Arizona legislature’s first order of business: a Drought Contingency Plan

There is an old adage in the American West, “Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.”

The Arizona legislature has until January 31 to enact a drought contingency plan for the allocation of Colorado River water in the event a drought emergency is declared, which is expected to occur in 2020. If the legislature misses the deadline, it will result in the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation launching a legal process that would likely trigger a formal, federal management takeover of the Colorado River.

The Drought Situation

The American West has been in a drought for the past 19 years with no end in sight. In fact, researchers say “the Southwest may currently be enduring its first mega-drought in more than 500 years, and it could be one of the most severe in history, new research from Columbia University suggests.” The Southwest Might Be in One of the Worst Mega-Droughts in History, Experts Say:

“The last 19 years have been equivalent to the worst 19 years of the worst mega-droughts on record,” Park Williams of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory told The Atlantic. The current drought is topped by only mega-droughts in the late-800s, mid-1100s and late-1500s.

(Photo of the Lake Meade “bathtub ring”).

While there isn’t an exact definition for what constitutes a mega-drought, climate scientists Jonathan Overpeck and Connie Woodhouse minted the classification in an American Meteorological Society journal entry which claims only droughts that lasted two decades or longer could be added to the ranking.

The brutal drought in the Southwest started around 2000, putting it on the brink of becoming a mega-drought.

What’s fueling the drought strangling the Southwest is a combination of below-average rainfall in the area and aridification, a term used to move away from the word drought, describing a dry place transitioning to a much drier and water deficient environment rather than waiting for a drought to end, the Colorado River Research Group described in a recent publication.

“The current drought is substantially worse than it would have been without global warming,” said Williams, adding that human-caused climate change made the drought 62 percent more extensive than it would’ve been otherwise. Without climate change, the current drought would rank eighth- or ninth-worst in history, according to Williams.

Using thousands of tree rings across the West in combination with present-day weather records, Williams’s team was able to catalog the last 1,200 years of soil moisture. While the ongoing drought isn’t a mirror image of the mega-droughts of years past, the one happening now has encapsulated nearly half of the country — something historic mega-droughts never did.

The Drought Contingency Plan

A 40-member Steering Committee representing water users has hashed out the details of the plan in eight public meetings since July. The Arizona Capitol Times reports Lawmakers get first look at legislation for Drought Contingency Plan:

As the deadline for Arizona to adopt a drought plan inches closer, state lawmakers received an early look at the water measures they could vote on later this month.

The draft legislation compiled by the Department of Water Resources looks similar to how water leaders described the measures at a Drought Contingency Plan Steering Committee meeting last week.

The six draft measures would allow Arizona to sign onto a multi-state drought plan with six other southwestern states working to stabilize water levels in the Colorado River by agreeing to use less water from the river.

But the legislation as drafted barely delves into the nitty-gritty details of a far more complex intrastate agreement that Arizona water users have been hashing out for months.

The intrastate agreement, which is still being finalized, details which water users will face cutbacks, how severe the cutbacks will be and how those users will be compensated for agreeing to take cuts.

Draft legislation obtained by the Arizona Capitol Times includes a joint resolution authorizing Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke, on behalf of Arizona, to sign onto the multi-state DCP.

But lawmakers will also have to approve a series of measures pertaining to the Arizona-specific drought plan.

Legislative leaders all but demanded draft legislation earlier this week, saying they needed time for their caucuses and constituents to look it over before voting on the drought plan.

“We’re the ones who vote,” Speaker of the House Rusty Bowers said. “It’s my position that my people need the time, and they’re going to get the time.”

Republican and Democratic legislative leaders joined Gov. Doug Ducey for a press conference Tuesday to declare their commitment to passing the DCP. But legislative leaders complained they didn’t know what exactly they were agreeing to because they hadn’t seen draft legislation yet.

“The legislative language needs to be before members and the stakeholders we
represent as soon as possible to allow time for evaluation,” said Senate Majority Leader David Bradley. “The Jan. 31 deadline is crystal clear, but it should be equally clear that approval from the Legislature is not to be taken for granted.”

When it comes to passing the Drought Contingency Plan, time is finite. Federal officials have demanded all the Colorado River Basin states adopt the multi-state plan by Jan. 31. Arizona and California are the two holdouts.

The draft legislation asks lawmakers to sign off on a $30 million appropriation from the state’s general fund to create a system conservation fund, which will be used to compensate water users that will face cutbacks as a result of the state signing onto the Drought Contingency Plan.

The Legislature will also have to sign off on Buschatzke serving as the administrator of the conservation fund.

The draft legislation also creates a temporary groundwater and irrigation efficiency fund that will be funded by a one-time general fund appropriation of $5 million and a groundwater management fee implemented in Pinal County.

The legislation will also repurpose Pinal’s current groundwater fee so it can be used to fund projects to rehabilitate and construct groundwater wells and other groundwater infrastructure. The director of the Department of Water Resources will set the fee.

The fund is slated to expire in 2027.

The legislation also changes some processes and procedures related to how water users can store or “bank” water in groundwater savings facilities.

The state appropriation to Pinal will occur in the current budget year and be paired with federal funding. But the $30 million appropriation will occur in the 2019-2020 budget year, according to the draft legislation.

Ducey offered up the $35 million in state funding in an attempt to solidify Arizona’s drought plan, which in turn, means the state could sign onto the multi-state drought plan.

Ducey kicked off the legislative session, saying adopting the DCP is his top priority this year. Now that lawmakers are starting to get an idea of what they will be voting on, it’s time to get to work to adopt the plan, Ducey spokesman Patrick Ptak said.

The Holdup: Pinal County Farmers

While Arizona legislators expressed optimism at the opening of the legislative session on Monday that they could enact a Drought Contingency Plan before the January 31 deadline, see Arizona lawmakers optimistic about passing monumental drought plan, the old adage still applies,”Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.”

The Arizona Capitol Times reports, Cities, farmers fight over water conservation plan:

An organization that represents major Arizona cities is effectively warning Pinal County farmers not to demand more in the proposed drought contingency plan.

Warren Tenney, executive director of the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association said he believes the plan, delivered to lawmakers this week and awaiting legislative action, has been more than generous to the farmers.

It includes a promise of 105,000 acre feet of Colorado River water for the next three years, 70,000 acre feet of groundwater for four years after that. The draft legislation also includes $5 million in state cash to drill wells and construct delivery systems for that water.

And Tenney said cities will recharge 100,000 acre feet of their own water allocation over a three-year period.

Only thing is, the farm interests want $10 million from the state. And they want the state to be the backstop if the federal government does not come through with additional cash for well construction for farmers to be able to get that groundwater, a figure that could approach $50 million.

That, in turn, could upend efforts to get lawmakers to approve the final plan by the Jan. 31 deadline set by Brenda Burman, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation. She has told the affected states her agency will step in if they don’t come up with an acceptable plan to keep water levels in Lake Mead from dropping any further.

“What we’re trying to say is, enough is enough,” Tenney told Capitol Media Services.

His organization is doing more than verbal saber rattling.

It also has prepared its own report seeking to debunk – or at least minimize – a report commissioned by Pinal farmers about how not getting the water they need would have a major impact on the economy.

* * *

AMWUA does not dispute [the report’s] numbers. But the organization said this has to be put into perspective, saying that the agriculture and agribusiness in Pinal represented only about two-tenths of a percent of the state’s economy, half as much as does golf.

More to the point, the report contends that the costs of getting the farmers the water they want may exceed the loss to the economy.

Attorney Paul Orme who represents some Pinal irrigation districts said the study was not seeking to claim that the loss of water would damage the whole state. What it was, he said, was explaining how it would undermine the economy of the county.

Dan Thelander said last year he grew 2,200 acres of alfalfa sold a local dairy for milk cows. There also was silage corn for another dairy, durum wheat for a pasta maker in Tolleson and 1,400 acres of cotton that was exported.

Thelander said he and other farmers spent $90 million to be able to take Colorado River water to reduce groundwater pumping, putting their land up as collateral. That spending, he said, is in jeopardy if there is no river water to deliver.

That, he said, is why that 105,000 acre feet of water should be guaranteed for at least three years plus the cash to build wells and pipelines for groundwater after that.

Tiffany Shedd, another area farmer, said they were not being selfish in demanding the water and the money for the wells.

She said it was the farmers who essentially financed the construction of the Central Arizona Project, making payments even before cities showed any interest in using – and paying for – any Colorado River water.

“And I think it’s safe to say turnabout is fair play,” Shedd said.

Tenney, however, prefers to look at it through the lens of agriculture actually getting more water than it otherwise would be entitled to take.

He said prior agreements were made of who would lose deliveries if the amount of Colorado River water were reduced. Those agreements, Tenney said, would give the farmers only about 70,000 to 80,000 acre feet of water a year, far less than the plan would provide for the next three years.

Asking for more, he said, is wrong.

“There has been a lot of effort, there has been a plan put in place to take care of Pinal agriculture,” he said. “And the time is now for us to shift our focus from just one sector in one county to focus on Arizona’s economy as a whole.”

But Orme said Tenney’s claims of what farmers would otherwise get is based on some games being played.

He said what happened is that the cities and tribes decided this year to order as much Colorado River water as they could, regardless of what they actually needed. Orme said that in turn made it look like there was really less water for agriculture if the drought contingency plan were not adopted.

Orme said what the farmers demanded – that 105,000 acre feet annually of river water followed by 70,000 acre feet from groundwater – is based on what was available, on average, for the prior eight years, before the cities took their full allocation.

“This jacking up their water order for the 2019 water year was manipulating this whole process to argue that our baseline is lower than we believe it actually is,” he said.

Orme said the demand for cash for well construction is justified.

He said the farmers would be just as happy getting that 70,000 acre feet for the last four years of the deal from the Colorado River. It was only that the deal was to provide well water instead, Orme said, that necessitates the need for the finances to ensure the farmers can, in fact, get it pumped and delivered.

And there’s something else.

Orme said the farmers want more than just vague assurances that water – and money – will be coming.

“It can’t just be numbers on paper,” he said. “It has to be a reality.”

The fight in the Arizona legislature over Pinal County farmers could hold up this Drought Contingency Plan past the January 31 deadline and lead to a bigger fight with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation over a federal management takeover of the Colorado River.

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