Additional funds to help Arizona conserve water supply

Rachel Leingang//May 17, 2017

Additional funds to help Arizona conserve water supply

Rachel Leingang//May 17, 2017

Lingering drought and demand from growing cities have lowered water levels on Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam. The U.S. Interior Department could declare a shortage on the Colorado River as early as 2017. (U.S. Geological Survey Photo)
(U.S. Geological Survey Photo)

The state’s water department got additional funds to help stave off cuts to Arizona’s water supply from the Colorado River and hire more people in next year’s budget.

Still, the Arizona Department of Water Resources won’t have anywhere near the number of employees it had before the Great Recession.

The fiscal year 2018 budget gives the department $2 million in non-lapsing funds, with $2 million more expected in both 2019 and 2020.

If the water level in Lake Mead drops below 1,075 feet, Arizona would start seeing cutbacks.

The money will go to pay groups to keep their water in the lake rather than take it out, said Tom Buschatzke, the department’s director.

The state recently joined with the city of Phoenix, the Walton Foundation and the Gila River Indian Community to come up with funds and plans to conserve water in Lake Mead.

Keeping water in that lake has already prevented cuts, Buschatzke said. Over the past few years, Arizona, California, Nevada and Mexico all kept water in the lake, amounting to between 8 and 10 feet, he said. The lake stayed only a couple feet above 1,075, meaning the conserved water was crucial, Buschatzke said.

A wet year helped the state avoid any cutbacks for 2018, with the chance of a shortage next year at basically zero. On May 10, Lake Mead’s water level stood at 1,084 feet.

But in 2019, the chance of the lake dropping below 1,075 feet is 31 percent.

Gov. Doug Ducey’s executive budget proposal estimated the cost of Arizona keeping 410,000 acre-feet of its water allotment in Lake Mead at $61.5 million, $42 million of which would come from the federal government. The rest would come from Arizona entities, including the $6 million from the state over the next three years.

Ducey recommended allocating $6 million to ADWR as a way to “allow Arizona to continue its tradition of responsible management of its water supply.”

Buschatzke said the funding sends a signal to other entities, like cities, businesses or nonprofits that could create a “snowball effect” of people coming forward to contribute either water or money.

“That’s a strong message that’s being sent. … We’re not going to rely on Mother Nature to solve our issues on the Colorado River,” he said.

The fiscal year 2018 budget also gives ADWR added employees, potentially as many as 11, Buschatzke said. The bulk of the new employees will work on water rights adjudication, a process that’s been in progress for 40 years, he said. The department will also hire a water rights attorney and hydrological mapping specialist, as well as people to enforce the state’s groundwater management laws, he said.

The department had 225 employees before major cutbacks to staffing across state government during the recession left it with 90, Buschatzke said. The department hasn’t been cut in the past two years, though, and will be back up to about 150 employees during fiscal year 2018, he said.

The added employees and appropriation put the state in a healthy place as the population and economy here continue to grow, both of which rely heavily on an assured water supply, Buschatzke said.

“We are positioning ourselves well for the future by having the resources to deal with these water issues that are facing us,” he said.