Former Gov. Bruce Babbitt discusses drought contingency plan

Former Gov. Bruce Babbitt discusses Tuesday the need for Arizona to approve a deal with other Colorado River basin states to get a share of water rather than this state take its chances in fighting in out.

PHOENIX — House Speaker Rusty Bowers warned Tuesday he won’t be pressured by Gov. Doug Ducey into approving a drought contingency plan by a Jan. 31 deadline that he and other lawmakers have yet to see.

Bowers told Capitol Media Services that the governor is making a big show of announcing on Monday and again Tuesday the number of days that remain ahead of the deadline set by Brenda Burman, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, for Arizona to adopt its plan for how it will deal with its share of the shortage of water in Lake Mead. But Bowers said that’s not to push for public support.

“It’s for me,’’ Bowers said following a press conference Ducey called in an effort to show bipartisan solidarity to adopt the yet-to-be-seen plan.

“But I don’t have what I need to give to my people,’’ the speaker said, saying that Ducey is “going along ... with the demand for a showdown’’ with the feds.

Bottom line, Bowers said, is if he does not get actual language of the agreement by today “I’m adding a day.’’

“Then it’s going to be Jan. 32nd,’’ he quipped. And if there’s no language on Thursday, add another day to that. And so on.

“I have an obligation, as the speaker of the House, to my membership and to our constituents,’’ Bower said. “We are not going to act without knowing what we do.’’

It’s not just Bowers who is balking. Senate Minority Leader David Bradley made it clear he does not intend for lawmakers to be stampeded into adopting something just to meet the Jan. 31 deadline.

“While the DCP steering committee has spent months in delicate negotiations, the legislative language needs to be before our members and the stakeholders we represent as soon as possible to allow time for evaluation,’’

“The Jan. 31st deadline is crystal clear,’’ Bradley said. “But it should be equally clear that approval from the Legislature is not to be taken for granted.’’

The warnings come even as Pinal County farmers are demanding specific written assurances in any final plan that they actually will get the water they are being promised. They also want money to drill new wells to make up for some of what they will lose in Colorado River water.

Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, said the Pinal County farmers he represents have no problem with reaching a deal, even with a sharp cut in Colorado River water deliveries and being forced to let 30 to 40 percent of their land go fallow.

“We need the assurances of the agricultural community that we’re just not entering into an agreement that can be changed or altered later on and the water not delivered,’’ he said Tuesday. “These people are investing not only their lives but their hard-earned dollars that employ thousands of people in our county.’’

Paul Orme, an attorney who represents several irrigation districts that deliver water to farms, said they have been told they will get about 105,000 acre feet of Colorado River water annually for the next three years. That’s about a 60 percent cut in what they now get.

An acre foot is about 326,000 gallons of water, enough to cover an acre a foot deep. It also is considered enough to supply two households for a year.

That, said Orme, needs to be guaranteed, no matter what else happens.

What’s also needed, he said, is a guarantee that farmers will be able to pump an additional 70,000 acre feet of water for the four years that follow to make up for some of what’s lost.

That’s not simply a question of hydrology.

Orme said it means the state has to come up with $10 million to help construct new wells and delivery canals. And he said the state needs to be a “backstop’’ until the federal government comes up with another $20 million to $25 million in its share.

So far, Ducey has promised only $5 million.

Less clear is how much power the farmers have to get what they want.

In a 2004 deal which also settled Indian water rights, the farmers agreed to give up their claim to Colorado River water by 2030. That, however, was before projections that Lake Mead will reach critical levels next year, forcing cutbacks.

Complicating matters is Arizona’s own limited bargaining power. Other multi-state agreements make Arizona a junior partner in dividing up the water, part of the deal state officials cut to get federal dollars for the Central Arizona Project.

Former Gov. Bruce Babbitt sought to bring that point home at Tuesday’s press conference called by Ducey.

“There are eight other parties, looking at this resource, ready to go to war and to fight it out over their respective shares,’’ he said. The whole purpose of the drought contingency plan, which has been approved in other states, is there would be agreement on “who gets what from Lake Mead.’’

What else is clear -- and even Ducey admitted -- is that adopting this plan to deal with the imminent shortage of Colorado River water does little, if anything, to address questions of whether Arizona will have sufficient water when there are another three million residents anticipated to be here by 2050.

Instead, Ducey is counting on what he calls “generational projects’’ to meet future water needs, naming projects like the Central Arizona Project and the dams on the Colorado River.

Only thing is, those kind of projects all rely on what has proven to be a dwindling water supply from the river, leaving nothing left to tap.

“There are other technologies and innovations that we can bring to solve our water issue,’’ the governor said, though he provided no specifics.

What the plan also does not include is any actual requirement for individual Arizonans to conserve. Even Ducey admitted that regular citizens don’t necessarily recognize the situation of living in a desert.

“Seventy percent of the adults that live in the state currently were born somewhere else,’’ the governor said.

“And they do have the expectation that they turn on the faucet in the morning and the shower is ready,’’ he said. “And many of them enjoy other amenities around water.’’

Ducey said there will be separate discussions that involve “a culture of conservation’’ to educate Arizonans.

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