The Agribusiness Council, the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association and Freeport McMoRan Inc. are represented on a new water council aimed at finding supplies for this drought-parched state. The Sierra Club and Audubon Society are not.
That, in a nutshell, is why Gov. Doug Ducey’s new, 29-member Water Augmentation Council is already drawing criticism, right after being named last Wednesday.
State officials say they’ve chosen members who know the most about water issues and would be most affected by possible future water policy changes. State officials tried to have the council’s makeup reflect different constituencies across the entire state, while keeping its number relatively small, said Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Thomas Buschatzke, the council’s chairman.
Environmentalists say the selections leave out crucial, often dissenting voices — not just theirs, but those representing low-income and minority communities and the general public, who would shoulder much of the tab for new water projects.
“We need the council to reflect our young, diverse, multilingual state, including especially the tribes and low-income communities and communities of color,” said Madeline Kiser, a Tucson water activist.
The council is aimed at carrying out a recent water initiative Ducey laid out. It’s an effort to bolster the state’s water-supply demand picture in the face of drought and continued growth. The initiative stems from a 2014 state report, warning Arizona faces water-supply shortfalls of up to 900,000 acre-feet a year by 2050 and 2 million to 3 million acre-feet — enough to serve 4 million to 9 million people — by the early 2100s.
The initiative has been called by some observers “the next big thing” in Arizona water policy. It’s seen as a follow-up to the pioneering Groundwater Management Act of 1980 that for the first time put limits on water pumping in the state’s urban areas and surrounding farmland.
Ducey’s new group is called an augmentation council because many of the measures it will look at over the next three to five years include projects such as wastewater reuse, cloud-seeding and desalination plants that would add to the region’s supplies. Desalination could include desalting brackish groundwater and more expensive, seawater desalination plants. Water conservation is also part of its mission.
Other industries represented by the council’s 14 business members include chemicals, home builders and wine growers. Another 13 members represent government agencies, from the state’s Department of Water Resources and Department of Environmental Quality, down to the Southern Arizona Municipal Water Users Association at the local level. Warren Tenney of that group and Rod Keeling of the Arizona Wine Growers Association are the only southeast Arizona representatives.
Academia’s lone representative is Sarah Porter, director of Arizona State University’s Kyl Center for Water Sustainability. The only conservation member is the Nature Conservancy, generally considered the most moderate of its kind, which typically collaborates with instead of fighting business and government agencies.
“Same old, same old,” said Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Phoenix-based Grand Canyon Chapter, referring to what she sees as the committee’s tilt toward Arizona’s traditional power structure. “The membership will be the same characters who have made sure and who will make sure that nothing significant will happen related to water for a long time.”
“This group is very ag- and development-focused. It’s obviously not the kind of council that will be asking about the future of the San Pedro or Upper Verde rivers,” said Bahr, referring to rivers in southeast and Central Arizona, respectively, which many conservationists and scientists believe are threatened by population growth and groundwater pumping.
Also, “in an age when a new generation of investors, interested in long-term conservation of the environment and social equity, is looking comparatively where to invest, we need a transparent process of choosing an advisory board,” activist Kiser said.
She contrasted that ideal with the state’s process in which Ducey was advised on selections by the state water agency, his natural resources adviser, Hunter Moore, and various state boards and commissions.
Colorado recently adopted a new State Water Plan, “based on a deeply participatory process,” Kiser said.
Writing last month about Colorado, the magazine High Country News said, “But where other states did things top-down, Colorado took a more grassroots approach, asking committees in each of the state’s eight river basins, plus the Denver metropolitan area, to assess their needs, their gaps, and propose solutions. Colorado also opted for extensive public participation — soliciting tens of thousands of comments from across the state.”
Arizona’s process for water planning is entirely different from Colorado’s, and Arizona officials wanted to select a committee “that actually could accomplish a positive outcome,” Buschatzke countered.
“We have a reasonably diverse membership. We got many, many different requests by many different people over the last two months since the governor announced (the council) on Oct. 6. We couldn’t put everyone on there. We created a fair representation of diverse stakeholders across the state on water issues.”
If this group is focused mainly on long-range water augmentation, “the number one issue is, ‘How would you fund it?’” added Grady Gammage Jr., a Phoenix-based real estate lawyer on the council. “How would you come up with the money for long-term water supply projects? That would suggest that the people you want to talk to are people with sources of funding, like a surcharge on water use. You’re not going to be able to do that without getting the support of big water users — the ag industry and municipal government.”
There will be plenty of opportunities for average citizens to have their views heard by the council, Buschatzke added. By contrast, Colorado had “a whole different process than what we laid out here — a water roundtable with meetings for years on the East Slope and West Slope,” he said.
The Colorado plan is about more than just augmentation — “it’s more about conservation, municipal use and the relationship between agriculture and water use,” Gammage said. “I’m not sure this is a parallel effort to the Colorado Water Plan.”
The Sierra Club’s Bahr also targeted the augmentation council for what she said it probably won’t do.
“What about growing alfalfa in the desert? Will anyone talk about that? Ag is using 70 percent of the water,” while representing a small fraction of the state’s economy, Bahr said. “Would it make sense to ask about why the mines are exempt from groundwater pumping limits? There’s so much we can do about conservation, but they’re just firing up the growth machine. The cotton growers want to make sure they can keep growing cotton. The cities want to keep growing.”
Those kind of issues will be addressed in a parallel water-planning process that will also start next year, state water director Buschatzke said. Officials will meet with community members of 22 water-planning areas around the state, to help them set strategies for meeting water needs. They’ll start with Cochise County, which has been plagued by disputes recently over unregulated agricultural groundwater pumping.
Augmentation council member Kathleen Ferris said she expects the group to talk about water conservation and reuse as much as about desalination, especially at first. Augmentation is a broad, not particularly well-defined term, she said.
“I don’t think augmentation means going out and quickly building a desal plant,” said Ferris, director of the nonprofit Arizona Municipal Water Users Association, representing 10 Phoenix-area cities. “But it doesn’t mean the council won’t be looking at desalination.”
Gammage said he doesn’t think much more can be done for household conservation, and that the real question will be about farm-water efficiency.
“I don’t want to put them out of business, but I do think we ought to talk more about the nature of agriculture in Arizona and the kind of crops and the way in which we make decisions. But that’s not popular with a lot of people. It feels too much like community control and creeping socialism.”