President Trump on Tuesday signed the plan outlining how Arizona and other Colorado River basin states will divide up the limited water that’s now available.
The plan buys Arizona time to deal with the fact that the state is headed into a hotter and dryer future – and mostly less water.
The deal, formally known as the drought contingency plan, recognizes that existing allocations among basin states were drawn up during periods of what turned out to be unusually heavy flows on the river.
Recent projections show that Lake Mead would drop next year to a point that mandates water allocations. And Arizona, having the lowest priority claim, would be the hardest hit.
The deal still means less water for Arizona, which until now has been taking 2.8 million acre feet from the river, and the water it draws will drop by at least 18 percent between now and 2026.
An acre foot is generally considered enough to provide for the needs of two or three typical families for a year.
That reduction, coupled with other deals, like the Colorado River Indian Tribe agreeing to leave some of its own allocation in Lake Mead, should prevent the level from dropping to a point where even deeper cuts are necessary.
Still, there is general agreement that yet another deal will need to be reached between now and 2026 on divvying up the Colorado River water, which provides for about 40 million people in the region. And, closer to home, Arizona has no clear plan for how and where it might either cut usage or find more water.
In a prepared statement, Gov. Doug Ducey acknowledged that the plan the president signed is not the last word.
“We’re one step closer to protecting our water supplies and securing Arizona’s water future,” he said.
What’s next – after all the formal paperwork is signed later this year – is starting work on what happens after 2026.
“This isn’t the end,” said gubernatorial press aide Patrick Ptak. “There’s a lot more work to do to ensure that Arizona’s prepared for a drier future.”
One of the objections of some environmental interests to Arizona’s version of the plan is that it really does little to reduce water use.
Under normal circumstances, a cut in Colorado River that large would have fallen on the backs of Pinal County farmers. They have the lowest claim within the state.
But the plan actually has the state effectively buying water from the Gila River Indian Community and others to keep water coming until 2026, at which points the farmers will finally have to give up their claim to river water. And there’s even a provision that allows them – with some financial help – to drill new wells between now and 2023 to irrigate their crops, language that Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, called “welfare for water-intensive users.”
Ducey, in signing the drought contingency plan, acknowledged complaints that there actually is really nothing in it to promote conservation and cut water use.
He said that remains a priority. But the governor offered no specifics, instead signing an executive order forming a council “to analyze and recommend opportunities for water augmentation, innovation and conservation.”
Its first report is not due until July 1, 2020.
Ptak said Ducey recognizes the problem and wants to create “a culture of conservation.”
But the governor already has acknowledged that agriculture is likely to be the focus of future cuts, as it uses 70 percent of all the water consumed in Arizona.
Ptak said his boss believes the fact that Arizona – and the other states – was able to get this far and get the president’s signature “is nothing short of historic.”
More to the point, he said, it is a sign that there can be future deals.
“It should be looked to as the model for how we go forward and how we address the really big issues in front of us,” Ptak said.
There’s a more immediate unresolved issue, though,
Pinal County farmers still want the state to provide $20 million up front for that cost of drilling new wells and constructing delivery canals.
The farmers hope to eventually get that cash in a federal grant but say they cannot wait until that goes through. Legislation to provide upfront cash from state coffers has so far failed to win approval.