PHOENIX — Gov. Doug Ducey threatened Tuesday to veto any drought contingency plan that does not equitably divide up the pain of Arizona having less water, and that doesn’t eventually lead to more water conservation.
The vow, the governor’s strongest statement to date on the issue, comes as key players appear to be nearing agreement on who would lose water when the state is forced to reduce the amount it can draw from Lake Mead and the Colorado River.
“Several details need to be worked out,” Ducey told those attending a water conference in Phoenix. “But we are very close.”
Ducey acknowledged there are diverse interests who have their own ideas about how to allocate the water and who should be forced to take a larger share of the cuts. And the political reality is that any plan and the funding to support it has to be approved by the Legislature, which has 90 members each beholden to certain constituencies.
The governor supports the compromise being worked out by the stakeholders. But he doesn’t want legislators, or the special interests they represent, to tinker with it.
“I will reject any plan or policy that comes across my desk if it fails to adhere to the principles I’ve outlined,” Ducey said.
Those, he said, include protecting Lake Mead and balancing the interests of all water users.
Ducey also said any plan, to be acceptable, has to acknowledge this isn’t just a stop-gap measure. A key element has to be the state “transitioning to a drier future,” he said.
Ducey defended one key element that would have the federal government provide at least $30 million to drill new wells in Pinal County.
The governor acknowledged that one of the key goals of the state’s historic 1980 groundwater code was to reduce groundwater pumping in several areas of the state. In Pinal County, the aim was to preserve agriculture for as long as possible while also ensuring there is enough groundwater for future residential development.
Ducey said it makes sense to give farmers access to more groundwater now to make up for them having to absorb much of the loss of Colorado River water.
“It’s a balancing act,” he said.
Seventy percent of Pinal County’s current water use goes to agriculture, Ducey said. At the same time, he said, the county is experiencing “a very robust net growth of individuals who are building homes. And there’s a water need there as well.”
Arizona, under long-term deals with other states, gets about 40 percent of its water from the Colorado River.
The plans were approved in years of abundant supply. Now, with a drought, Lake Mead is expected to drop in 2020 below a point at which those deals require Arizona to cut its use.
“Historically, issues surrounding the Colorado River were resolved through conflict and litigation,” the governor said. “We’re attempting to do something different today, and that’s work collaboratively.”
Once the stakeholders who have claims on the water reach a plan, Ducey said, they must be united in urging lawmakers to ratify it without alterations.
The needs and wants of each water user “must be balanced with the overall needs of the state,” Ducey said.
He has used his veto stamp before on water issues.
In 2016 he rejected two measures that could have allowed some developers to get around requirements to show they have enough water to sustain their projects.
“Ensuring the certainty and sustainability of Arizona’s water is a top priority,” Ducey said. “I will not sign legislation that threatens Arizona’s water future.”