If Lake Mead levels keep dropping, major water cuts could be triggered in Tucson and Phoenix.

For the first time in well over a year, a clear path exists for completion of Arizona’s share of a three-state drought plan for the Colorado River.

The plan would step up already-approved requirements for cuts in water deliveries to Arizona, Nevada and eventually California as Lake Mead drops below certain key levels.

While many hurdles and potential disputes remain, water officials said last week they’re ready to work together and hold public meetings to solicit comments on the plan from various water users and other interest groups. The first such meeting will be held July 26 in the Phoenix area.

Officials hope to have a plan ready for the Legislature to approve next year, with “zero no votes,” said Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke at Thursday’s briefing in Tempe on the drought plan.

Officials laid out four key elements of a drought plan Thursday but said the details will be worked out by a steering committee of water officials and interest group representatives that will meet publicly.

The key elements are:

  • A plan for what to do with what officials call “excess water,” Central Arizona Project water that isn’t used in a given year by the city, irrigation district or Indian tribe that has the rights to it.
  • A plan to mitigate the drought plan’s impacts on farmers, who will take the biggest hit by far from future cuts in CAP water deliveries.
  • A plan to allow tribes to leave some of their water in Lake Mead and take it out later, when necessary.
  • An overall “Arizona Conservation Plan,” whose purpose and details were not made clear.

Unknowns include:

  • At the briefing, officials from the federal government, the state water department and the CAP said the tribes’ role in this plan will be crucial. But the details of setting up a program for how it would happen remain unknown.
  • When Lake Mead drops below 1,075 feet at the end of any year — the threshold for the first shortage on the river — Pinal County farmers would lose all their CAP water. That would likely force them to resume what everyone agrees is unsustainable groundwater pumping to stay in business. But at a news conference following the briefing, CAP General Manager Ted Cooke demurred in response to a question about whether and how some water belonging to other parties could be reallocated to agriculture. “I don’t really want to get ahead of the conversation,” Cooke said.
  • Whether to let the dwindling supply of “excess” CAP water stay in Lake Mead to prop it up, or whether CAP officials should continue to sell it to other parties such as its own sister agency that recharges it into the ground to serve future growth. With Lake Mead falling, Cooke said, “There will not be very much … excess water very much longer.”

The drought plan’s cost is also unknown. Cooke said CAP’s current conservation efforts — saving about 200,000 acre feet a year — is costing tens of millions of dollars to compensate entities who don’t use all their water.

If the plan is approved, and various water users agree to give up additional water, “I have no idea” what the additional cost will be, Cooke added Friday in an interview.

One certainty is that users of CAP water, including those in Tucson Water’s service area, will pay more for less water once shortages happen. That’s because CAP water rates will rise because less water will be delivered to the same number of users.

Under 2007-approved guidelines laying out terms of shortages, the rates CAP charges to its users would rise 7 percent to 17 percent, Cooke said. Under additional cuts expected from a new drought plan, rates could rise another 20 percent to 30 percent, he said.

At the Tempe briefing before about 275 public officials, water lobbyists and others, state and CAP officials pledged to work hard to get the drought plan approved. Their statements came in the face of heavy pressure from U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials, who warned attendees that the river system faces far more severe risks from drought and low river runoff than it did in 2007.

The proposed drought plan calls for Arizona to dramatically ramp up how much water it leaves behind in Lake Mead to prop it up.

The resulting cuts in water deliveries would significantly delay and reduce the risk of a day of reckoning for CAP and other major water users in the river basin, the drought plan’s advocates say. That would come when the lake drops to 1,025 or 1,000 feet, low enough to require even more drastic cuts in water deliveries to cities and tribes.

Some water activists, consultants optimistic about the plan

Friday, longtime Arizona political consultant Chuck Coughlin, who represents several water interest groups, said he was encouraged by Thursday's meeting, which he attended.

"You can look at it that everybody’s got to give something to reduce risk. If everyone understands the consequences of the status quo, they know that's not a good place for anyone to be in," said Coughlin.

"It's not going to be easy. Hard tings rarely get done in politics these days. But this is really important to do and I think the state is up to the task."

One group he and other plan supporters must work with, he said, are homebuilders. Theyve been wary of any proposal to leave all the unused river water in Lake Mead because today, some of it goes to be recharged in the ground in urban areas for future use by development.

"We have to work with them to figure out some of those challenges," patiently and constructively," Coughlin said.

Spencer Kamps, deputy director of the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona, said his group has consistently asked officials for a plan as to how the unused water will be gradually pulled back, "in a manner that doesn’t cause rateshock or other major impacts to the economy.

The bigger question about the drought plan, he said, is "How will we continue to prosper with limited (water) supplies?"

Tucson water conservation activist Val Little, who watched the briefing via computer, was also optimistic about the drought plan's fate, but she had another question about the big picture.

"I think they almost have to approve it now, with the bureau down their neck and the scary numbers on the screens. That's always the hammer that hangs over people," said Little, director of the Water Conservation Alliance of Southern Arizona.

But when you look back to the state's landmark 1980 Groundwater Management Act, aimed at addressing a looming water crisis itself, this drought plan looks like small potatoes, said Little, who sits on two advisory committees aimed at monitoring and carrying out the 1980s plan.

"This doesn’t give us a lot of breathing room. It's important, but they're not staying ahead of the curve," Little said. "What I’m concened about is if they are looking at something that is going to help us for the next 8 years, it's not the scope of the groundwater act that got us 45 years down the road."

CAP-ADWR animosity reduced

Probably the biggest reason for optimism for the new drought plan is that the state water department and CAP have at least on the surface backed away from their notorious disputes that had dragged on since early 2017.

At the press conference, Buschatzke and CAP's Cooke were downplaying differences that had seemed acute as recently as last spring. At the same time, it was clear from their comments that the details of how they'll resolve those past differences remain unclear.

For instance, CAP officials had for more than a year resisted the state's pleas for more conservation. Their fear was that "overconserving" river water would raise Lake Mead enough as to draw a lesser release from Lake Powell upstream, based on how the 2007 guidelines balance water levels in the two big reservoirs.

Thursday, Cooke said that issue is moot. It's now clear that as both lakes keep dropping, 2019 is the last year project officials expect large releases from Powell in any case.

"I’m willing to support as much as conservation as Arizona is able to afford," Cooke told reporters.

Also, for some time, state water officials and CAP officials appeared to be in strong disagreement over the need and desirability of a program for Indian tribes to set aside water to be put in Lake Mead, with the proviso that the tribes can get it back when needed. At a CAP board meeting last summer, some officials with the water project raised questions about whether a tribal program of this sort is legal and whether setting up such programs is the prerogative of the water project.

On Thursday, though, Cooke said there "really was never a contention" over the tribal program and that there was a "misperception" among some observers over whether a dispute existed. While there were disagreements over how much water would be saved and how that water would be used, "that time has passed," he said. The tribal program is now "on our list of essential elements" of a drought plan, he said.

Buschatzke appeared to offer maneuvering room on his stance earlier this year that the state wants authority from the Legislature to let river water users leave some of their water in Lake Mead to prop it up. Currently, that authority legally belongs to CAP, which fought off legislation to let the state have it.

He told reporters that the state could handle this practice by drawing up an agreement with the party leaving behind its water, with full consultation with CAP officials, as it has done when it makes similar arrangements in dealing with other states on water.

Also, from now on, the two officials who didn't speak to each other for months at a time last year will be conducting joint press interviews on the drought plan, Buschatzke said.

If a plan isn't approved soon, Arizona leaders have feared that the U.S. Interior Department will take over management of the river, as past Interior Secretaries have threatened to do.

But when asked when that could happen, Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman Patti Aaron told the Star in an email, "The point at which the (Interior) Secretary would step in is uncertain."

Contact reporter Tony Davis at tdavis@tucson.com or 806-7746. On Twitter@tonydavis987