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Arizona’s drought plan offers key lessons for the road ahead


By now most have heard the news: Arizona, the other six Colorado River Basin states, and the federal Bureau of Reclamation secured a major victory for the health of the Colorado River by completing the Drought Contingency Plan (“DCP”) agreements this spring, and getting Congress to enact implementing legislation within weeks. It had become clear that we needed to take action to plan for a drier future in the region.

Even with an extended drought that added urgency to negotiations, it was not easy to achieve this success. Each of the seven states had to develop a plan to implement the DCP agreements. And Arizona, which was facing the biggest potential reductions in Colorado River water deliveries, faced a major political and practical challenge. Political victories like the adoption of Arizona’s DCP Implementation Plan should be well understood because we will need to ensure similar successes on other water issues in the near future.

Glenn Hamer

Glenn Hamer

So what did Arizona do right, and what can we learn from this process as we take on other water issues going forward?

Generally, the politics of scarcity can bring out the worst kind of political behavior. However, in this case, it brought out Arizona’s best.  There were at least five key ingredients that led to agreement on how Arizona would implement the drought plan agreements.

First, leaders demonstrated selflessness and prioritized the best interest of the entire state. The “Arizona Lower Basin DCP Steering Committee” process was co-chaired by policy experts who were directly responsible for the plan’s implementation – Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) Director Tom Buschatzke and Central Arizona Project (CAP) General Manager Ted Cooke.  At the outset of this process, Buschatzke and Cooke (reflecting the perspectives of their agencies) differed on important issues, but they also understood that reaching an agreement on the DCP was of paramount importance and required creativity, compromise, and extraordinary persistence.

Second, the Steering Committee process met the test of ensuring robust involvement by diverse stakeholders. Virtually every stakeholder group was represented. Agendas were published, timelines were adopted, information was shared about the risk to Arizona’s water supplies, and small group discussions were encouraged to work through difficult issues. At times the meetings were contentious. Yet the process also produced creative solutions, good faith negotiations, and broad consensus on the essential aspects of the plan.

Kevin Moran

Kevin Moran

Third, key government leaders like Gov. Doug Ducey, Senate President Karen Fann, Speaker of the House Rusty Bowers, and the CAP Board each made funding commitments that sent powerful signals to the stakeholders and facilitated agreement on the plan’s conservation and water sharing components.

Fourth, it helps to have a deadline – and this came in the form of stern, timely leadership from federal Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman. Last December Burman announced that the seven Colorado River basin states had to complete the multi-state DCP agreements by January 31, 2019 or one would be imposed by the federal government. Arizona’s leadership in enacting its statute by that deadline set the stage for California to complete its own plan.

Finally, the entire process was defined by bipartisanship. A water crisis would impact all of us, regardless of party affiliation, something leaders from both parties at the Legislature recognized as they participated in the Steering Committee. State Sen. Lisa Otondo (D-Yuma), for example, met the sometimes steep learning curve of a complex subject head-on, emerging as a trusted educator for her fellow legislators. Her hard work earned her special recognition by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry at its end-of-session awards ceremony. On Capitol Hill, Sen. Martha McSally and Rep. Raul Grijalva, lawmakers who typically occupy opposite ends of the political spectrum, shepherded the federal implementation of the DCP through to passage. The success of the DCP could and should prove to be a model for how to find solutions to other difficult public policy challenges.

Arizona will need to bring the same quality of leadership and creative problem-solving that produced the DCP success story when water stakeholders resume work on the other pillars of a sustainable water future:  protecting groundwater in both urban and rural areas, starting the regional process of re-negotiating the 2007 Interim Guidelines, and finding collaborative ways of conserving water while benefitting Arizona’s rivers and streams. The passage of DCP was historic for Arizona.  Now, we have an opportunity to develop solutions for the long-term conservation of our state’s precious water resources.

Kevin Moran is the Senior Director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Western Water Program. He served as a member of the Steering Committee that developed the Arizona DCP Implementation Plan. Glenn Hamer is the president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry and also served on the Steering Committee.


  1. Although it’s encouraging that this agreement was completed, it’s also disappointing that it did not include common-sense measures to reduce water usage. Lawn watering continues unabated. There are no visible public service messages to reduce water usage. No drip irrigation mandates or incentives. Without these, the public will be less engaged and will be disconnected from the crisis.

  2. I echo Jay’s comments, adding that it is by design that they don’t want the public understanding where they live and what that means.

    I also want to point out that most of the state still has unregulated groundwater pumping. We also see legislation being introduced that would circumvent the GMA of 1980, most notably with the valley to the west of Buckeye, and Pinal county with their efforts to transition from agriculture to development. The developers representatives on the DCP verged on racism with their open accusations against the GRIC, the speaker most certainly was with his horrible legislation that would upend the entire foundation of water law in the West.

    I am most certainly NOT encouraged about our future. We build data centers that use millions of gallons of water and employ less than 100 people after construction is completed. We build aquariums in the desert. We give riparian land to destroy and develop for the Diamondbacks ownership. We don’t try to consolidate to make better use of our water resources, we expand for the almighty concept of ‘perpetual growth’. Phoenix claims they have decoupled growth from water usage, which makes no sense even when laid out and explained. The agricultural economy of Pinal County will collapse over the next decade and leave us with far less food products, and while I have not seen the data for Wilcox, I can’t imagine they’d be too far behind.

    We have massive structural and cultural issues in this state. A lot of people, get this, don’t realize they live in a desert. Nor do they realize what this means. This is a failure at the highest levels of Government in the state. Our Government is ‘open for business’, meaning they are selling the state to the lowest bidders. That is what should be reported on, not back clapping over a DCP agreement that was years late, with far too little consideration given to the long term consequences of their actions.

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