Candidates for the Central Arizona Water Conservation District board aren’t running for the sexiest elected office in the state. They aren’t likely to be the subject of many headlines locally, let alone nationally. They aren’t going to attract millions in campaign contributions. They aren’t paid. And they aren’t going to be on stage with political superstars.
They are, however, going to be responsible for ensuring 1.5 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River gets to central Arizona. One acre-foot of water, or the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land to a depth of one foot, works out to 326,000 gallons. That means the CAWCD, which governs the Central Arizona Project, a 336-mile system of channels, pipelines and pumping stations that move water, has been entrusted with about 489 billion gallons of water for more than 5 million people living in Maricopa, Pima and Pinal counties – or about 80 percent of the state’s population.
Yet the board elections have never quite managed to capture the widespread attention of voters.
Terry Goddard, who was elected to the board in 2012 and is up for reelection in November, said the CAWCD is part of a complicated puzzle that isn’t for everyone.
“At the risk of being over-simplistic and trite, water is a dry topic,” he said.
Goddard is one of three incumbents running for reelection this year, including current CAWCD Board President Lisa Atkins and Heather Macre.
There’s no quicker way to put an audience to sleep than to delve into the intricacies of water policy, Goddard said, but voters are increasingly waking up to the issue.
Goddard said part of the problem underlying the dearth of attention paid to the CAWCD board is that complexity. But the other part is the human tendency to take water for granted.
“Like air, you assume water’s always going to be there,” he said. “You turn the tap and it’s always going to flow. So, it’s hard to generate a lot of popular concern until that day that the water doesn’t flow.”
Goddard said the stakes have risen dramatically in recent years as the state and region face a drought.
When a shortage is declared – Goddard said when, not if – the first reductions will come from non-tribal agricultural interests under the Central Arizona Project. He said people have known that for years and carried on assuming the officials in power would handle it like they always have.
That assumption is grounded in the state’s strong water policy, Goddard said, but there will be panic when that day comes unless the general public gets more information now.
Kathleen Ferris, senior research fellow at the Kyl Center for Water Policy, said water may be the fundamental reason Arizona will survive, or not, but it’s competing with so much else: education, taxes, topics more familiar or immediate to a wider audience.
Arizonans don’t have a future here without water, she said. But there’s still a lot of work to be done to help the general public understand just how critical the state’s water needs are.
In previous election cycles, staff at the Central Arizona Project often fielded calls from curious voters. What can you tell us about candidates for the Central Arizona Water Conservation District board, they’d ask.
The board didn’t feel comfortable telling them anything, according to its lobbyist, Jeff Gray. It can’t risk giving the appearance of favoritism, or to be seen as electioneering. So board staff would urge them to call officials in Maricopa County, or wherever else board candidates were from. The open seats in this election cycle are for Maricopa County candidates.
County officials were left in the same conundrum as CAP, and would often refer voters back to the board.
And so it went the back and forth, leaving voters searching for answers without reliable information about a little known, but not insignificant, down-ballot election.
This year, the outlook for voters has slightly improved.
The Citizen Clean Elections Commission, at the CAP’s request, has included information about board candidates on their website for the first time.
It’s a start, and a welcome sign for those who’ve always watched the board elections closely in a state where voters are increasingly inundated with reports of Arizona’s ongoing drought and bleak water future.
Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club, said people know water is important, and they’re concerned when they see it on their ballot.
They rely on people they trust to help them pick suitable candidates.
But Bahr also had a simple suggestion for voters trying to pick five candidates out of a pool of 14 – Google them.
“I think it’s important for people to understand how important it is that this body is required to operate in the public eye. They’re elected, so there’s a way to hold them accountable,” she said. “But that only works if they actually do it.”
Ben Giles contributed to this report.