The agency that manages the Central Arizona Project canal signaled its support for the latest outline of a Colorado River drought plan in a vote that could lay the groundwork for a deal aimed at preventing Lake Mead from reaching perilously low levels.

Board members of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District passed a motion Thursday saying they support “key provisions” of the plan, which they’re calling Arizona’s implementation plan for the proposed three-state Drought Contingency Plan.

Lisa Atkins, the board president, said the plan essentially “shares the pain” among those who will have to bear the brunt of the cutbacks in water deliveries.

“This reflects how Arizonans typically work together to address water challenges and opportunities — through a collaborative process involving many parties and a tremendous amount of complexity and flexibility,” Atkins said. “This was no small feat and involved literally hundreds — if not thousands — of hours on the part of many.”

There are still some details yet to be worked out.

In the motion, the board members said they recognize “the need for additional discussions to address remaining issues.”

But the vote appears to indicate that the main players in Arizona’s long and difficult negotiations are pretty much on the same page about what an agreement would look like. And with this vote behind them, Arizona water officials will now have the framework of a state plan in hand as they join other water managers from across the West in Las Vegas next week for the annual Colorado River Water Users Association conference, where federal officials have said they hope to wrap up a Drought Contingency Plan.

The plan still will have to be approved by Arizona’s Legislature in January once some additional details have been ironed out.

Those details include ensuring what the CAP board described in its motion as “certainty” for two groups of water users known as the ag pool and the developer pool. That phrase referred in part to securing funding to help Pinal County farmers pay for new wells and infrastructure to start pumping more groundwater to make up for cuts in Colorado River water.

Starting to feel like an ‘Arizona plan’

And even as such details have yet to be nailed down, representatives of several key groups left Thursday’s meeting sounding optimistic about putting the finishing touches on a deal soon.

“It’s starting to feel like an Arizona plan,” Kevin Moran of the Environmental Defense Fund told the board during the meeting.

Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community said he was very pleased with the board’s vote.

Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis talks about the importance of water to his community and the Colorado River deal Arizona Republic

“After today, I think it is gaining momentum,” Lewis told The Arizona Republic. “It was very positive.”

The outline of the compromise proposal emerged last week. It would help Arizona join in the proposed three-state Drought Contingency Plan by spreading around the impacts of the water cutbacks, providing “mitigation” water to farmers in central Arizona while paying compensation to other entities that would contribute water.

Gov. Doug Ducey has pledged $30 million to help pay for a portion of the plan.

Farmers, developers had concerns

Initially, not everyone voiced support. Developers expressed concerns, as did representatives of agricultural irrigation districts in Pinal County.

Last week an amendment was floated that would have left less water in Lake Mead, but it was swiftly opposed by Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

Then the Community Council of the Gila River Indian Community approved two agreements on Wednesday that will provide more water for future development, thereby easing some of the concerns raised by developers.

The council agreed to provide up to 33,185 acre-feet of water annually to the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District for 25 years starting in 2020. The CAP board said in a presentation last month that the agency would pay $65 million for the long-term water contract upon signing, and the remaining $30 million in six to 12 months.

Lewis said in a statement that the council’s action “helps build momentum to have Arizona approve DCP and protect Lake Mead, but at the same time ensure that water supplies are available for an important sector of Arizona’s economy.”

Then there are the farmers in Pinal County who are in line to face water cutbacks. While participants in the talks have voiced support for securing funding to help the growers with the costs of converting to groundwater pumping, it’s unclear where all the money might come from.

“There are a few legal issues that need to be resolved in order to take all the actions included in the plan, but we are optimistic those can be answered,” said Cynthia Campbell, the water resource management adviser for Phoenix.

Growers in central Arizona “would like more certainty on the availability of funding to construct wells and other infrastructure to get them back to groundwater,” Campbell said. “We are confident, given the multiple funding alternatives and the commitment by other parties to support federal funding, the funding they need will be secured.”

Keeping Lake Mead levels up

The deal, if finalized, would help boost the levels of Lake Mead, which have fallen to near-record lows.

Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the country, is now just 38 percent full. Under the existing rules, if the reservoir’s water level reaches elevation 1,075 feet above sea level at the end of any year, the federal government would declare a shortage and supplies to Arizona and Nevada would be cut back.

Federal officials now project that Lake Mead will likely fall below that threshold in 2020, triggering the declaration of a shortage.

The Colorado River has long been overallocated, with the demands of farms and cities exceeding the available water supply, and the strains are being compounded by climate change. Since 2000, the amount of water flowing in the Colorado River has dropped 19 percent below the average of the past century. Scientific research has found that a significant portion of that trend is a result of global warming.

Water managers in Arizona, California and Nevada have been discussing the proposed Drought Contingency Plan in an effort to boost the levels of Lake Mead and prevent it from falling even further.

Talks on the plan have been inching along for the past few years, and federal Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman has urged the states and local agencies to finish up their negotiations.

Arizona is entitled to 2.8 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River annually. Under the terms of the proposed three-state deal, the state would face cutbacks of 512,000 acre-feet or 18 percent of the state’s total.

Nevada and California would contribute by accepting larger water cuts than they would otherwise have to under the current guidelines for shortages. And if the three states all sign on, Mexico has pledged under a separate deal to contribute by temporarily leaving more water in Lake Mead, too.

As originally published in AZ Central by Ian James on December 7, 2018
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