Arizona lags the nation in criminal justice reform


In a recent guest opinion, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery peddles a grab bag of outdated and weak measures – some over 40 years old – to claim that Arizona leads in criminal justice reform. If only.

In fact, while a significant number of states have embraced measures that have simultaneously reduced their prison population and crime rates, Arizona continues to adhere to a “lock ‘em up” mentality at great cost to taxpayers and with no corresponding public safety benefit. Let’s face it, rather than a national leader in criminal justice reform, Arizona is a national laggard.

Kirsten Engel
Kirsten Engel

Research by Arizona-based and national organizations (including American Friends Service Committee-Arizona, ACLU Arizona, the Vera Institute of Justice and Fwd.us) demonstrates the failure of incarceration to make us safe. Increased incarceration is associated with zero reduction in violent crime and, in some instances, may actually increase crime. We know that high rates of imprisonment:

Break down social and family structures and remove parents and other caregivers from the home who would otherwise nurture children.

Deprive communities and individuals of income and earning potential.

Confine people to the prison environment where drugs can be easily obtained.

Nineteen states, including our neighbors Utah, Colorado and Nevada, have successfully decreased both imprisonment and crime rates, using crime prevention, alternatives-to-incarceration, and community corrections approaches. When New Jersey decreased its incarceration rate by 37 percent between 2000 and 2015, it also saw a 30-percent decrease in crime during this same period. In contrast, West Virginia, with the largest increase in incarceration rates during this period – 83 percent – experienced a 4-percent INCREASE in crime.

Arizona now claims the fourth highest incarceration rate in the nation. While imprisonment shrunk nationally by 6 percent in the last decade, it grew in Arizona by 11. In fact, since 2000, Arizona’s prison population has grown twice as fast as its population. And despite evidence demonstrating that long sentences are ineffective in reducing crime, Arizona keeps people in prison 25 to 100 percent longer than the national average.

It is easy to see why Arizona currently spends over one-tenth of its budget on its prison system. Arizona is the ONLY state in the nation for which the simple possession of marijuana is a felony. Possession of any amount of any illicit drug is a felony, as is possession of any drug paraphernalia – residue, a lighter, wrapping papers.

In Arizona, conviction for the sale of drugs – even minor amounts sold to support the person’s drug addiction – carries the same sentence as manslaughter, armed robbery or kidnapping.

Many states apply harsher sentences to repeat offenders only where their current and prior felonies were violent offenses. But in Arizona, a person faces mandatory prison time and an enhanced sentence for a second offense, even if the current and the former offense were non-violent in nature. For example, a Class 6 drug possession prior felony and a Class 2 violent prior carry the same weight as repetitive offenses for sentencing purposes.

Montgomery repeats the mischaracterization of our current prison population – that it consists of solely violent and repetitive offenders – found on the Department of Corrections website. Not only are many of those repeat offenders currently serving time for nonviolent drug offenses, but the DOC counts as a violent offender any person with any prior dangerous offense on their record, regardless of when it occurred and regardless of whether the person is currently serving prison time for a violent offense. In fact, seven of 10 prison admissions in Arizona in 2017 were for nonviolent crimes, an 80-percent increase since 2000.

And even though the federal funding that drove states to adopt it dried up long ago, Arizona remains one of only two states still adhering to “Truth in Sentencing,” which requires offenders serve 85 percent of their sentence. By contrast, Texas, Colorado and New Mexico allow certain inmates to reduce their sentence through parole, good behavior and prison programming participation. They have reduced the average prison stay of inmates to 60, 63 and 59 percent of their original sentence.

Finally, other states have reformed probation laws, including barring prosecutors from incarcerating people charged with technical violations. But not Arizona.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter if you call Arizona a criminal justice reform leader or laggard. What really matters is whether our criminal justice laws work. Evidence shows that Arizona’s lock ‘em up laws are not keeping us safe. Instead, we send far too many people to prison for far too long at great cost to the offender’s family and community and at great taxpayer expense with little to none of the taxpayer money going toward education or programs to reduce recidivism post-release. Arizona spends $23,826 per inmate, per year, more than we spend per student at our public universities.

Bill Montgomery is among a small but powerful minority of people opposed to criminal justice reform in Arizona. Fortunately, the tide is changing. I was honored to work with a bipartisan group of legislators over the past year, hearing from people involved at all levels of the criminal justice system – law enforcement, judges, prosecutors, public defenders, prisoners, probation officers and advocates – all committed to improving justice and public safety. These bipartisan efforts resulted in draft legislation to reduce Arizona’s record-high incarceration and recidivism rates by de-felonizing marijuana possession, revising drug sentencing, providing for the expungement of felony records under certain conditions and putting judges back into the sentencing process.

We can do better. Criminal justice reform can and must be a top priority for the legislature during the 2019 session.

— Kirsten Engel, a Democrat, represents Legislative District 10 in the Arizona House and is a member of the House Judiciary Committee in the 54th Legislature.

Arizona maintains remote ‘catchments’ for thirsty wildlife

Jed Nitso, a heavy equipment operator with Arizona Game & Fish Department, empties a truckload of water into a catchment near Lake Pleasant. (Photo by Nick Serpa/Cronkite News)
Jed Nitso, a heavy equipment operator with Arizona Game & Fish Department, empties a truckload of water into a catchment near Lake Pleasant. (Photo by Nick Serpa/Cronkite News)

As the desert swelter weighs down on him, Jed Nitso walks over to a small, man-made trough filled with green water that’s swarming with bees. A yardstick measurement confirms what he already knew – the water level is low.

With the twist of a lever, hundreds of gallons of water gush out of Nitso’s truck, flow down a 96-foot sheet of metal and fill a series of underground tanks. Twenty minutes later, the above-ground reservoir is full.

Nitso, a wildlife habitat heavy equipment operator for the Arizona Game & Fish Department, spent about half an hour checking on and refilling the catchment near Lake Pleasant. Some days, he helps repair roads or Game & Fish facilities. On others, he hauls equipment to project sites.

But when the state suffers from long stretches without rain, Nitso spends much of his time transporting truckloads of water to some of the most remote places in Arizona – the 3,000 Game & Fish-maintained water catchments that help keep Arizona’s wildlife alive.

The department has been building, expanding and maintaining these catchments since the 1940s, now spending thousands each year to ensure healthy wildlife populations – part of the department’s mission – even in the toughest Arizona conditions.

“It’s not an easy job,” Nitso said.

Catchments run dry

They go by several names: trick tanks, guzzlers, drinkers. The term Game & Fish officials use most frequently is catchment. Their purpose is simple – collect rainwater and deliver it to a trough so wild animals can drink.

People who spend a lot of time in Arizona’s wilderness may have stumbled across one. They typically consist of a few key elements: a trough to allow the animals to drink, a gutter-like ramp to collect rainwater and underground tanks to store the water. Some smaller catchments hold about 2,500 gallons of water. Others can hold nearly 10,000 gallons.

Water collected by catchments is stored in cisterns to ensure that local wldlife can survive drought. Some newer catchments can store up to 10,000 gallons. (Photo by Nick Serpa/Cronkite News)
Water collected by catchments is stored in cisterns to ensure that local wldlife can survive drought. Some newer catchments can store up to 10,000 gallons. (Photo by Nick Serpa/Cronkite News)

The catchments were designed to be self-sufficient, and they operate without any mechanical parts or electricity, using physics to ensure consistent water delivery. In theory, rain keeps the storage tanks full, so other than occasional maintenance, the catchments would rarely need to be touched by human hands.

But with Arizona in the grip of a decades-long drought, catchments run dry.

That means Nitso and other Game & Fish employees have to haul thousands of gallons of water into deserts, through forests and up mountainsides.
Game & Fish works with some nonprofits, such as the Arizona Elk Society, to maintain the catchments. The department only owns about a third of that number – various federal agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management, own the rest.

Joseph Currie manages the catchments for the state, and he used to build and haul water to them for years before moving into the administrative side of wildlife management.

His budget for the current fiscal year is about $690,000, which he has to stretch to cover everything from the cost of the water to truck maintenance. Funding comes from a variety of sources, including grants, firearm tax revenue and some proceeds from hunting permits.

Currie said it’s nearly impossible to predict how much water Game & Fish will need to haul each year, or how much it will cost.

“It all depends on the rains,” he said.

In the first six months this year, before monsoon storms swept the state, Arizona Game & Fish transported more than 650,000 gallons of water to catchments, he said. The cost ranges from hundreds to thousands per delivery, depending on the destination, amount and water source.

The Arizona Game & Fish Department accepts donations via text message to help fund the initiative. It also allows volunteers to “Adopt-a-Catchment,” helping to monitor water levels and complete light maintenance.

“It’s kind of funny,” Currie said. “We’re trying to get out of the water-hauling business by building these (catchments) bigger and more efficient, but with years like this, it’s inevitable. You’re going to be hauling a lot of water.”

Big job for employees

Maintaining the catchments is a challenging job that requires a certain kind of worker, Currie said. “There’s people that live for this,” he said. “There’s other people that have no clue that it even happens.”

Nitso, who calls Payson home, is the kind that lives for this kind of work.

Since he was a kid, Nitso said, he’d always wanted to work for a wildlife agency. He’s passionate about hunting, wildlife and spending time in nature, and he has worked with Game & Fish for more than 14 years.

Nitso travels across the state, from the Arizona Strip north of the Grand Canyon to the border with Mexico. Some catchments can be difficult to find because they don’t have coordinates listed or their locations were never properly recorded.

Wildlife management workers and rangers will stop by the catchments a few times a year and measure their water levels. Game & Fish also monitors rainfall to get a sense of which catchments might run dry.

Currie and Nitso recently hauled water to a catchment about 5 miles west of Lake Pleasant, off a network of bumpy dirt roads. But Currie emphasized that not all water deliveries are as easy to access as that one.

“This road might as well be on I-17, for me,” Currie said. “There are catchments that are on God-awful roads,” Currie said.

Some catchments can be accessed only by driving north into Utah and returning to Arizona, often a two-day journey. Many catchments aren’t near any sort of road.

Others are in locations so remote – such as bighorn sheep habitat – that water can only be delivered by helicopter. That’s done slowly, 150 gallons at a time, and it costs thousands of dollars an hour.

Despite the challenges, Nitso said he enjoys the job.

“On a weekly basis, I get to go into a lot of places where other people just go when they’re hunting,” Nitso said. “If I were to just say, ‘I’m going to go here on my own time,’ it might be one trip a year.”

When it’s hot, Game & Fish will often book Nitso a motel room or maybe he’ll sleep in an RV trailer or bunkhouse. But when the weather cools down, Nitso will set up a cot or tent and spend the night under the stars.

He said he looks forward to the inevitable encounters with wildlife, especially in northern Arizona.

“You never know when you’re going to come around the corner, and there’s going to be something standing in the road,” he said.

Human intervention

Arizona’s network of catchments has played a crucial role in maintaining healthy, stable populations of local wildlife for decades, Currie said.

Before large numbers of people had settled in Arizona, wildlife populations would fluctuate wildly with the rainfall, and in drier years, certain populations would experience huge die-offs. This realization was a big part of what led to the construction of catchments in the 1940s, Currie said.

The initial goal was to stabilize quail and dove populations, which were popular game at the time. The initial concrete catchments were built primarily near Phoenix and were relatively small, only holding about 700 gallons of water.

But it didn’t take long, Currie said, for bigger species to discover the troves of water.

“They soon found after building a bunch of those that once the deer found them and the coyotes and everything else found them, they were drinking out of them, too.”

The small size of the first catchments, in addition to dry weather and frequent visits by larger animals, led to the need for water hauling. In the 1960s, workers built bigger catchments that could hold 6,000 gallons. Some of today’s catchments can hold close to 10,000 gallons and are built out of modern materials, such as fiberglass.

Catchments still are being built, but it’s not just to shore up water deficits because of dry weather: Some wildlife has been cut off from natural water sources by human incursion into their habitat.

This happened in the 1970s with the Central Arizona Project Canal, which planners knew would cut through wildlife habitats. The project’s budget included money for catchments adjacent to it.

The canal also poses a risk to animals that may fall in and get stuck, either by accident or when trying to access water, Currie said. That’s a big reason why Game & Fish maintains catchments on both sides of the waterway, which brings Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson.

Highways are another barrier for wildlife seeking food and water.

“When they straighten out a highway or widen it, it tends to become more of a barrier,” Currie said. “It’s like playing Frogger, if you’re the deer. … You’ve got to try and keep from getting run over, so a lot of animals opt to not cross those roads.”

The catchments also reduce the chance of human encounters with wild animals. With a dependable water source, animals don’t need to venture into neighborhoods to survive.

“Sometimes when humans are blaming wildlife for ruining their flower pots or whatever, it’s because they moved into the animals’ backyard,” Currie said. “The animal is just trying to survive.”

There have been some unintended consequences of building the catchments; notably, attracting unexpected visitors.

The catchments were designed to be “wildlife exclusive,” Currie said, but they often attract domestic cattle and other large animals that ranchers let roam. These animals, particularly the cows, tend to camp out at catchments and quickly deplete the water, and damage the structure.

To prevent this, Game & Fish often fences off catchments using steel fences designed to let in the animals the catchments are meant to attract – most wildlife can either pass through the fence or hop over it – while shutting out unwanted animals.

The department also strikes deals with ranchers to create secondary troughs that shoot off from the main catchment, so livestock can stay hydrated without affecting the water source for wild animals.

Even humans will use the catchments in dire circumstances because they are often the only reliable water source for miles.

Currie said illegal immigrants often use the catchments when crossing into Arizona from Mexico. “They have maps to our catchments leading all the way into town,” he said.

At times, he said, his crews have pulled up at catchments and found traces of recent human activity, including bags and plastic jugs.

“It’s saved people’s lives before,” Currie said. “It’s not the most fantastic water, but if it’s that or death, you might as well take the chance.”

California district stalls West drought plan over lake money

In this April 30, 2015 file photo, a man fishes for tilapia along the receding banks of the Salton Sea near Bombay Beach, Calif. Work on a multistate plan to address drought on the Colorado River in the U.S. West won't be done to meet a Monday, March 4, 2019 federal deadline. A California irrigation district with the highest-priority rights to the river water says it won't approve the plan without securing money to restore the state's largest lake. The Imperial Irrigation District wants $200 million for the Salton Sea, a massive, briny lake in the desert southeast of Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)
In this April 30, 2015 file photo, a man fishes for tilapia along the receding banks of the Salton Sea near Bombay Beach, Calif. Work on a multi-state plan to address drought on the Colorado River in the U.S. West won’t be done to meet a Monday, March 4, 2019 federal deadline. A California irrigation district with the highest-priority rights to the river water says it won’t approve the plan without securing money to restore the state’s largest lake. The Imperial Irrigation District wants $200 million for the Salton Sea, a massive, briny lake in the desert southeast of Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)

A California irrigation district with the highest-priority rights to Colorado River water is using its power to demand federal funds to restore the state’s largest lake, hoping to capitalize on one of its best opportunities to tackle a long-standing environmental and human health hazard.

The Imperial Irrigation District wants $200 million for the Salton Sea, a massive, briny lake in the desert southeast of Los Angeles created when the Colorado River breached a dike in 1905 and flooded a dry lake bed. The money would help create habitat for migratory birds and suppress dust in communities with high rates of asthma and respiratory illnesses.

The district says that if the federal government doesn’t commit to giving California the money, it won’t sign off on a multistate plan to preserve the river’s two largest reservoirs amid a prolonged drought.

“There have been various plans over the decades for the Salton Sea, and none of them have been built,” said Michael Cohen of the Pacific Institute, who studies the lake. “This most recent effort is a huge priority.”

A nearly two-decade-long drought has drained Lake Mead and Lake Powell to alarmingly low levels. The seven Western states that rely on the Colorado River have been working on a plan to keep the lakes from being unable to deliver water at all.

In the lower basin, the drought plan would mean voluntary and more widespread cuts for Nevada, California and Arizona.

The plan has hinged at various points on the latter two states.

The Gila River Indian Community, a key player in Arizona’s negotiations, threatened to pull out of the plan if the speaker of the state House advanced a bill the tribe said would undermine its water rights. The tribe now says it has the reassurance it needs to provide much of the water Arizona requires to soften losses for other users in the state. Arizona as a whole, though, said it’s moving at its own pace on more than a dozen agreements that need to be signed among water users in the state.

The situation in California remains shaky.

The state last year secured $200 million in a voter-approved ballot measure to work on the first phase of a Salton Sea plan.

The plan would create thousands of acres of bird habitat and help control dust that blows through the Coachella and Imperial valleys, creating a health hazard for residents.

No one expects to restore the Salton Sea to its former glory. In its heyday in the 1950s and ’60s, the lake was a major recreation area, frequented by boaters, anglers and even Hollywood celebrities.

It was fed primarily by runoff but has been evaporating more quickly since San Diego’s regional water agency stopped sending it water. Inflow to the lake has decreased to 900,000 acre-feet annually, about one-third less than 15 years ago, Cohen said. An acre-foot is enough to serve one to two households a year.

Any action taken through the drought plan to preserve Lake Mead on the Arizona-Nevada border or Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah line must take into account the crisis at the Salton Sea, said James Hanks, who sits on the Imperial Irrigation District’s board of directors.

“IID has worked to be a good neighbor on the river,” Hanks said at a recent meeting. “Yet, a sustainable solution to declining flows cannot and will not be attained at the continuous and severe expense of the Imperial Valley and the Salton Sea, while other agencies intend to grow their supply off of a shrinking system.”

The irrigation district has something else to gain from the drought plan: the ability to store huge amounts of water behind Lake Mead for later use because it doesn’t have its own long-term storage reservoirs.

The district is seeking a funding commitment for the Salton Sea ahead of a March 4 deadline set by U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman for Arizona and California to complete work on the drought plan. Without a plan, Burman said she will turn to governors in the river basin states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — for a solution.

But she said late last week she remained hopeful all the states soon will finish negotiations, and legislation implementing the drought plan will be introduced in Congress so it can take effect this year.

The Coachella Valley Water District board joined other California water managers in approving in-state agreements earlier this month. But there’s a caveat: Everyone signs the full plan or no one signs. Imperial wants to see the full package before it takes a final vote.

Hanks said the Imperial board won’t tolerate threats by the Reclamation Bureau, which has broad, unspecified authority over the drought plan. He said he doubted the agency could violate the priority system on the river.

The Imperial Irrigation District is the largest single recipient of Colorado River water, with 3.1 million-acre feet of California’s 4.4 million-acre entitlement under legal compacts stretching back nearly a century.

The Imperial Valley grows much of the nation’s winter vegetables, and the irrigation district also serves several cities.

Burman declined to talk about the Salton Sea funding on a recent call with reporters but said the federal government has been a strong partner in efforts to protect the lake. The land it sits on is a mix of state, federal and private ownership, but California has main responsibility for the declining lake under a 2003 landmark accord that quantified Colorado River water in the state.

Bruce Wilcox, assistant secretary for Salton Sea policy at California’s Natural Resources Agency, said the long-term goal for the 375-square-mile (971-square-kilometer) lake is that it’s self-sustainable after it stabilizes around the year 2030.

“Right now, the system we’re building requires a fair amount of human intervention,” he said.

The Imperial Irrigation District recently wrote to the U.S. Department of Agriculture asking for the $200 million to be delivered through the latest farm bill, and those talks are continuing, the district said. Language in the bill made the Salton Sea eligible for federal funding for drought-related problems. California U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein also has been pushing the Trump administration to implement the provisions.

Using the drought plan as leverage isn’t without precedent.

Earlier, southern California’s Metropolitan Water District said it would be difficult to support the plan without another water source. The agency has pushed for two tunnels to be built under Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in Northern California to ship water south. California Gov. Gavin Newsom said last week he would support one tunnel.

Central Arizona farmers also have said they want a guarantee of federal funding for groundwater infrastructure they increasingly will rely on as they get moved off Colorado River water.

“It’s not just IID,” Cohen said.

Debate put Ducey on defensive on Uber, Theranos

Gov. Doug Ducey (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr)
Gov. Doug Ducey (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Incumbent Gov. Doug Ducey repeatedly throws around the phrase that Arizona is “open for business” as both a commercial for the state and as proof his policies are what’s driving the state economy.

But this week, in the second of two gubernatorial debates, Ducey found himself on the defensive for policies and laws he signed that ended up with the death of one pedestrian and thousands of Arizonans getting inaccurate blood test results.

And the governor’s claim that his policies have resulted in the Arizona economy doing so much better than surrounding states depends on what data are considered.

Ducey crows that since he took office in January 2015, the state has added about 242,000 private sector jobs. That does outstrip the 192,000 jobs added in the prior 43 months.

But at the height of the recession, the state’s jobless rate topped 11 percent. By the time Ducey took office, it already had fallen back to 6.4 percent. It’s now at 4.6 percent.

The governor uses the line that the last time the Arizona unemployment rate was this low “people were renting their videos from Blockbuster.”

For the record, that was in January 2008. Now just a single Blockbuster store remains in Oregon.

But the state appears to have settled into what could be a new normal, with that jobless rate having barely budged in the past year.

The unemployment figure also is higher than not just the national rate of 3.9 percent. But it also is higher than Utah, Nevada, Colorado — and even California whose regulation and tax policies Ducey repeatedly says is driving businesses to move to Arizona.

New Mexico’s rate matches Arizona.

And Arizona’s unemployment rate still remains a full point higher than its historic low of 3.6 percent in July 2007.

It isn’t just Ducey who is looking at the figures he wants.

During the debate, Democrat David Garcia claimed that at the end of 2017 Arizona’s rate of job growth was lower than surrounding states with the exception of New Mexico.

That’s true — as a snapshot of that period of time.

But there are more recent figures. And the latest report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics put Arizona’s current year-over-year job growth at 2.9 percent. While less Utah and Nevada have faster job growth, the Arizona numbers are better than California, Colorado and New Mexico.

There are some bright signs on the horizon.

Kiplinger Magazine predicts that job growth in Arizona this year will be the seventh fastest in the nation and that the jobless rate by the end of the year should hit 4.5 percent. And the writers credit “Arizona’s more flexible regulatory environment” as attractive to business.

In this March 20, 2018, photo provided by the National Transportation Safety Board, investigators examine a driverless Uber SUV that fatally struck a woman in Tempe, Ariz. The fatality prompted Uber to suspend all road-testing of such autos in the Phoenix area, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto. (National Transportation Safety Board via AP)
In this March 20, 2018, photo provided by the National Transportation Safety Board, investigators examine a driverless Uber SUV that fatally struck a woman in Tempe. (National Transportation Safety Board via AP)

U.S. News & World Report is a little less positive, putting Arizona at No. 14 in its list of the best states for growth. And USA Today lists Arizona at No. 24, citing the state’s high poverty rate and “below average educational attainment rates at both the high school and college level.”

That “flexible regulatory environment” has its own flip side.

Earlier this year a woman walking her bicycle across a dark Tempe street, away from an intersection, was struck and killed by an autonomous vehicle that Uber was testing. A video revealed the backup driver was watching a TV show.

Uber’s testing in Arizona was no accident. In fact it was directly related to the governor issuing an executive order in 2015 allowing designers of autonomous vehicles to begin testing them on Arizona roads with minimal state oversight and regulation. More to the point, Uber specifically moved its 16 test vehicles out of California in a high-profile move, complete with a photo-op for Ducey, because that state wanted the cars to be registered as test vehicle and have the company file various reports — things that Arizona did not demand.

Ducey said at the time that proves Arizona is friendlier for business than its neighbor to the west.

“The message today is Arizona’s open for business,” he said. “We’re welcoming this technology. We’re not pushing it out of our state.”

It took three more years for Ducey to actually issue some more specific safety rules, including that the vehicles have to comply with all traffic laws and the operator can be cited — even if the operator turns out to be the corporation that built the vehicle and there’s no one behind the wheel.

And only after the fatal accident did Ducey rescind Uber’s ability to test its cars in Arizona.

On Tuesday, the governor defended opening up the state to testing of autonomous vehicles, saying it needs to be seen through the lens of the larger goal of public safety.

“We lose over 800 Arizonans a year on our highways due to human error from drivers,” he said.

And the death of the pedestrian?

“What happened in that accident was tragic,” Ducey said. “But I want to see the 38,000 people that die in avoidable accidents across the United States, I want to see that problem solved.”

Then there’s Theranos.

In this April 6, 2015, photo, Gov. Doug Ducey hands a pen to Rep. Heather Carter, R- Cave Creek, after he signed legislation to make it easier for Theranos to market its services. Behind Ducey from left are Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos, and Rep. Eric Meyer. (Photo by Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services)
In this April 6, 2015, photo, Gov. Doug Ducey hands a pen to Rep. Heather Carter, R- Cave Creek, after he signed legislation to make it easier for Theranos to market its services. Behind Ducey from left are Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos, and Rep. Eric Meyer. (Photo by Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services)

In 2015, state lawmakers approved – and Ducey publicly signed – legislation to expand the kinds of laboratory tests that people can seek without a doctor’s recommendation. But the real point of the measure was to allow Theranos, which lobbied for approval, to market its unique method of doing accurate tests with just a minimal amount of blood.

Turns out the company’s claims were bogus, with Theranos subsequently admitting that more than 10 percent of the test results given to Arizonans by the company were “ultimately voided or corrected.”

Ducey chalked that up to “bad actors,” saying there ultimately was accountability – in the form of a consumer fraud lawsuit brought by Attorney General Mark Brnovich who got $4.6 million in refunds. And the company is now out of business.

But the governor was unapologetic for signing the legislation.

“We still want to be a welcoming place to medical innovations in the state of Arizona while protecting public health and public safety.”

And sometimes Ducey didn’t even bother to wait for legislation.

Shortly after taking office in 2015, Ducey fired the director of the Department of Weights and Measures.

The reason? Shawn Marquez had been enforcing laws regulating taxi cabs against Uber and Lyft. Those laws specifically require anyone transporting people for money to conduct background checks on drivers and have insurance coverage.

More to the point, Marquez told Ducey he intended to run a “sting” operation on the rideshare services as the Super Bowl was coming to Arizona.

Ducey did more than fire Marquez.

He appointed former House Speaker Andy Tobin to run the agency. And then Ducey, who acknowledged that the laws on offering rides for money actually applied to rideshare companies, told Tobin not to enforce those laws while legislators looked for a fix.

It actually took several more months of non-enforcement for lawmakers to actually approve a measure which provided parallel but somewhat different laws to govern the ridesharing services and the people who drive for them.

Drought’s cost: Less water in Lake Mead, higher rates for consumers

The calcium markings on the rock formations in Lake Mead, a Colorado River reservoir, show the impact of a 18-year drought on water levels. If the level drops below 1,025 feet, a state report says Arizona will lose access to 480,000 acre-feet of water from the Colorado River, or enough water for about a million family households for one year. (Photo by Alexis Kuhbander/Cronkite News)
The calcium markings on the rock formations in Lake Mead, a Colorado River reservoir, show the impact of a 18-year drought on water levels. If the level drops below 1,025 feet, a state report says Arizona will lose access to 480,000 acre-feet of water from the Colorado River, or enough water for about a million family households for one year. (Photo by Alexis Kuhbander/Cronkite News)

Swaths of mineral-stained white rock, more than 100 feet tall, mark Lake Mead’s basin, punctuating decades of drought in the Southwest. At one point, the white rock was underwater.

If the lake levels dip too low, Arizona could lose about a seventh of its annual water allotment to the Central Arizona Project, which supplies much of the state’s water. Water experts said that could lead to farmers and homeowners paying higher water rates and prioritize Arizona behind neighboring states in CAP water availability. Conservation may be key to keeping water in everyone’s taps in Arizona.

Still, drought has some advantages. Visitors to Lake Mead this fall were excited about the rocky islands and hundreds of miles of beaches that otherwise would be submerged.

“If you want to go to a nice sandy beach and hang out with 25 boats and 150 people, then the water level isn’t an issue,” said Clifford Denning. He and his wife, Cheri, stood on the shore of Lake Mead, which they have been visiting for seven years.

“We encourage anyone to come out, enjoy it while you can. It’s here, it’s great, it’s beautiful,” Cheri Denning said.

Prolonged drought stalks Arizona

The dark side of low-water levels could mean cutbacks to Arizona, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

The bureau, responsible for divvying up Lake Mead’s water and electric power, in August reported a 57 percent chance that Lake Mead’s water levels would be so dismal in 2020 that Arizona and Nevada would face reductions. If the water level falls to 1,075 feet above sea level, a shortage declaration would be issued and cuts would be scheduled.

Arizona water experts said mainly farms and rural areas, rather than cities, could be restricted. California, despite having the rights to largest allocation of Lake Mead’s water, would not undergo a reduction under a multistate agreement.

Dan Bunk, a river operations manager with the bureau who helped create the simulation that predicted a shortage, said lower precipitation and higher temperatures helped create the nearly two-decade-old drought.

“There’s a sense of concern and urgency by water users throughout the basin,” Bunk said.

In September, the water level was 1,078 feet above sea level, according to the bureau.

Cutbacks will begin if water levels dip 3 feet lower in December, with restrictions getting worse as water levels drop more. Those initial cutbacks would reach rural areas that rely on CAP water.

If Lake Mead’s water level falls below 1,050 feet, Arizona would lose an additional 80,000 acre-feet of water, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.

Arizona cities wouldn’t be forced to take a reduction, said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. Still, cities might impose some water rationing as a preventative measure, he said.

Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy, said consumers could see a rise in municipal water rates.

She said Pinal County, which includes the far Southeast Valley, would be most affected by cuts because of CAP priorities. But bigger cities are already considering policies that would reduce their water use and float their water allotments over to Pinal County.

That would mean how Arizona uses and sources its water would change, Porter said. Arizonans would find ways to more efficiently use water and the state might rely more on groundwater.

Conserving, collaborating, banking

Conservation programs continue to be a point in the state’s favor. Although more people have moved to the Southwest, conservation programs have reduced water consumption so well that they have avoided water cutbacks, Bunk said.

Marina owners at Lake Mead have to adjust ropes like these to bring the docks in and out when lake levels fluctuate. (Photo by Corey Hawk/Cronkite News)
Marina owners at Lake Mead have to adjust ropes like these to bring the docks in and out when lake levels fluctuate. (Photo by Corey Hawk/Cronkite News)

Buschatzke said Arizona officials are collaborating with California, Nevada and Mexico to develop a drought contingency plan that would prevent a more severe round of cutbacks.

Buschatzke said Arizona receives 46 percent of the water Lake Mead supplies to states, compared with Nevada’s 4 percent and California’s 50 percent. Although California receives the largest allotment from Lake Mead, agreements forged years ago give it priority.

Porter said political pressures played a large part of who would receive water cuts in the event of a shortage.

“There might have been reasons why California didn’t think Arizona should be taken very seriously,” Porter said. “As a water user, we didn’t have nearly the population and the developed industry that California had.”

But that isn’t the whole picture. California, the most populous state in the country, has some disadvantages compared to Arizona when it comes to storing water, Porter said.

“California has not had the luxury of other water it could bank in the aquifers,” she said. “So they have a need for it that is more immediate.”

Arizona has not needed its entire allocation of water from Lake Mead, Porter said, so CAP and the Arizona Water Banking Authority have used the excess to recharge aquifers. Since the 1990s, she said, the state has stored 3.8 million acre-feet of water – enough to cover all of Phoenix 11 feet deep.

“All of the water banking goes to show that there is some give in the system,” Porter said.

Beaches, boat ramps updated as Mead drops

The recreational opportunities brought on by drought at Lake Mead National Recreation Area also come at a cost – $2 million in updates for every 10-foot drop in the water level.

Most of the cost comes from the materials and engineering needed to extend boat ramps, but any large fluctuation in lake level requires moving signs and tightening the ropes that keep docks within reach of the shore.

“With every change, there’s a new fun thing to do here,” said Christie Vanover, public affairs officer for the recreation area.

About the size of Delaware, the recreation area includes an abandoned Mormon village and a slot canyon. Both usually are submerged, Vanover said.

But considering the Bureau of Reclamation’s prediction, they are likely to stay above water, at least for the next few years. Time enough to enjoy the drought’s upside.

“It’s just a fun little getaway in the desert,” Vanover said.

Latinos rely heavily on Colorado River water amid plans for cutbacks

The Colorado River is a major source of water for Arizona. The management of its supply involves numerous stakeholders and agencies.
The Colorado River is a major source of water for Arizona. The management of its supply involves numerous stakeholders and agencies. (Photo courtesy of Central Arizona Project)

The Por La Creación: Faith-Based Alliance is a bipartisan partnership of Hispanic pastors who believe in a common-sense approach to managing our natural resources. In February, 20 of us from Arizona gathered together in the Grand Canyon to talk about the Colorado River and the need for us to take action to protect this precious resource provided by God. This river provides water for one-third of Latinos in the United States. Latinos make up the bulk of agricultural workers harvesting the produce this river waters. We boat, fish, swim and recreate along its banks. We hold baptisms in its waters. Therefore, it is critical to engage the growing Latino population on water-smart solutions.

Elizabeth Venalonzo
Elizabeth Venalonzo

We learned about the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan, or DCP — an agreement between the states that use the Colorado River water, namely California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming — to reduce each state’s river use as a way to protect against catastrophic water shortages. Lake Mead, in Arizona and Nevada, is a major reservoir where Colorado River water is stored. Visiting it, you can see the “bathtub rings” showing how much the water levels have dropped. If and when the water level hits below 1,090 feet in elevation, Arizona will have the steepest mandatory cuts —192,000 acre-feet of water, or about 7 percent of the state’s annual allocation of Colorado River water. The state currently receives nearly 40 percent of its water from the Colorado River. Any further drops in water levels will lead to additional cuts across the basin, affecting jobs, economies, families, and communities that depend on the Colorado River.

The DCP is a stop- gap solution that was passed by Congress with bipartisan support on April 8 and signed into law by President Trump on April 16.

We were encouraged by the leadership of Arizona U.S. Congressional members, Republican Sen. Martha McSally and Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva, who championed the passage of the DCP in the U.S. Senate and House.

Now, that the DCP has been signed into law, the U.S. and Mexico will have about 100 days to work on their international version of the DCP, called the Binational Water Scarcity Plan, also known as Minute 323. Depending on water levels in August of 2019, Mexico may have to conserve 41,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead next year.

The widely regarded Colorado College’s 2019 Conservation in the West poll found that 82 percent of Arizona’s voters believe it is important for states to use funds to protect and restore the health of rivers, lakes and streams. In addition, 73 percent of Latino voters in the West viewed the low levels of water in rivers as a very serious problem.

The Colorado River in Arizona is an integral part of our communities, history and cultural heritage, and our way of life. We all have a moral obligation to take care of our natural resources and protect God’s creation. As we face a future of diminished water supplies we need to ask each other and those who govern to embrace an ethic of planning and collaboration to lead us into a sustainable water future for our families and future generations. Arizona needs to continue to partner with its neighboring states and the federal government to invest in technologies and programs that reduce water use and further study additional water sources to ease the burden on the Colorado River.

The Rev. Elizabeth Venalonzo is pastor of Betania Church in Yuma.

No Arizona drought plan in sight as deadline looms

Lake Pleasant April 2, 2014 Photo by Central Arizona Project
Lake Pleasant
April 2, 2014
Photo by Central Arizona Project

After months of drought plan negotiations and as the deadline for Arizona to produce an internal agreement on water reductions nears, the state’s water interests have nothing to show for their efforts yet.

As neighboring states eagerly await details on how Arizona will deal with a potential shortage on the Colorado River, all signs indicate that intrastate water talks, which are largely happening outside the public eye, have become strained in recent weeks.

And time to produce an agreement is running out.

A nearly 40-member board made up of lawmakers, farmers, developers, and representatives from various municipalities, the state and tribes have been locked in intense behind-the-scenes discussions for months on how to divvy up water reductions across the state’s water users for the sake of stabilizing water levels of Lake Mead.

Arizona inking an internal agreement and getting legislative approval for the deal is the final step before the state can sign onto the Drought Contingency Plan with the six other Colorado River basin states and Mexico.

Arizona originally planned on being done with its plan by the end of November. But the state may not meet that self-imposed deadline.

If Arizona water users can’t come to an agreement by the end of the month, then they may have nothing to reveal at the December 13 Colorado River Water Users Association meeting in Las Vegas, where they planned to present Arizona’s drought plan to other Colorado River Basin states.

Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University, said finishing an internal state agreement in time for the association meeting is an aspirational deadline and not a hard deadline.

“It would really be great if Arizona could go and announce that we had reached an agreement on DCP (Drought Contingency Plan), but there isn’t anything hydrological that compels that deadline,” she said. “It’s not as if Lake Mead’s level is suddenly going to plummet.”

The Drought Contingency Plan Steering Committee has what is supposed to be its last meeting scheduled for November 29. The late November meeting between water stakeholders will come after a series of cancelled steering committee meetings because various water users could not come to agreement.

Tom Buschatzke, director of the Department of Water Resources, said he is confidant Arizona will have something to present at the mid-December water users association meeting.

“It’s been a very long haul, but we’re hopefully now in the closing stretches,” he said at a Central Arizona Project board meeting November 15.

A major sticking point for these negotiations is the issue of mitigation.

Mitigation is water-speak for how Arizona water users will be compensated — with water, money or both — for taking reductions in order to build up water levels in Lake Mead.

Water levels in Lake Mead became an urgent concern after the Bureau of Reclamation predicted a shortage could happen at the lake as soon as 2020.

While the steering committee has discussed multiple mitigation plans, at least three have been rejected because the costs were too high, according to a presentation at the recent CAP board meeting.

The mitigation proposals cost between $85 million and $197 million and were a big reason why the steering committee was at an impasse, Suzanne Ticknor, a director of water policy at CAP told the members of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, CAP’s board.

Gov. Doug Ducey hinted at the high costs in a recent op-ed in the Arizona Capitol Times. Demands for money and water to offset water reductions necessitated by a possible shortage at Lake Mead have grown to unreasonable proportions, he wrote.

“Some recent proposals are so short-sighted and unsustainable that it requires me to remind all participants why we began this process in the first place,” he wrote.

Sen. Lisa Otondo, D-Yuma, also penned a similar letter to members of the steering committee, urging them to set aside their petty interests and learn to compromise in drought plan negotiations.

The catalyst? A communication breakdown amid drought talks earlier this month, Otondo said without providing details because she said pointing fingers could be counter-productive to negotiations.

“There was mistrust and misunderstanding and I hope, I truly hope that reaching out to each other at a sensitive time moves DCP forward,” Otondo said.

Some closely involved in the drought talks, like Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community, are confidant the state will complete a drought plan soon.

“We are close,” he said. “We are very close, I believe, to a path forward for the DCP that represents and that respects all of the big tent of stakeholders in Arizona that we are trying to include, that will be affected”

Porter, of the Kyl Center for Water Policy, compared the recent water talks to the heated negotiations before completion of Arizona’s groundbreaking Groundwater Management Act of 1980.

Right up until the act was finalized, water interests were fighting over water rights, talks appeared to be falling apart and it didn’t look as though water stakeholders would come to agreement on any groundwater legislation, she said.

Today’s water talks are an echo of what happened 38 years ago, Porter said.

“We really won’t know until the show’s over,” she said. “There’s still opportunity for compromise.”

But former Gov. Bruce Babbitt, who helped bring parties together on the game-changing groundwater legislation nearly four decades ago, recently issued a warning to Arizona’s water community and the state Legislature.

Complete and pass a drought plan or Arizona will be left behind other Colorado River Basin states, he wrote in an op-ed in The Arizona Republic.

“If the Drought Contingency Plan is not ratified soon California and the other Basin states may decide to proceed without us,” Babbitt wrote. “That could be the beginning of another Colorado River water war.”

Sheriff Joe Arpaio will be keynote speaker at GOP dinner

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio (Photo by the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting)
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio (Photo by the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting)

Former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio will be a guest speaker at a Republican dinner in Nevada.

The Reno Gazette-Journal reports the 85-year-old Arpaio, who recently announced he is running for the U.S. Senate, will speak at the Lincoln Reagan Dinner and Fund Raiser February 18 at the Carson Valley Inn in Minden.

The dinner will be hosted by the Douglas County Republican Central Committee, which is the official Republican Party-affiliated organization in Douglas County, The committee says Arpaio will be the guest speaker at the annual event’s VIP Reception.

President Donald Trump pardoned Arpaio late last August after he was convicted of criminal contempt for defying a federal judge’s order that he stop detaining immigrants simply for lacking legal status.

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Southwest air quality benefits from stay-at-home orders

Framed by saguaro cactus, the downtown Phoenix skyline is easier to see, Tuesday, April 7, 2020, as fewer motorists in Arizona are driving, following the state stay-at-home order due to the coronavirus, and it appears to be improving the air quality and decreasing the effects vehicle emissions have on the environment. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Framed by saguaro cactus, the downtown Phoenix skyline is easier to see, Tuesday, April 7, 2020, as fewer motorists in Arizona are driving, following the state stay-at-home order due to the coronavirus, and it appears to be improving the air quality and decreasing the effects vehicle emissions have on the environment. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Fewer motorists in Arizona and Nevada following the states’ stay-at-home orders appears to be improving the air quality and decreasing the effects vehicle emissions have on the environment.

Both states released their reports Monday after at least a week under the states’ respective stay-at-home orders.

Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered nonessential businesses to close on March 20 and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey followed suit implementing his stay-at-home order on March 31.

“Our ozone is lower, that is what we expected with less traffic and emissions out of vehicles,” Arizona Department of Environmental Quality meteorologist Matt Pace told KTVK-TV Monday.

Department officials have reported a 37% decrease in nitrogen oxides between March 16 and March 22 compared to last year.

In Nevada, the Clark County Department of Environment and Sustainability reported a 33% decrease in small particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide from March 17-23 compared with March 1-16, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported.

Particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide are pollutants that contribute to smog and poor air quality and are emitted from the transportation sector, including cars, trucks, commercial aircraft and railroads, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials said.

More study is required to determine how much the reduced vehicle traffic is contributing to better air quality, environmental officials said.

The time to secure Arizona’s water future is now


I am so grateful to the people of Arizona for allowing me the opportunity to continue serving as governor of our great state. I am humbled by your confidence and ready to continue working for you. And there’s a lot of important work to do.

As I traveled the state during this campaign – from Mohave County to Cochise County, and everywhere in between – one of the most frequent topics of discussion mentioned by constituents was the important issue of securing our state’s water future.  It is clear that Arizonans understand we must make important decisions regarding the management of our scarce water resources. In the face of ongoing drought on the Colorado River, the time to reach responsible and nonpartisan solutions is now.

The solution proposed by Arizona, California, Nevada and the federal government is the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP). This plan will help protect Lake Mead from declining to critically low levels that would cause potentially catastrophic reductions to Arizona’s Colorado River water supplies.

DCP lessens the likelihood of such reductions by imposing prudent reductions earlier and incentivizing water users to leave water in Lake Mead. Mexico is also stepping up with a parallel plan.

Implementing DCP in Arizona will require compromise from every stakeholder. This means setting aside narrow special interests and working for the good of the entire state.

My administration, the Legislature, and stakeholders have been working hard to reach an agreement on how to respond to the impacts of those reductions.

Although those efforts have been productive, some recent proposals are so short-sighted and unsustainable that it requires me to remind all participants why we began this process in the first place.

The foundational purpose of a multi-state drought contingency plan is to transition to a drier future. That transition may warrant a modest amount of mitigation for the increased reductions that would be imposed under DCP. However, in recent stakeholder meetings, demands for water and money to mitigate reductions are growing to insurmountable proportions – more than 1 million acre-feet of water and over $200 million through 2026 – creating an unsustainable precedent for mitigating water reductions in the future.

That is not sound long-term planning, and the people of Arizona expect more from us.

To secure Arizona’s water future, we must prioritize conservation, augmentation and innovation. The plan to implement DCP must adhere to some key principles.

First, we need to reaffirm Arizona’s goal of conserving water to raise and protect Lake Mead elevations. Arizona water users have invested considerable resources in conserving more than 350 trillion gallons of Colorado River water since 2014, raising Lake Mead elevations over 13 feet. Any plan to implement DCP in Arizona must build on those efforts.

Second, we must recognize that drought may be the new normal and that DCP is only an interim measure; our State must preserve long-term resources to address anticipated water supply challenges well into the future.

Third, our actions now should not establish expectations that reductions in Colorado River supply will be mitigated forever.

Finally, we take the broad view. We recognize the need to address impacts on certain water use sectors, but individual interests must be appropriately balanced against the interests of the State as a whole.

It’s time to get to this done and make DCP a priority by working together to find sustainable, long-term solutions to address the challenges we face on the Colorado River. And Arizonans should rest assured — DCP will need to be part of a traditional legislative process, and I will not sign a bill that does not adhere to these important principles, or any bill that does not adequately help to secure our state’s water future.

Arizona has a long history of arriving at such solutions with future generations in mind. We have a rich, legacy of coming together where our water resources are concerned. Arizonans expect us to follow in this tradition — and they expect us to act now.

Gov. Doug Ducey was re-elected to his second term in office on Nov. 6, 2018.

Water conservation efforts avert shortage – for now

Horseshoe Bend near Page is a scenic point of the Colorado River, which is a major source of water for Arizona. (Photo courtesy of Central Arizona Project)
Horseshoe Bend near Page is a scenic point of the Colorado River, which is a major source of water for Arizona. (Photo courtesy of Central Arizona Project)

By all accounts, 2017 has been a good water year, but experts say that the reduced risk of a water shortage in 2018 doesn’t change the long-term conservation decisions that have to be made.

Water levels at Lake Mead act as a barometer for the Colorado River. When Lake Mead gets too low, a shortage is declared and water reductions start going into effect – reductions that impact Arizona water users first.

In the 24-month report released by the United States Bureau of Reclamation in 2016, the bureau predicted a more than 50 percent chance of a water shortage in 2018. This August, the Bureau of Reclamation report reduced that projection to zero.

A combination of programs led to Arizona avoiding a shortage: good hydrology in 2017 and a wide range of programs and agreements between water users that kept water in Lake Mead.

“The reason we stayed out of a shortage the last couple of years is that we took proactive measures,” said Tom Buschatzke, the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

Water experts cited programs such as the System Conservation Pilot Program, the 2014 Drought Response Memorandum of Understanding, and Gila River Water Storage.

“We’ve been successful in 2016, 2017, and now 2018 in avoiding shortages through open and collaborative approach that adapts to changing conditions,” said Chuck Cullom, the Colorado River program manager at the Central Arizona Project.

Local programs like Gila River Water Storage make use of partnerships with tribal water users and groundwater storage to manage water. Another collaborative project by the Salt River Project, this one with the Central Arizona Project, used existing infrastructure and water supplies to bring water to the city of Goodyear.

These and other short term projects are “right in line with the kind of cooperative, out of the box projects Arizona needs,” said Drew Beckwith, the water policy manager at Western Resource Advocates.

However, water policy experts agree that the problem isn’t solved. In 2020, the chance of a shortage is back up to more than 50 percent.

“We’ve kicked the can two years down the road,” said Beckwith. “The structural deficit still exists.”

Buschatzke called the avoidance of a shortage in 2018 a “temporary reprieve.”

The problem for water managers in the lower Colorado River basin: more water is allocated to water users than is actually in the river.

To address potential shortages in the future, the Arizona Department of Water Resources has worked out a Drought Contingency Plan, or DCP, with the states of Nevada and Colorado. Under the new agreement, Arizona would begin reducing water consumption at higher water elevations, including the current ones, and all three states would take sharper reductions as Lake Mead levels fall.

However, the Drought Contingency Plan has yet to be finalized.

While the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources has the authority to sign inter-state water agreements, a deal like the Drought Contingency Plan that involves a sovereign right or claim of the state of Arizona must be approved by the Legislature by a concurrent resolution under ARS §45-106.

“I believe we will have no trouble getting legislative approval,” Buschatzke said. “We’re still working with water users to make that happen.”

The Drought Contingency Plan is supplemented by an international agreement with Mexico, Minute 323, and by a state plan called the DCP Plus to share water and water reductions among water users.

“It’s going to take all of us working together,” said Dave Roberts, chief water resources executive and associate general manager at SRP.

Buschatzke agreed: “One of the most important parts of that conversation is that water providers and water managers speak with one voice.”

Water plan makes shortfalls less painful, but doesn’t abolish them


The state’s water stakeholders have been engaged for more than two months to craft Arizona’s approach to the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan. This effort, led by our two agencies, is directed toward “bending the curve” to protect Lake Mead from falling to critical levels.

Recent reports from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation have stated that the Colorado River Basin has avoided shortage for 2019, but has at least a 50/50 chance of moving into a shortage declaration in 2020.

So, will this drought contingency planning effort change that course? Will it keep the basin out of the Tier 1 shortage to be declared at Lake Mead elevation 1075?

Ted Cooke
Ted Cooke
Tom Buschatzke
Tom Buschatzke

The answer to both questions is, simply, “no.”

The Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, or LBDCP, is not designed to keep Lake Mead above the first tier of shortage. Rather, it’s meant to keep Lake Mead from further dropping to the most critical elevation levels, at which point Arizona’s Colorado River water users would be facing deep cuts to their water supplies and the river system would be in extreme stress.

The risks to the Colorado River have increased from what was expected when the Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortage were established in 2007. The tools provided in those guidelines now are insufficient to address the current risks to the system.

Over the past several years, water users in the Lower Basin states have worked together to voluntarily contribute water to Lake Mead, staving off shortage since 2015. However, after nearly two decades of drought and the recent poor hydrology (meaning little snow in the Upper Basin), a Tier 1 shortage is imminent, even with these increased conservation efforts. Whether it’s in 2020 or a year or two after, that first level of shortage likely will occur, regardless of LBDCP.

If not to keep us from shortage, then why is the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan important?

One of the most important components lies in the realm of collaboration.

By working together, Arizona, California, Nevada, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and now Mexico (through the recent treaty update known as Minute 323), we can chart a path forward so one state alone does not feel the brunt of shortage. Once LBDCP is in place, we can work in partnership to leave enough water in Lake Mead so the lake begins to recede at a slower level – the “bending of the curve,” which has been rapidly trending downward. It will take some time to get there, but by starting now, there will be more leverage and momentum to prevent the lake from falling to critically low levels.

To make this happen sooner, rather than later, we have formed a Steering Committee with representation from a variety of sectors within Arizona. This group has been meeting bi-weekly since late July and likely will continue past Thanksgiving. This “AZDCP” effort includes four essential elements for implementing the LBDCP in Arizona, which the group has begun to work through. The goal is to have a plan in place before the end of the year that would incorporate broad-based agreement within Arizona supporting an effective LBDCP. The state Legislature would then consider the proposal in early 2019 to authorize the state of Arizona to sign the LBDCP.

Each public Steering Committee meeting we’ve held has essentially been standing-room only. It’s clear a lot of people believe negotiating an effective Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan is vital to our state. And each meeting tends to spawn additional meetings with people throughout Arizona working feverishly to get this done – not to keep us out of shortage, but to keep us and the Colorado River system from being in an even worse place.

Much work has been done and much will continue to be done – but the sooner we have the drought-contingency plan in place, the greater the benefits we will all reap via a plan that is acceptable to all Arizona water users.

Tom Buschatzke is director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

Ted Cooke is the general manager of the Central Arizona Project.


The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.

We must put aside our differences to keep water in Lake Mead


The Drought Contingency Plan Steering Committee, of which I am a member, was convened to enable Arizona to move forward on the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan. For months, I have attended all the meetings of the DCP Steering Committee and of the three working groups. I have listened to the stakeholders, asked many questions in private, and am now deeply concerned about the breakdown of communication and the dire prospect of the impending failure to reach agreement.

Rep. Lisa Otondo, D-Yuma
Sen.  Lisa Otondo, D-Yuma

On November 12, I sent a letter to the stakeholders involved in these negotiations, respectfully reminding them that the Bureau of Reclamation projects there is a one in five chance that by 2026 water levels in Lake Mead could plummet to the point where water will no longer be available for the Lower Basin. Even more immediate is the specter of water levels in Lake Mead falling below 1,075 feet (Tier 1) in 2020 and 1,050 feet (Tier 2) in 2022. Tier 2 shortages would be crippling to our CAP water supplies and the future of Central Arizona.

Faced with that potential catastrophe, it is our duty to find compromise in order to protect all of the citizens of Arizona. That means that no interest group, water user or water rights holder can get everything it wants. It means bringing an end to attempts to vilify other water users and casting aspersions on their motives. It means it is time for everyone involved to rise to the challenge of negotiating for the common good of the State of Arizona.

And what does that mean? It means we cannot forget the fundamental goal of the Drought Contingency Plan, which is to leave more water in Lake Mead in order to stave off crisis. Many of the proposals that have been offered run counter to this goal or merely shuffle the deck of water rights without contributing a drop to Lake Mead. Some threaten the Law of the River and vested water right priorities and will surely be challenged in court. Some will unduly burden one segment of the population for the benefit of another.

I challenge my fellow committee members and stakeholders to return to those whom you represent and convince them that all of us must share the pain of the water reductions needed to keep Lake Mead alive. We need the Drought Contingency Plan now. The longer we argue and delay, the more we risk. Time is our enemy. We are facing a common crisis and will all have to take a hit or face the judgment of history.

As a native Arizonan, I implore you to put aside your differences and return to the table in a reenergized effort to do all we can to protect Lake Mead.

— Sen. Lisa Otondo of Yuma is the Senate Democratic whip and a member of the Drought Contingency Plan Steering Committee.

Western US cities to remove decorative grass amid drought

Colorado River, Lake Powell, Lake Mead, drought, Phoenix, Bureau of Reclamation, decorative lawns
Water flows down the Colorado River downriver from Hoover Dam in northwest Arizona on Aug. 14 near the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Now some of the largest water agencies in the western United States have agreed to a framework that would dramatically reduce the amount of decorative grass in cities such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and Denver. (AP Photo/John Locher)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A group of 30 agencies that supply water to homes and businesses throughout the western United States has pledged to rip up lots of decorative grass to help keep water in the over-tapped Colorado River.

The agreement signed Tuesday by water agencies in Southern California, Phoenix and Salt Lake City and elsewhere illustrates an accelerating shift in the American West away from well-manicured grass that has long been a totem of suburban life, having taken root alongside streets, around fountains and between office park walkways.

The grass-removal pledge targets turf that people don’t work on, like in front of strip malls, in street medians or at the entrance to neighborhoods. It doesn’t mean cities plan to rip up grass at golf courses, parks or in backyards, though some may pay homeowners to voluntarily replace their lawns with more drought-resistance landscaping.

Beyond reducing ornamental grass by 30%, the agencies say they’ll boost water efficiency, add more water recycling and consider actions like changing how people pay for water to encourage savings.

“Recognizing that a clean, reliable water supply is critical to our communities, we can and must do more to reduce water consumption and increase reuse and recycling within our service areas,” read the memo.

The agreement did not include details about the amount of water the agencies were collectively committing to save, but cities account for about one-fifth of Colorado River water use. And the rest goes to agriculture.

“Cities — the 20% — can’t solve the math problem. But we can certainly contribute to solving the problem,” said John Entsminger, the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s general manager.

The commitments, light on details, could spur agencies to offer payment for property owners to tear out grass and replace it with drought-tolerant desert landscaping.

The commitment to tear out 30% marks the first time that water agencies throughout the region have collectively committed to a numerical benchmark targeting one specific kind of water use. It comes as the states scramble to reduce their consumption to meet demands from federal officials who say cuts are needed to maintain river levels and protect public health, food systems and hydropower.

The letter adds additional signatories to an earlier agreement five large water districts reached in August. Water agencies in Albuquerque, Las Vegas and Denver are among those who signed it.

Denver Water spokesperson Todd Hartman said the city hoped to replace roughly 75 million square feet (7 million square meters) of non-functional turf but didn’t share how much water that would conserve. He said the agency hopes to roll out programs by 2024.

No matter the savings, the new commitments will amount to far less conservation than is needed to keep water flowing through the Colorado River and prevent its largest reservoirs from shrinking to dangerously low levels.

Phoenix wants its program up and running by the spring; it will be the city’s first time offering payment for people to rip up grass, said Cynthia Campbell, the city’s water resources management adviser. Even without a program, lots of people have removed grass anyway. In the 1970s, about 80% of homes had grass covering most of their property; today, it’s 9%, but that doesn’t include the sprawling suburbs outside of city boundaries, she said.

Like others, she stressed that water savings from cities won’t solve the river’s problems.

“There is no level of municipal conservation in the entire western United States that could make up for the water that’s going to be needed to be” conserved, she said. But Campbell added, “we are giving till it hurts, as much as we possibly can.”

The letter doesn’t include any commitments from agriculture, which uses about 80% of the allocated water in the seven states that rely on the river — Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the river’s two main reservoirs, are each about a quarter full.

In June, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton warned the states needed to dramatically cut their use, but amid squabbles over who would shoulder what burden, officials failed to answer her call. The bureau has since offered varying levels of payment for water districts to reduce their use, through things like leaving farm fields unplanted or asking urban residents to use less at home.

Proposals for some of that money are due Nov. 21.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies water for about half of California’s residents, in October urged cities and water agencies in its territory to ban the addition of any new decorative grass in business parks, public spaces and neighborhoods. Its board also urged agencies to stop watering and consider removing such grass that’s already planted.

Southern Nevada has for decades used a mixture of cash incentives and fines to discourage grass watering and limit both functional and non-functional turf.

Water from the Colorado River diverted through the Central Arizona Project fills an irrigation canal on Aug. 18 in Maricopa (Photo by Matt York/Associated Press)

The agreement has little effect on the area because a state law passed last year requires 100% of the non-functional turf be torn out in the Las Vegas area by 2026.

Utah passed a statewide conservation program last year that included $5 million to incentivize turf removal and has targeted decorative grass on public property. Yet some municipalities maintain ordinances passed for aesthetic reasons that prohibit residents from replacing grass with drought-tolerant landscaping.

Ronayne reported from Sacramento, California. AP writer Thomas Peipert contributed reporting from Denver.