Gov. Doug Ducey is all in on Arizona efforts to stabilize water levels in Lake Mead.
The governor and his staff are playing an integral role in bringing Arizona water interests together to reach an internal state agreement on the drought-contingency plan.
The Governor’s Office’s heavy involvement in the process comes after Ducey had high aspirations of making strides on water policy during the 2018 legislative session, but his push for far-reaching water reform quickly dried up.
As he campaigns for a second, four-year term, Ducey has committed to completing a drought-contingency plan to leave more water in the Colorado River in order to conserve water levels on Lake Mead. The drought planning comes as the federal Bureau of Reclamation predicts a shortage could happen on the lake as soon as 2020.
Although he is still campaigning for a second term, Ducey appears poised to win re-election.
Ducey sees his role in the drought talks as protecting Arizona’s water interests. He has also been in communication with Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke over the drought-planning discussions. The Department of Interior has been heavily involved in drought-contingency plan negotiations between the states, said Kirk Adams, Ducey’s chief of staff.
“Our state is growing. We‘ve been a leader on water management for decades, and we’re in a position where we’ve brought our constituencies together to talk about the plan going forward,” Ducey told the Arizona Capitol Times in an October interview.
The Lower Colorado River Basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California and the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming are negotiating water conservation agreements as water levels in Lake Mead continue to decline. The states released draft agreements to implement drought-contingency plans in the Upper and Lower Basins to boost water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the Colorado River’s largest reservoirs.
But putting together a plan to detail water cutbacks for Arizona is a complicated balancing act of spreading out the shortage impacts among municipalities, various agriculture districts, developers, Native American tribes and other groups that depend on water deliveries from the Colorado River that will inevitably be lessened.
A steering committee made up of more than 35 members aims to hammer out details of the proposed drought plan this month. If all goes according to plan, the Legislature would sign off in early 2019. The plan would then go to Ducey for approval.
While the Governor’s Office is playing a critical role in the talks — two Ducey staffers sit on the steering committee — representatives for the executive branch are not dictating the terms of the drought-contingency plan, Adams said.
“Ultimately, this is not a decision that can be forced upon the water community by the Governor’s Office,” he said. “This will require the water community to give and take with each other to make this happen. If we were to say the Governor’s Office demands that you do X, it would fail.”
Ducey took flak from key lawmakers and conservation groups for conducting a series of closed-door meetings on a water policy overhaul last year. He did and still does think Arizona should speak with one voice on water, which further strained the relationship between the Central Arizona Project and the Department of Water Resources.
But the process in which Arizona water interests are negotiating the drought-contingency plan this year is notably different from last year’s behind-the-scenes approach led by the Governor’s Office.
For one, CAP and DWR, clearly recognizing the severity of the situation in Lake Mead, are working hand-in-hand to move along drought-planning talks. Key lawmakers such as Rep. Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, and Sen. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, were tapped to sit on the drought-contingency plan steering committee.
But Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club, criticized the drought-planning process as lacking transparency.
“I think the way the governor and the governor’s representatives are going about this is almost as bad as last year,” she said. “This drought-contingency steering committee does have meetings that are in public, but the discussions are happening in these smaller meetings that aren’t open to the public.”
No Sierra Club representatives sit on the steering committee. Bahr also criticized the steering committee for focusing solely on the drought-contingency plan and not talking about other conservation efforts.
Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University, said the behind-the-scenes conversations are necessary to have honest negotiations that position the parties closer to an agreement.
“You probably don’t cut deals in a room with 40 people at the table and 200 people in the audience,” she said. “It’s not where you actually cut the deal. That’s where you announce the deal.”
The steering committee has bimonthly public meetings.
It’s also hard to pinpoint what would happen if Arizona can’t come to a deal on where cutbacks would occur, Porter said.
She hopes it doesn’t come to that, but if it does, Porter said she thinks the other Western states and water users would recognize Arizona’s earnest attempts to come to agreement.
“If we weren’t successful, my hope would be that the other states and water managers would give Arizona credit for having made very sincere efforts and would try to figure out some kind of interim management arrangement,” she said.
Meanwhile, the states’ 2007 agreement that established shortage allocations among the Lower Basin states and guidelines for operation of the two lakes under low-reservoir conditions still stands, she said. The parties are set to renegotiate those guidelines in 2020.
Ultimately, Adams said the reason Ducey and the Legislature didn’t make any prior progress on water reform was because of the steep learning curve lawmakers faced on water issues. Now, legislators and the public are far more educated and engaged on the issue, which bodes well for getting lawmakers to sign off on the drought-contingency plan, Adams said.
Adams said he is “cautiously optimistic” about where the negotiations currently stand.
But he also said there is one cardinal rule when it comes to water: “Thou shall be flexible.”