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Central Arizona Water Conservation District plan is a risky gambit

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If recent climatic experience has taught Arizonans anything, it is that the specter of drought is an ever-present proposition.

Droughts of 30- or even 50-year durations are not unknown phenomena.

So, even when Mother Nature blesses us with a wet year, like this year, water in the Southwest remains a scarce resource that must be managed cooperatively with a long-term view, if we are to assure that water remains available and abundant for the millions of people who rely on it.

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Tom Buschatzke

Two board members of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD) wrote an article that appeared on the opinion pages of the Arizona Capitol Times on April 21, calling for the state’s water managers to rally around a new proposal created by CAWCD staff to (theoretically) protect Arizona’s water in Lake Mead.

A Lower Basin “Drought Contingency Plan” would have Arizona, California, Nevada and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation taking collective actions to help protect water levels in the reservoir for the long term.

In addition to that Lower Basin “DCP,” however, a corollary proposal is also needed to offset impacts to Arizona water users who will have to sacrifice a portion of their Colorado River allocations.

The CAWCD’s staff believe they can sidestep some of that sacrifice with the plan described in the Capitol Times by board members Mark Taylor and Alex Arboleda, which calls for a more “flexible approach to managing water savings in Lake Mead.”

Unfortunately, CAWCD’s “flexible” approach takes a short-term view of the health of Lake Mead and fails in the long run to do the job. Drought, as we have recently learned, is often a very long-term circumstance.

“Flexible” in this sense means attempting to manipulate the level of Lake Mead so that it hovers just below the elevation of the shortage trigger in one part of the year and just above the trigger elevation in other parts of the year. The goal of CAWCD’s plan is to artificially induce a larger volume of water moving from Lake Powell to Lake Mead.

This risky gambit lacks a fundamental aspect of credibility and statesmanship that Arizona needs to maintain with our neighbors in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and California.

The margin for error is razor thin and success can be impacted by the withdrawal or storage of water by our neighbors in California and Nevada as they exercise their legal rights to their Colorado River water supplies.

If Mother Nature delivers one or more dry years in the Colorado River Basin, releases from Lake Powell to Lake Mead could decrease significantly. We could quickly find ourselves worse off than we are now, with no reliable way to solve the problem.

A prudent plan – a DCP Plus plan – would be to conserve and store enough water in Lake Mead so that a buffer, well above the shortage trigger elevation, is reached.

The Arizona Department of Water Resources is committed to a collaborative approach to water management among all Arizona water users who hold entitlements to Colorado River water. As director, I am designated by state law as the Arizona representative on Colorado River issues.  The Arizona water users who rely on Colorado River water have supported my efforts to represent them as DCP negotiations ensued.

In an effort to enable the type of cooperation contemplated by Taylor and Arboleda, I agreed to have CAWCD’s general manager accompany me in the negotiation sessions, even though CAWCD has no legal basis to insist on being there. That is an accommodation unique to CAWCD, and other water users have generously supported my decision to allow that to happen.

As director, I am charged with signing the DCP on behalf of the state. With that responsibility comes accountability. I must seek and receive the approval from the Arizona Legislature to sign the DCP.

That is one reason why a viable DCP Plus agreement within Arizona is so important. That “Plus Plan” is the lynchpin for support by Arizona’s water users when I appear before the state Legislature.

CAWCD’s more “flexible” DCP Plus is too risky for the state of Arizona. It doesn’t hold water. I won’t support it. It’s that simple.

— Tom Buschatzke is director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

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