Arizona lawmakers debate Colorado River drought plan

January 30, 2019

PHOENIX (AP) — A multi-state agreement to conserve Colorado River water took an important step forward Tuesday as a key legislative panel signed off in Arizona, the last of seven states that must sign onto the deal by Thursday.

Amid fears that prolonged drought is endangering water supplies from the Colorado River, a state House committee voted unanimously to let Arizona sign onto the agreement and implement a series of changes to state water laws.

Arizona is the only state that requires the Legislature’s approval to sign onto a drought contingency plan negotiated by the seven states that draw water from the constrained river. The Legislature’s approval would be the final puzzle piece that avoids potentially more severe cutbacks. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation director Brenda Burman has said she’s facing pressure from other states to limit Arizona’s water deliveries without a complete drought plan.

The Arizona legislation is the product of months of negotiations between major water users in the state. Cities, tribes and others with senior water rights agreed to give water to farmers in Pinal County, between Phoenix and Tucson, who have the lowest-priority access to Colorado River water and stand to lose the most. In exchange, the cities and tribes will get money and future access to groundwater.

The farmers told lawmakers they need the legislation to stay in business.

“Yes, we are in a drought,” said Dan Thelander, a farmer and board member for his irrigation district. “But we want you to know that we are feeling the pain.”

Even with the drought plan, farmers will have to fallow as much as 40 percent of the region’s farmland, he said.

Sandy Bahr, Arizona director for the Sierra Club, said the drought deal will encourage harmful groundwater pumping in Pinal County and miss an opportunity to put Arizona on a path to a more sustainable water supply.

“We won’t even be discussing whether it makes sense to continue growing ... cotton, alfalfa and other thirsty crops in Arizona,” Bahr told lawmakers.

The farmers say their crops are integral to the region’s economy and the state’s food supply, noting crops grown in Pinal feed cattle and dairy cows.

The agreement would give Pinal County farmers $9 million to drill wells, dig ditches and build other infrastructure needed for them to change from river water to groundwater. It also would give Tucson more groundwater credits for treated wastewater, allowing the city to pump more in the future in exchange for providing water to Pinal farmers.

Under existing guidelines, Arizona would be first and hardest hit if Lake Mead, on the state’s border with Nevada, falls below 1,075 feet (328 meters). That’s because Arizona has the lowest priority rights to the river. If the drought plan is approved, cuts would be spread more widely and eventually loop in California. Mexico also has agreed to cutbacks.

The multi-state drought contingency plan requires Arizona to find a way to reduce its use of Colorado River water by up to 700,000 acre-feet — more than twice Nevada’s yearly allocation under the drought plan. An acre-foot is enough for one to two households a year.

“The drought contingency plan is not going to keep us out of shortages, but it will reduce the risk that the river system will decline to critically low levels,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

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