PHOENIX — Gov. Doug Ducey signed a drought contingency plan Thursday afternoon, six hours ahead of the deadline set by a key federal official for the state to act or face having its Colorado River water supply determined by her.
The signature followed the plan’s nearly unanimous approval Thursday by both the House and Senate.
That came despite objections from some legislators who questioned why the state will allow Pinal County farmers to once again pump groundwater for their crops and will also provide cash to help them do it.
The deal provides $9 million to help construct new wells and the systems to deliver groundwater to farmers, with $7 million directly from state taxpayers and an additional $2 million already in the coffers of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. Several lawmakers pointed out the original offer was for $5 million overall.
There was also concern about a provision that would appear to promise the farmers — or at least the irrigation districts that serve them — an additional $20 million if they need it.
Farmers are hoping to get a federal grant for those dollars. But Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, questioned whether the legislation will leave Arizona taxpayers on the hook for the entire amount.
Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, said that’s not the case. “That’s not actual spent money,” he said. “It’s a grant guarantee.”
He said it’s no different than when the state pays the upfront costs of fighting fires knowing that there eventually will be reimbursement from Washington, D.C.
But House Speaker Rusty Bowers cautioned colleagues that it isn’t that simple.
“The (federal) government isn’t guaranteeing us anything,” he said. “They’re just saying there is a grant program.”
State action became necessary because existing agreements say that when Lake Mead drops below 1,075 feet above sea level automatic reductions are triggered in how much water can be taken out of the Colorado River. The lake is projected to drop below that point next year.
Mexico and the six other states that have rights to Colorado River water have all agreed to make cuts in what they draw to restore the lake back to close to 1,090 feet. Nevada and California have agreed not to draw some of the water they are entitled to take right now, before the lake hits 1,075 feet.
The deal means Arizona needs to reduce its draw from the river by up to 700,000 acre-feet between now and 2026, against the state’s current annual pre-drought allocation of 2.8 million acre-feet. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons of water, considered enough to serve a typical family of two for a year.
The rush for Arizona to approve the plan came because Brenda Burman, commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, warned that unless all the states signed off by midnight Thursday, Jan. 31, she would begin the process of coming up with her own plan. And that was likely to give Arizona even less river water than the deal the state ratified.
Farmers have the lowest priority for Arizona’s Colorado River water, which they receive through the Central Arizona Project canal system, and would take the first cuts.
The plan helps farmers deal with getting less river water by paying tribes, who have higher priority claims to the water, $30 million to reduce their use; and by putting Pinal County farms back on groundwater.
Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said he was concerned about what this encourages.
“What I do have a problem with is all of these subsidies and all of this money going to allow farmers to plant super water-needing crops like pecans and cotton,” he said.
Kavanagh pointed out that this was an area of the state that more than a decade ago was experiencing fissures and subsidence.
“They stopped pumping the groundwater and that problem stopped,” he said. “But now, because of this crisis, we’re taking them off CAP and throwing them back on the groundwater. And I’m assuming there’s a good chance we’re going to be getting more fissures and subsidence.
“Maybe the subsidence is God’s way of saying you can’t grow pecans in the desert.”
Ducey, in signing the drought contingency plan, acknowledged complaints that there is really nothing in it to promote conservation and cut water use. He said that remains a priority.
But the governor had no specifics, instead signing an executive order forming a council “to analyze and recommend opportunities for water augmentation, innovation and conservation.”
The council’s first report is due July 1, 2020.
He sidestepped a question of whether future conservation efforts would affect more than farmers, responding that the state uses less water today than it did in 1957 despite population growth.
Ducey said it makes sense that future efforts to reduce water consumption are likely to focus on agriculture, which he said uses 70 percent of all the water consumed in Arizona.
Bowers, however, said it isn’t a simple matter to tell farmers that they should grow different crops that use less water.
“Farmers don’t just say, ‘I like cotton,’” he said. “They grow cotton because we use cotton. They grow alfalfa, a high water-consuming crop, because dairy cows need it.”
Bowers said 35 percent to 40 percent of the dairy products used in the state’s metro areas come from Pinal County.
Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, said the plan doesn’t go back to the way things were before. Before getting Colorado River water, farmers were using 500,000 acre-feet of groundwater a year, he said.
This plan, Cook said, allows the farmers to pump just 70,000 acre-feet annually. And it also provides for a better system to recharge treated effluent back into the ground.
The other key point, said Bowers, is that the existing plan for water use, the one adopted in 2007, always anticipated that Pinal farmers would start losing their Colorado River water sometime after 2026.
But he said that presumed much of the farmland would have been sold off for development, which did not happen.
Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, complained about having to vote for the package on a take-it-or-leave-it basis — and do it less than 10 hours before the midnight deadline. He said these are issues that “should have been addressed years ago,” blaming the rush on failed leadership by the Legislature, the governor and the stakeholders involved.
He also said the package fails to consider crucial related issues, including conservation and climate change. Instead, Quezada said, lawmakers are told these will be dealt with in a future plan. “Step No. 2 is too late, folks,” he told colleagues in voting against the plan. “We should have been doing Step. No. 2 right now.”
And Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, complained of provisions he called “welfare for water-intensive uses.”
Sen. Lisa Otondo, D-Yuma, acknowledged the measure may not be perfect.
“Everybody doesn’t like something in the bill,” she said. “But that was the negotiation amongst the stakeholders.”
“This is an intervention,” Otondo said, which makes changes to that 2007 plan made necessary by the drought, and in a way to mitigate the loss of Colorado River water to users in Central Arizona.
Otondo agreed there is more the state can do, but said that, for the moment, there was no choice but to approve the plan.