A House panel quashed a bid Monday by Pinal County farmers to get the state funds they say they need to produce the extra water needed for the drought contingency plan.
HB 2590 would have advanced $20 million to irrigation districts to drill new wells and construct canals designed to deliver an additional 70,000 acre feet of water a year to the farms. That would partly make up the reduction in the amount of Colorado River water that is now delivered to the farms.
And Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, said the plan is for the money to be paid back once the districts get an anticipated grant from the federal government.
He said the cash is needed now because it’s hard to say how long it would take the feds to come up with the dollars. And Cook said the wells need to be pumping by 2022 to make up for lost water.
But several lawmakers from both parties questioned why state taxpayers should be on the hook, especially after they said the drought contingency plan approved late last month already has some cash for the farmers. That resulted in a 5-5 vote in the Appropriations Committee, killing the plan.
Cook reacted angrily to the vote, saying the move undermines the whole plan.
“We have to have this water be delivered at some point in time by the end of 2022 or DCP numbers don’t work,” he said. “That water has to be delivered by that date.”
And Cook said that’s a point his colleagues apparently do not understand.
“I kind of remember a biblical story where the pharaoh told someone to make, what, bricks without straw?” he told Capitol Media Services. “Is that what we’re doing here?”
He is likely to try to resurrect the issue when lawmakers begin debating the $11.4 billion budget for the coming fiscal year.
The drought contingency plan is how Arizona intends to deal with the fact that its Colorado River allocation will be cut by about 18 percent, to about 2.3 million acre feet, when the level of Lake Mead drops to a level that triggers automatic cutbacks. Pinal farmers are expected to take a big portion of that hit.
Part of the plan involves allowing the farmers to replace some of what they are losing in river water with groundwater. But that entails drilling new wells and constructing delivery systems.
The drought plan has a $9 million appropriation, along with an $8 million reduction in property taxes.
Cook, however, told lawmakers that the actual cost for four major irrigation districts is at least $37 million, with the price tag possibly as high as $50 million for all Pinal farmers.
Some of the opposition goes to the question of whether the state should be in the position of facilitating the pumping of more groundwater, especially in an area where there has been a history of ground subsidence.
Cook, however, pointed out that the farmers, who already are using some groundwater, have the legal right to pump even more. And he said that, everything else being equal, the farmers actually would prefer not to pump but instead have the Colorado River water that is being cut.
But the request for the extra dollars left several lawmakers cold.
“What you’re saying is $17 million isn’t enough,” said Rep. Randall Friese, D-Tucson, pointing to the cash already being made available.
“We’re taking $20 million out of the general fund we haven’t paid back other things,” said House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma.
And Rep. Aaron Lieberman, D-Phoenix, indicated he was not comfortable with what he saw as an unsecured promise by the farmers to pay back the cash, saying he would prefer a requirement for the farmers to tax themselves to ensure repayment.
Cook said the farmers are doing what they can.
“They already levy taxes on themselves,” he said. “They’re putting up tens of millions dollars for this project already.”
Fernandez, however, suggested the farmers were trying an end run of sorts, pointing out that the extra $20 million that Cook now wants was not in the original drought contingency plan.
Cook, however, said that’s not exactly true.
He pointed to language in the plan which not only anticipates the projects to provide more groundwater must be completed by the end of 2022 “recognizing that completion by that date depends on action on applications for monies and the timely receipt of grants from federal agencies.”
But that, however, was never a mandate on lawmakers to provide the up-front cash, with the law saying “the Legislature may consider other appropriations to be made available to the irrigation districts.”