The race to finish Arizona’s water shortage plan

The Legislature has only six days to approve a joint resolution to allow the State to sign onto the Drought Contingency Plan and a number of legislative amendments  that allow Arizona  to implement a state plan to deal with a water shortage when it occurs. There’s more than a 50 percent chance the first shortfall will come next year.

If lawmakers fail to meet a Jan. 31 deadline, a federal government takeover of the process is imminent. Lawmakers will be considering details of a state implementation  plan that was negotiated by a statewide steering committee and they must decide if they want to tinker with it or trust the stakeholders who put it in their hands.

Five states and Mexico have completed their pieces of the agreement, called the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP). The DCP lays out measures for shoring up levels at Lake Mead and reductions to water supplies. Arizona and California are firming up the last details.

Arizona is the only state that requires legislative approval.

Rumblings among legislative leadership indicate there could be a holdup over issues involving water rights, conservation and funding.

Any amendments, however, could be the death knell. Gov. Doug Ducey has stated repeatedly that if there are any changes that further threaten levels at Lake Mead, he will not sign off on it.

The DCP is designed to prevent Lake Mead from dipping to crisis levels. The lake is the major storage reservoir for the three states on the Lower Basin of the river, Arizona, California and Nevada.

A committee of 38 water stakeholders spent the last six months embroiled in tense negotiations to put together Arizona’s piece in time for the legislative session that started Jan. 14. Almost all have agreed to sharing, selling and conserving water as part of the pact.

On Thursday, the Central Arizona Water Conservation District board of directors held a special meeting to support the draft legislation and joint resolution of the DCP. The CAWCD board oversees the Central Arizona Project (CAP) that delivers Colorado River to the state’s populous inland areas.

“After months of negotiations and at what seems like at times slow progress, we have consensus around the key elements and framework,” said Lisa Atkins, president of the board.

Atkins praised everyone involved for accomplishing a the “monumental task.” With the language in place, it will pave the way for Arizona to sign onto the intra- and inter-state agreements.

“Our task, of course, is not finished. As with any race it is the final stretch that means success or failure,” she said.

Now, it’s up to the legislature. If the legislature and governor sign off on the agreements, the DCP must still be approved by the federal Bureau of Reclamation and the United States Congress.

For Arizona, the DCP is critical to the state’s economic future. Arizona only has junior priority rights to Colorado River water, mainly due to agreements negotiated between the states when CAP was built.

Priority rankings vary in state as well. When a shortage occurs, inland farmers in Pinal County will suffer the deepest cuts. To help mitigate the damage, the steering committee has negotiated a number of measures to assist. Tribes, cities, state agencies and CAP have agreed to share or sell water to them or provide funding for infrastructure.

Paul Orme, the attorney who represents the farmers said they support the resolution and “vast majority” of the legislation.

The only remaining issue is adequate funding for the well pumping systems, he said. The farmers are in discussions with the federal government that has indicated it may be able to help.

The proposed DCP plan addresses the next seven years of Colorado River water supply and stakeholders have indicated that conversations will continue and more will be done to plan for the future.

Victoria Harker

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