TEMPE -- Gov. Doug Ducey offered praise Tuesday for Arizona's past water planning and saving measures and warned that Lake Mead's continually dropping water levels must be addressed, but made no specific proposals for how to deal with them.
Ducey also stressed the need for federally financed conservation efforts and for augmenting the overtapped Colorado River, but again offered no specifics.
He also said that the state needs to be vigilant against efforts by the federal government to take away some of the state's water to help out California, which he said is far less prepared to deal with the drought than Arizona.
But the governor, speaking to reporters before his talk, rebuffed an idea, that farming -- and cotton production in particular -- makes no sense and should be phased out to save water. Agriculture in general uses about 70 percent of the state's water, although cotton's share of the state's crop load has declined sharply in recent years. The investigative website Pro Publica recently wrote a scathing denunciation of Central Arizona's cotton growing, saying it's a waste of water.
"Cotton is one of the five C's,'' Ducey said, referring to the concept that Arizona is built around cattle, copper, citrus, climate -- and cotton. "It's going to continue to be one of the five C's.."
Arizona is the national leader, if not the nation's leader, at conservation and water preparedness -- "We're good at this," Ducey said before about 450 business leaders, politicians and government officials here. "Uncertainty and vulnerability surrounding our water supply remain. Managing that uncertainty and vulnerability is a part of Arizona history and continues to be a strategic goal for my administration and our state."
And he rejected any suggestion that the state could be only a decade away from running out of water for municipal use. He noted that the state's total water consumption is down by 100,000 acre-feet since 1957 although its population is now six times higher than it was then.
"We're standing right now in the fifth largest metropolitan area in the country,'' the governor said. "Despite the uncertainties, vulnerabilities and challenges we face, Arizona does not face an immediate crisis. "And we won't, as long as we follow the examples of those before us: good planning, good management and good policy.''
But the conditions on the river and at Lake Mead in particular don't match the governor's optimism.
This week, the lake is barely above 1,075 feet, federal records show, after having already dipped well below its lowest level since the Great Depression. At that level, the bureau can declare a shortage on the Colorado, curtailing CAP deliveries to Central Arizona farmers.
But because Mead is expected to rise toward the end of this year, a shortage isn't considered likely until 2017, the bureau has said.
But in the past week, three Arizona water experts have said in interviews they're doubtful that Colorado River Basin states can find solutions to the lake's protracted water supply deficit in time to keep the lake from dropping to 1,000 feet. Considered a possibility in five or so years, that's the point when water shortages for Phoenix, Tucson and Indian tribes are much more likely, and when Hoover Dam's power supply would be cut in half.
The most common solution advanced by water experts is for cities to buy water rights from farms using river water, by paying them to grow more efficiently or to let crops fallow so they're not using water.
"We’re not going to let Denver, Salt Lake, Las Vegas, Tucson, Phoenix and San Diego go dry so we can continue to grow alfalfa In Grand Junction and cotton in El Centro," said Chris Avery, Tucson Water's chief counsel, in a recent interview. "But I don’t think that a larger scale ag to urban transfer is on the immediate horizon."
Most cities such as Tucson and Phoenix are watching their water demands drop steeply, particularly on a per person basis, meaning their needs for new supplies aren't immediate, Avery said.