Trying to rejigger stalled talks on a plan to protect Lake Mead, the CAP board is pushing a new plan to spend up to $60 million to compensate water users whose supplies would be cut due to future Colorado River shortages.

The Drought Contingency Plan proposal approved by the Central Arizona Project board last week is a less-ambitious, less-expensive and shorter-term blueprint than those proposed earlier by water agencies and the Gila River Indian Community.

It would help farmers pay for new wells and more water efficiency, and provide more water for tribes than they’d get under the drought plan’s earlier versions.

“It’s a bridge, a place to start. This plan is only for three years and does not rely on firm funding from the state and from the Bureau of Reclamation,” CAP General Manager Ted Cooke told a packed house at the board meeting Thursday.

“We want to come up with a plan that this board by itself can approve — a plan we believe would work.”

Coming as some officials are raising alarms about the lack of progress toward a plan, this proposal was opposed by the same parties that opposed earlier plans — tribes and cities. It was supported by farmers and their allies, who have also supported some of the earlier plans.

At the same time, representatives of city water agencies and Indian tribes who oppose this plan said they’re pleased that CAP officials and other backers are open to further negotiations and don’t seem as hardened in their positions.

“We are close. We are very close, I believe, to a path forward for DCP that represents and respects all of the big tent of stakeholders in Arizona that we are trying to include,” Gila River Tribal Gov. Stephen Ray Lewis said.

The drought plan is aimed at keeping Lake Mead from falling to catastrophically low levels. It would boost the level of cuts in CAP water deliveries to farms, cities and tribes as soon as shortages on the Colorado River begin — as early as 2020. That’s to raise the lake levels higher than they otherwise would be.

Shortages are likely in the near future because the lake has dropped dramatically since 2000 due to overuse and because drought and climate change are reducing the river’s flows.

Negotiations for a plan have been stalled so thoroughly that three meetings to discuss it were canceled over three weeks. That’s raised fears an agreement might not be reached by the end of the year, as U.S. officials want.

If that happens, it could trigger federal intervention in managing the river, Arizona officials worry. The U.S. Interior secretary’s office “always has the discretion over what it needs to do to preserve viability of the lake,” Cooke said.

Also, failure to approve a plan would send a bad signal to out-of-state investors that Arizona doesn’t have its water act together, jeopardizing economic development and growth, some water officials say.

Ducey sounds a warning

A recent warning came last Tuesday, when Gov. Doug Ducey wrote an op-ed piece, saying, “Some recent proposals are so short-sighted and unsustainable that it requires me to remind all participants why we began this process in the first place.

“Demands for water and money to mitigate reductions are growing to insurmountable proportions — more than 1 million acre-feet of water and over $200 million through 2026 — creating an unsustainable precedent for mitigating water reductions in the future,” Ducey wrote in the Arizona Capitol Times.

One million acre-feet would serve Tucson with enough CAP water from the Colorado River for more than a decade.

“We recognize the need to address impacts on certain water use sectors, but individual interests must be appropriately balanced against the interests of the state as a whole,” Ducey wrote.

Also, Lisa Otondo, a state senator who has been active in the plan negotiations, wrote a letter a week ago saying she’s “deeply concerned about the breakdown of communication and the dire prospect of the impending failure to reach agreement.”

Faced with a potential catastrophe on Lake Mead, “It is our duty to find compromise in order to protect all of the citizens of Arizona,” she wrote. “That means that no interest group, water user or water rights holder can get everything it wants. It means bringing an end to attempts to vilify other water users and casting aspersions on their motives.”

Otondo is a Yuma Democrat whose district includes parts of four counties, including Pima County. Her letter went to members of the 41-person steering committee that has been discussing the drought plan since July.

Many proposals offered run counter to the drought plan’s goal “or merely shuffle the deck of water rights without contributing a drop to Lake Mead,” Otondo wrote. “Some threaten the Law of the River and vested water right priorities and will surely be challenged in court. Some will unduly burden one segment of the population for the benefit of another.

“I challenge you to return to those whom you represent and convince them that all of us must share the pain of the water reductions needed to keep Lake Mead alive. We need the Drought Contingency Plan now. The longer we argue and delay, the more we risk. Time is our enemy.”

Opposition to the proposal

Here are specifics of the latest proposal, approved unanimously by the board of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District. The board governs the CAP, the 50-year-old, $4 billion canal project that brings Colorado River water to Central and Southern Arizona:

  • Pinal County farmers would get what they see as “full mitigation” of previously proposed cuts: 595,000 acre-feet of water over seven years through 2026. The original drought plan would have given them no water once shortages began.
  • The proposal also would provide some relief to cuts planned during early shortages to the Gila River tribal community and to many Phoenix-area cities. Their class of water users would get 88,000 acre-feet a year of mitigation, about three-fourths of what was going to be cut.
  • The CAP would spend up to $60 million to buy up to 250,000 acre-feet for mitigation.

Project officials didn’t spell out where they’d buy the water. One likely source is the Colorado River Indian Tribes, based in Parker along the river. The tribes on Nov. 9 wrote a letter offering to provide the state and CAP 150,000 acre-feet over three years starting in 2020, at a cost of $250 an acre-foot. That’s far more than what cities and other CAP users are paying today for the river water.

  • The CAP will support programs to build wells and other groundwater infrastructure and to improve irrigation efficiency for Pinal County farms.
  • The drought plan steering committee will get the plan for additional negotiations.

“It’s not the only plan that can work. It’s not a take-it-or-leave-it plan," CAP's Cooke said. "However, we need to be judicious as to what features we have and what time we add to the process."

The biggest objection to this plan is that one of its key water sources for mitigation is 400,000 acre-feet of water that Arizona has already stored in Lake Mead to prop it up, under a program called “intentionally created surplus.”

Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke and the Gila River community’s Lewis said taking that water out of Lake Mead runs counter to the drought plan’s purpose: to keep the imperiled lake from dropping too fast.

Cooke acknowledged that critics have legitimate concerns, but said the CAP proposal will save Lake Mead a lot more water, up to 3 million acre-feet, in the long run. With a drought plan in place, far more water will ultimately be saved in the lake than this proposal would take out, he said.

“If you pay $400 today and I’ll give you $3,000 back in 2026 (when the DCP would end), would you take it?” Cooke asked.

Buschatzke and Lewis also criticized the proposal’s interim nature.

Farmers and their lobbyists strongly backed the proposal. A farmer, an irrigation district general manager and a ranching-group spokesman all said the 595,000 acre-foot proposal is essential to keeping Pinal County agriculture afloat.

Phoenix water official Cynthia Campbell said she’s glad the discussion has changed to no longer focus on one sector — agriculture — and is looking at the drought plan’s overall impacts while reflecting a more equitable sharing of the cuts.

“Early on, there was no conversation about impacts to tribes and cities, and we are now engaged in proposals to address that or at least consider it,” Campbell said.

Agricultural lobbyist Paul Orme said he doesn’t know if he’s optimistic. Tribes and cities want to tweak the plan, “but based on their positions, their tweaking would come at my clients’ expense. That’s not something I would support.”

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