water rights.
Rep. Andrés Cano, D-Tucson, one of the holdouts for conservation funding, ultimately backed the $1 billion plan because, he said, the Southwest’s warming and drying climate demands action.
“We have no choice but to adapt,” Cano said. “This is only the beginning.”
Ducey: Plan secures Arizona's water future
After lawmakers approved the package Friday night, and budgeted the first of three annual installments for it, Gov. Ducey released a statement saying the initiative builds on past leaders’ foresight in building the CAP Canal and protecting groundwater from depletion around urban areas.
“With the passage of this legislation, we are rising to one of the most consequential challenges of our time,” Ducey said. “We are securing Arizona’s water future. We’re protecting our water supply, strengthening our conservation strategies and ensuring that our future remains bright.”
The legislation empowers the Water Infrastructure Finance Authority of Arizona to grant money to projects aiding Arizona’s water outlook. That agency currently dispenses smaller grants and loans using federal funds. It more or less tracks the idea that Ducey pushed in his State of the State address, when he sought a new state water authority.
In that January speech, Ducey pitched a potential desalination plant, which Buschatzke has discussed with Mexico and other states. The idea is to build a seawater desalination plant on the Sea of Cortez, southeast of the Colorado’s dried-up delta. That project, perhaps a decade in the future, would pipe treated water to Mexican farmers south of Yuma. Arizona would then purchase and use part of Mexico’s share of the Colorado River.
Another idea is to scale up a test plant that the Metropolitan Water District has built to treat wastewater in Los Angeles for reuse there. Arizona’s support for that project would allow it to take part of California’s share of the Colorado.
Some, including Bowers, have promoted the idea of piping water from Mississippi River drainage during flood years. Buschatzke said he has spoken to officials in Kansas about their interest in participating, though he said he has not heard anything from Interior Department officials about backing such a plan.
Whatever the mix of future supplies, he said, Arizona needs an account from which to draw funds when opportunities arise.
“We need to be ready to pull that trigger or we might get left behind,” Buschatzke told lawmakers.
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Groundwater pumping was left out
The legislation bars the finance authority from buying Arizona-held rights to the Colorado and moving them off-river, a concession to farmers in Yuma and upstream, who fear a Phoenix-area water grab will dry up their farms. It makes an exception for tribal water, and it enables the authority to consider out-of-state river water if Buschatzke’s department approves.
Some Democrats, including Cano, challenged the push for expensive new supplies that will take years to cultivate when easier and faster fixes are at hand. A bipartisan effort to allow rural counties to establish groundwater protection programs through the state has failed to pass for several years, leaving groundwater pumping unchecked in most of rural Arizona.
Wrangling over the bill continued in both chambers into Friday evening, until Republicans accepted a Democratic amendment dedicating $200 million to a water conservation grant fund. Ontondo's amendment creates a fund to pay for everything from education, rainwater capture and turf removal to groundwater recharge.
That compromise would not stop the unregulated pumping that some have sought to rein in, but it does require the state to assess supply and demand in rural basins.
The expansion of pumping for commercial nut tree farming near Kingman has led Mohave County and Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, to seek the ability to monitor and protect aquifer levels to protect the city’s ability to grow its industrial and housing base, so far without success. Griffin, with backing from farm groups, has blocked that legislation.
In Cochise County, voters have submitted signatures to put such a measure to a vote.
Without protecting groundwater from unlimited pumping, skeptics argued, it makes no sense to spend taxpayer dollars on acquiring more. Some of the new funds could be used on aquifer recharge, for instance, which uses wells and retention basins to catch rainfall and direct it into the ground before it evaporates. Kingman is already doing some of that, but at a rate that local officials say is far outpaced by the pumping.
“We must do something to protect the resources that we have, said Pele Peacock Fischer, policy consultant with Business for Water Stewardship. “We’re going to be spending money to pour more water into the bucket without closing the holes.”
Fixes are costly: Colorado River drought may be the 'new normal'
Wide support for the plan
Buschatzke compared the situation to what central Arizonans faced in 1980, when the Legislature approved groundwater protections for urban areas around Phoenix and Tucson. The users who slowed their pumping in those areas would not have consented unless a new supply — in that case the Central Arizona Project’s delivery of Colorado River water — was on the way, he said.
The head of one nut-farming company operating in Mohave County testified that he would look forward to working with the state on groundwater recharge.
Ducey's plan and the bill passed Friday drew support from both municipal and agricultural groups. The Arizona Municipal Water Users Association, representing Phoenix and several large Maricopa County cities, backed it. So did the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation, which said finding new water should offer relief to farmers who could lose if water shortages force big cutbacks.
“It takes that target off the back of agriculture,” said Chelsea McGuire, the group’s government relations director.
A lobbyist for Mohave County and a coalition of conservation groups called Water for Arizona said augmentation schemes are likely at least a decade away, while groundwater conservation could shore up supplies now.
“We believe conservation is the most impactful benefit that we can get today,” said Nick Ponder, a lobbyist whose clients include the Audubon Society, the Environmental Defense Fund and others.
The Sierra Club also asked lawmakers to place conservation over importation. Ultimately the bill addressed both, while leaving for another day the question of regulating rural groundwater.
Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona lawmakers bank a billion dollars to augment and save water