In the culmination of extensive talks that brought together water users from all corners of the state, the Arizona Legislature and Gov. Doug Ducey signed off on a multi-state drought plan Thursday.
The governor and lawmakers celebrated passage of the Drought Contingency Plan bills as a “historic” moment that showed the state could work together to head off drastic water shortfalls on the Colorado River.
Ducey signed the two bills from a room in the historic Capitol building where nearly 40 years ago Gov. Bruce Babbitt signed the Groundwater Management Act. The governor signed the bills with Secretary of State Katie Hobbs beside him and flanked by Republican and Democratic lawmakers and various water users and water leaders that helped forge the drought plan deal.
“We did it by bringing everyone to the table, putting party labels aside and placing Arizona first,” he said. “The Drought Contingency Plan is a historic, bipartisan achievement.”
The bills Ducey signed easily cleared both chambers of the Legislature. Only a few Democrats voted against the bills in the Senate, saying the drought plan doesn’t adequately address the issues of water scarcity and conservation. Lawmakers in the House unanimously passed both bills.
Not since lawmakers passed a slew of reforms last year to reduce opioid addiction and overdose deaths has the Legislature been so united on a single issue.
Ducey and lawmakers from both parties stressed the vote on the DCP is not the end of water policy talks. Instead, it is just the beginning of talks about the state’s long-term water future and water conservation efforts.
“We got here, ladies and gentlemen,” said Rep. Rosanna Gabaldón. “We’re making a good step in the right direction and it doesn’t end today.”
Democrats also warned that climate change cannot be ignored as a factor in declining water levels in the Colorado River.
“It is absurd and careless to think that a 19-year megadrought that we find ourselves in today has nothing to do with climate change,” said Rep. Kirsten Engel. “In fact, it has everything to do with climate change.”
Ducey promised Arizona isn’t done on water reform, but it’s too soon to tell specifically what that will look like, he said. But Ducey specified that he wants the next steps on water to be a collaborative process with plenty of discussion from numerous groups, similar to the DCP process.
“To speak specifically and exactly about what the next step is going to look like in Arizona’s water future would be irresponsible because there’s a lot of good ideas,” he said.
Ducey also said he took to heart comments legislative leaders made about increased conservation efforts and creating a culture of conservation in Arizona that teaches everyday citizens to use less water.
The governor also acknowledged some lawmakers’ concerns about climate change, saying the state needs to plan for changing weather patterns.
“It’s certainly something that’s important to policymakers behind us and it’s certainly something that will become part of this discussion,” he said.
In passing a bill by Senate Majority Leader Karen Fann, the Legislature approved plans for Arizona to sign onto a DCP — an implementation plan for seven Colorado River Basin states to leave more water in the river as Lake Mead, one of the river’s reservoirs falls to perilously low levels.
Lawmakers also voted Thursday on another Fann bill that makes tweaks to state law so Arizona can implement an Arizona-specific drought plan that limits the state’s waters users from using Colorado River water.
That bill also allocates $39 million — $9 million for groundwater infrastructure in Pinal County and $30 million to compensate water users that will face cutbacks.
Tucked in the legislation is also a clause that leaves the door open for the Legislature to allocate more funding to Pinal farmers down the line if a promised allocation of $20 million from the federal government is held up.
By 2023, Pinal farmers will have to replace water from Central Arizona Project with groundwater as a result of water cutbacks. But Pinal farmers fear federal dollars for groundwater infrastructure may not come in until 2021 or later, which wouldn’t give them enough time to prepare for when the CAP spigot cuts off in 2023.
Pinal farmers have requested that if such a situation occurs, the state fronts the money to be repaid by the federal government at a later date.
Republican Rep. Sine Kerr implored lawmakers not to forget about Pinal after passage of the drought plan.
“While DCP is done on paper, it’s still our responsibility to finish what we say we’ll do,” she said. “That’s crucial for Pinal County families and agriculture. I implore you to not leave these families in Pinal County hanging after we pass DCP.”
Under the legislation, the state will allocate $7 million to Pinal farmers in the current budget cycle and $2 million in FY ‘20. The $30 million appropriation also will occur in FY ‘20.Because the water bills are “emergency” measures, they will require two-thirds votes in both chambers.
The legislation lawmakers voted on Thursday was the result of a series of drought-planning talks among approximately 40 people representing water users, government interests, farmers, developers and municipalities. Ted Cooke, Director of Central Arizona Project and Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, led the drought-planning charge.
Drought Contingency Plan details:
Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan: An agreement between Arizona, California and Nevada to conserve water in Lake Mead — a reservoir on the Colorado River.
Upper Basin Drought Contingency Plan: An agreement between Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico to conserve water in Lake Powell. The seven states will also have to agree to a companion agreement, in which they pledge to implement the drought plans in good faith.
Arizona drought plan by the numbers:
As a result of the Drought Contingency Plan, Arizona is implementing its own drought plan and the state and other entities are compensating some water users that will face substantial cutbacks.
- $60 million from CAP to compensate the Gila River Indian Community for leaving water in Lake Mead
- $30 million from the state to compensate the Colorado River Indian Tribes for leaving water in the lake
- $9 million from the state to Pinal County farmers for groundwater infrastructure
- $8 million from non-governmental entities like the Walton Family Foundation and others to Colorado River water users to leave water in the lake
- $20-$25 million from the federal government to Pinal County farmers for groundwater infrastructure
- $5 million from CAP to Pinal County farmers for groundwater infrastructure
- Approximately $1.2 million per year for Pinal County farmers from a repurposed groundwater withdrawal fee