Rebuffed by a House panel, a Globe lawmaker convinced a Senate committee on Tuesday to give Pinal County farmers $20 million to help drill new wells to replace Colorado River water they will be giving up.
The 6-3 vote by the Senate Appropriations Committee came after Republican Rep. David Cook argued that the farmers were promised the cash as part of the drought contingency plan enacted by state lawmakers at the end of January. He wasn’t the only one to make that claim.
“The promise made during these negotiations was, ‘We will collectively give you money that you would not have to be able to produce water you otherwise would not produce by 2023,’ ” said Dan Jones, an attorney for several irrigation districts.
And Tiffany Shedd, an area cotton farmer, said agriculture interests were told to give up their Colorado River water “and we’ll make this right, we’ll help you be able to pump more.”
“We took that on faith,” she said. “This is part of the DCP.”
But the comments drew a stern rebuke from Sen. Lisa Otondo, D-Yuma, who was a key member of the committee that negotiated the drought plan.
“I will not sit here and listen to (a) half-told story,” she said. Otondo said the farmers are entitled to water “if available.”
“Well, guess what?” Otondo continued. “Times changed. The drought hit.”
What’s missing from the conversation and the demand for more cash, said Otondo, is that farmers had years before agreed to a lower priority claim on Colorado River water, getting $343 million in subsidies.
And Otondo said the farmers are not being left out in the cold.
She said the original offer when the drought plan was being negotiated was for $5 million. That got boosted to $9 million in the final plan, with another $10 million from the Central Arizona Water Conservation District.
Now the irrigation districts that serve the farmers want $20 million more.
“There was never a promise to make or pay for the infrastructure in Pinal County,” Otondo said.
Tuesday’s vote comes less than three weeks after the House Appropriations Committee killed identical legislation. So Cook figured he’d try his luck with the Senate panel. Cook was able to get the legislation in front of the Senate committee by replacing the language of a live bill with the language of his bill that died in the House.
But none of this guarantees that the farmers will get the money. Even Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, whose district includes part of Pinal County, said the ultimate decision is going to have to be part of the negotiations over the $10.4 billion state budget.
Leach said, however, his colleagues should look at this not as a grant but as a loan in anticipation of the Pinal irrigation districts getting a federal grant the farmers presume will come through – eventually.
Central to the debate is that Lake Mead is likely to drop below 1,075 feet by next year, triggering a first-level shortage.
The DCP deals not only with Arizona getting less water from the river immediately but also designed to keep the lake from dropping any lower and forcing even further cutbacks. Overall, the plan calls for the state to take an 18 percent reduction in its Colorado River allocation, about 500,000 acre feet of water.
An acre foot is considered enough to supply two or three typical homes for a year.
Part of the water is being made up through deals with Indian tribes. But it also presumes that farmers will replace some of what they are losing by being able to draw 70,000 acre feet of water from underground by 2023.
What that leaves is the cost of new wells and canals, estimated at about $50 million.
Attorney Paul Orme who represents several of the irrigation districts said there is a belief that the federal grant eventually will come through.
“We’re just very concerned about the timing,” he told lawmakers, especially with the expectation that the farmers will have access to their replacement groundwater by the end of 2022. But Orme said the whole purpose of this was to replace the Colorado River water the farmers would have received if the drought contingency plan had not been enacted.
“By agreeing to the DCP, the folks on the steering committee, of which I was one, said, ‘We’ll make sure you have access to this new groundwater availability,’ ” he said. “It was never meant to be self-funded.”
It is that assumption that the farmers are entitled to the water – and funds to help get it – that Otondo challenges.
“They were the lowest priority,” she said, having already agreed to take the first cuts in times of shortage.
That question of whether there was a promise depends on how someone reads the language in the original drought contingency plan.
It does say that the Legislature intends that the well construction and rehabilitation projects be completed by the end of 2022, saying that date depends in part on “the timely receipt of grants from federal agencies.” And it specifically says the Legislature “may consider” other appropriations “after reasonable attempts are made to secure the funding and that federal monies were not provided timely to carry out the purposes of the fund.”
But that language is strictly permissive and does not promise that lawmakers will come up with the cash.
Shedd told lawmakers there’s a cost of not providing the $20 million. And that, she said, would be destruction of a $2.3 billion industry.
The loss of jobs and tax revenues, Shedd said, would have ripple effects on much of the rest of the county, including on residents of retirement communities like SaddleBrooke and Robson Ranch.