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Water policy remake stirs fight unlike others in state history

Lake Pleasant, located approximately 42 miles northwest of central Phoenix, serves as a reservoir in the Central Arizona Project. Photo courtesy of Central Arizona Project.

Lake Pleasant, located approximately 42 miles northwest of central Phoenix, serves as a reservoir in the Central Arizona Project. Photo courtesy of Central Arizona Project.

There’s no way to avoid using this common Arizona phrase: Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.

Today, more than ever, that old saying rings true.

With Republican Gov. Doug Ducey convening water giants into meetings this summer, it’s become all the more apparent that major water players in Arizona, namely the state’s water department and its canal system, the Central Arizona Project, are at odds.

And historically it’s not uncommon for water policy to be contentious here. It’s a scarce resource, and Arizona is a desert that’s been experiencing drought for more than a decade.

Still, to see the two entities publicly butting heads is novel, water experts say. And CAP sees the effort as blatantly political, with one elected office going after a duly elected board of directors.

But those who have been around awhile believe it will all be worked out in the end for the betterment of the state’s water users, like Arizona has in the past with water policy.

“It’s always fighting and conflict. It’s never pretty,” said Kathleen Ferris, an attorney who has been involved in water policy for more than 40 years. “The key is to force the agreement and the compromise. The Governor’s Office has encouraged people in this process to take a statewide view. At some point, I hope people will.”

Arizonans like to ding our Western neighbor, California, for having water cutbacks during recent dry years, boasting the state’s proactive water planning for putting us in a favorable spot.

But that current advantageous position didn’t come without skirmishes, much like the most recent iteration of water wars.

David Iwanski, director of the AZ Water Association, has been working on water issues in the state for 30 years. And he said there’s a long history of contentiousness on water policy that usually takes a “dump truck full of political leadership” to be resolved. He’s confident it will happen again this time.

“You always start with contention, and you end up with collaboration. We’re all Arizona water users. We’ll take care of each other eventually,” he said.

Central Arizona Project under construction in 1984 near Coolidge. This is a portion of the Fannin-McFarland Aqueduct and includes installation of check structure 32 (checks control and regulate the flow of water in the system). Photo courtesy of Central Arizona Project.

Central Arizona Project under construction in 1984 near Coolidge. This is a portion of the Fannin-McFarland Aqueduct and includes installation of check structure 32 (checks control and regulate the flow of water in the system). Photo courtesy of Central Arizona Project.

Where we’ve been

To take it way back, the process that eventually led to the building of the Central Arizona Project took more than five decades of intense battles both within the state and outside it to come to fruition.

U.S. Sen. Carl Hayden advocated for the canal project for the majority of his time in Washington (really, for the majority of his life). He found disagreement from all sorts of folks, from governors to industry to federal officials.

He announced he wouldn’t run for Senate again in 1968, the same year Congress finally approved legislation that created CAP.

In historian Jack August’s book “Vision in the Desert,” which recounts Hayden’s role in water policy, August describes Hayden’s “uncanny ability to organize disparate groups behind an idea or program” as one of the keys to his success. Certainly, his work on water illustrated this ability, August argues in the book.

Fast forward a bit: The Groundwater Management Act of 1980, an Arizona law often cited as ahead of its time that helped prevent over-pumping of water, had its fair share of dust-ups, too.

During that time, Ferris, a young attorney, led a state committee of water stakeholders who worked on what eventually would become the landmark legislation. But the groups didn’t fall into line willingly. Cities diverged from farmers and mines.

Then-Gov. Bruce Babbitt, a Democrat, brought in the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Cecil Andrus, at one point to levy a threat against the warring parties. In an oral history given to CAP, Babbitt details how Andrus told water folks here that he would kill CAP if the state didn’t reform its groundwater laws.

“And I would periodically call him up and say, ‘Cec, give me some leverage, threaten to kill it and I will go out in public and condemn you as interfering in our business and telling you to stay out of our affairs.’ At the same time I would go back into the group and say, ‘OK, you hear him, he just might do that,’” Babbitt said.

The groundwater process took several years of debate among stakeholders, at public hearings and then ultimately at the Legislature. And Ferris said it all came together because of strong leadership from Babbitt. Without someone in charge, pushing the process forward, stakeholders lose focus, she said.

“Without that sort of hammer, if you will, water people just tend to talk forever and nothing gets done,” Ferris said.

Where we are

Now, Ducey is the hammer in this generation’s water policy efforts. His office convened the water meetings and chose who would be involved, in a process that hasn’t yet been open to the public.

The major idea underlying the discussion is the need for the state to “speak with one voice” on water policy, according to the Governor’s Office.

Kirk Adams (Photo by Ellen O'Brien/Arizona Capitol Times)

Kirk Adams (Photo by Ellen O’Brien/Arizona Capitol Times)

“We feel like it’s important that this generation of leaders, because it’s been that long, take another deep dive in this and see if there are things that we can improve,” said Ducey chief of staff Kirk Adams, who is leading the meetings.

In these meetings, it’s become clear the state, through the Department of Water Resources, is not pleased with CAP. Over the past couple years, the disagreements between the two entities have become increasingly heated, from a claim that CAP has sovereign immunity as an arm of the state to an alleged water “sale” where the department said CAP negotiated beyond its authority.

Among the CAP-related provisions discussed at the meetings:

  • Changes to the way the elected CAP board is structured.
  • Laws to make it clear the Department of Water Resources is the primary entity responsible for conserving water in Lake Mead.
  • Affirm through legislation that CAP doesn’t have sovereign immunity.
  • Prohibit CAP from contracting for federal lobbying services.
  • Require a financial audit by the state’s auditor general every three years.

The meetings are expected to result in a package of legislation that should move through the Legislature in the 2018 session. The six-month meeting process is much more condensed than the 1980 groundwater talks.

Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University, said the state has a history of addressing water problems before they become urgent, something this process continues.

And the meetings have revealed there’s a need for clarity on who’s in charge on water in Arizona, something Porter said is critical for the state’s success with other Colorado River users.

“It can look either puzzling or like gamesmanship if we are not speaking with one voice. It’s OK for us as a state to show that we don’t have unanimity in terms of management decisions,” she said, adding that the state needs to look predictable to those who call the shots on water in Arizona and other states.

For the Ducey administration, the water meetings provide a way to have a generational, legacy impact on water policy. Major discussions of this sort haven’t really happened since the 1970s, Adams said. And the conflicts between DWR and CAP show why an intervention was needed.

“You can’t have, in our view, an entity as well-intentioned as (CAP) may be, going down a different track than the rest of the state. And state government is the only entity that has the ability to speak for all of the water stakeholders in the state,” Adams said.

CAP vs the world

CAP sees the meetings as a politically motivated power grab. The organization sent a statement saying water issues require nonpartisan approaches in order to be successful.

In the statement, CAP spokeswoman Crystal Thompson said that all of the governors who have led Arizona since CAP was created have managed water issues non-politically by demanding stakeholders deliberate policy disagreements “until a consensus is reached for the benefit of all.”

“Unfortunately, Governor Ducey has chosen to approach Arizona’s current water challenges with an overtly political action that bears little resemblance to this time-honored formula,” Thompson said.

CAP wants Ducey to “open up the process and lead a genuine effort of principled cooperation and open discussion that has been the hallmark of Arizona gubernatorial leadership for more than 50 years.”

Jim Holway (Photo by Philip A. Fortnam)

Jim Holway (Photo by Philip A. Fortnam)

Jim Holway, CAP’s board vice president, said the current water battle feels different than things he has been involved in since the 1990s here. Usually, water stakeholders get together, each with their own viewpoints, but politics doesn’t typically enter the conversations, he said.

“What I find unusual and I think unfortunate and inappropriate is the degree to which the current argument has become personalized,” Holway said. There’s been an “intentional propagation of malicious misinformation” against CAP this time around, he said.

The public beating up on one specific entity, CAP, is “outside the normal,” he said.

CAP agrees that the water resources department is the primary entity tasked with speaking for the state on water policy, Holway noted. And he agrees with the idea of speaking with one voice, but not in a way that stifles debate and input.

Lawmakers aren’t all pleased about the process, either. Rep. Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, recently sent an email to all his fellow lawmakers calling on them to cautiously approach these water conversations and not make any commitments to specific policies before fully understanding the issues involved.

In his email, Bowers noted that the 1980 process took multiple years and involved plenty of public debate. The governor’s meetings have turned water policymaking on its head, Bowers wrote. He said water policy should have unanimity in order to be most effective.

“Your humble servant is asking you not to allow water to be politicized by pitting party against party. It has always been like Switzerland,” he wrote to lawmakers.

Bowers said in an interview that not including rank-and-file lawmakers so far and trying to conduct the meetings in secret isn’t right. And while he believes the disagreements between CAP and the Department of Water Resources should be worked out, the way it’s being handled now isn’t ideal, he said.

Rep. Rusty Bowers (R-Mesa)

Rep. Rusty Bowers (R-Mesa)

“I just think what (the Governor’s Office is) doing is wrong. It’s not the way you handle water policy. We’ll work it out, then here’s the cabbage, here’s the cow. If you want to figure out who’s going to eat who, then you go right ahead. That’s not how we’re going to do water policy,” Bowers said.

For those who weren’t invited to participate in the governor’s meetings, like the Sierra Club-Grand Canyon Chapter’s Sandy Bahr, the process is typical — hearing from selected voices in government, industry and agriculture without much input from the environmental community.

The process hasn’t been inclusive or transparent, she said.

“It’s just more of the same in a lot of ways, except worse,” she said.

The fact that the water resources department and CAP are fighting makes her question whether the state can actually put together something positive on water. And it sends a bad message to neighboring states, who both collaborate and compete with Arizona on water issues, she said.

“To me, it’s like they’re dancing around the real issues,” Bahr said. “Focus on the problem. The problem is that there is only so much water to go around. We’re looking at a future with less water. So how about if we all work together on problem-solving that, and in the meantime figure out ways to keep some water flowing in our rivers as well. It seems silly to spend a whole bunch of time on changing the structure and the authority of CAP.”

Where we’re going

Tom Buschatzke

Tom Buschatzke

Water resources director Tom Buschatzke said it’s necessary to address these authority issues with CAP in order to mend the relationship and work on other, bigger challenges, like managing Colorado River water.

“I think it is a watershed moment in policy for the state of Arizona. … I think it is critically important we resolve that relationship,” Buschatzke said.

The problems that led to this point for the two entities didn’t bubble up overnight, and the solutions for those problems won’t be quick and easy either, he said.

“We will be able to mend those fences with (CAP). It’s going to take an effort to do that. But I think we will be professionals in our jobs and we will find a path forward to work together once we have our roles clearly defined again,” he said.

Holway also believes the relationships between CAP and the state and other water players will be mended because it has to be.

“In the end, those entities are going to have to get along,” Holway said. “There’s going to have to be a process by which trust has been rebuilt.”

Ferris said the relationship between CAP and DWR has “really disintegrated” from where it used to be, and she pointed to CAP “stretching its authority” as one of the culprits.

“I don’t think it’s healthy, but I don’t think it’s the end of the world either,” Ferris said of the fractured relationship.

But she’s hopeful — “more hopeful than I’ve been a long time” — that working through the conflicts and putting protections into law will prevent future calamities, she said.

Porter said she thinks funding cuts to DWR during the Great Recession may have played a role, allowing CAP to step into a more active role while the department was understaffed. The department has seen modest funding and staffing increases in the past few years.

How the two entities got to this point is understandable because of the “new normal” of potential shortages on the Colorado River always looming, she said. But the problems are “definitely surmountable,” Porter said.

Most of the water experts who spoke to the Arizona Capitol Times agreed: These water issues will be worked out eventually, leading to a compromise everyone can love and hate. It’s too important for them to fall apart, they said.

“These are meaty, weighty things that will be in the best interest of Arizona to deal with,” Ferris said.

The who’s who in Arizona’s water future

Gov. Doug Ducey called water stakeholders together for meetings designed to have the state “speak with one voice” on water issues. Two groups focus on Colorado River and groundwater issues, and fed information to a “plenary group” of major players who will decide what policies and legislation to put forward.

Here’s who’s involved in the plenary group:

  • Kirk Adams, Governor’s Office
  • Richard Adkerson, Freeport-McMoRan
  • Mark Bonsall, Salt River Project
  • Don Brandt, Arizona Public Service
  • Tom Buschatzke, Arizona Department of Water Resources
  • Ted Cooke, Central Arizona Water Conservation District
  • Kathy Ferris, Kyl Center for Water Policy
  • Bill Garfield, Arizona Water Company
  • Maureen George, Mohave County Water Authority
  • John Graham, Sun Belt Holdings/Valley Partnership
  • Pat Graham, The Nature Conservancy
  • Joe Gysel, EPCOR Water
  • Glenn Hamer, Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry
  • Michael Hunter, Arizona Legislature
  • David Hutchens, Tucson Electric Power
  • Jim Lane, City of Scottsdale
  • Stephen Lewis, Gila River Indian Community
  • Hunter Moore, Governor’s Office
  • Mark Smith, Yuma County
  • Jim O’Haco, Arizona Cattlemen’s Association
  • Paul Orme, Pinal County Agriculture
  • Dennis Patch, Colorado River Indian Tribes
  • Craig Sullivan, County Supervisors

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