Earlier this week, the Star interviewed longtime Arizona Sierra Club leader Sandy Bahr on her view that the proposed Colorado River drought contingency plan legislation for Arizona is a pathway to unsustainable growth, not a bridge to a sustainable Colorado River future.
Today, Kevin Moran, leader of an Arizona environmental coalition backing the drought plan, responds to Bahr, and answers questions about the coalition’s support.
Moran works full-time as Colorado River Basin director for the Environmental Defense Fund, based in Phoenix. He also chairs the Water for Arizona Coalition, representing five groups backing the plan. They include Audubon Arizona, American Rivers, Western Resource Advocates and Business for Water Stewardship.
Q. Why does your coalition endorse the drought plan?
A. The biggest reason is that it takes a major step toward stabilizing the Colorado River system. It will reduce all the river basin states’ take from the river. While Arizona is mitigating some of its cuts to users by pulling some water it stores in Lake Mead out of the lake, the Arizona implantation plan for the lake will offset that with 400,000 acre-feet that will be dedicated to Lake Mead, to be conserved in Lake Mead.
Over the plan’s seven-year period, 345,000 acre-feet is going to be taken from the lake. So you have a modest net benefit and we think that is a fundamental benefit to the river system.
Plus, getting the seven basin states plus the Bureau of Reclamation, plus the Republic of Mexico, to sign onto this agreement is a critical step toward regional collaboration.
Q. The plan would subsidize groundwater pumping infrastructure for Pinal County farmers who will lose Central Arizona Project water. Bahr says that’s a huge retreat from the 1980 Arizona Groundwater Management Act aimed at reducing pumping. Your groups all promote sustainability; how can you endorse a plan that finances new pumping?
A. Our coalition’s assessment was that there would be more groundwater pumping in Pinal County if there was no DCP and Arizona implementation plan to put it in place — and the farmers were still losing their CAP water. That’s because of how the 1980 groundwater act works.
Pinal County agriculture has irrigation grandfathered rights confirmed in the 1980 act. They have the right to pump groundwater. Our view is that as part of an overall drought contingency package and plan, you will have some surface water provided to farms for three years as part of mitigation.
There will also be surface water in the form of higher priority supplies that cities and tribes will provide to Pinal agriculture as well, water that’s put onto the crops instead of them getting groundwater. If there were no mitigation plan, the farmers would have a legal right to withdraw even more groundwater.
Q. But eventually, the farms will stop using the groundwater when development comes in, and the developers will pump the groundwater out. Bahr says this plan benefits developers and land speculators. Is that a concern for your group?
A. Nothing in this legislation changes the Arizona Department of Water Resources’ standards for how they decide on issuing certificates of assured water supply for new development in Pinal County. Under state law, all new development has to prove it has enough water to last 100 years.
There’s already concerns in some parts of Pinal about the physical availability of groundwater for new development. I’m concerned about that. Our coalition is concerned.
Q. We’re going to keep growing. How will your group address that?
A. Our coalition’s view is that we do need to have an approach that addresses the needs of multiple sectors of the economy. We need to continue to have that mindset, that approach, when we develop water policy.
That said, I believe there does need to be a harder conversation, a more nuanced and complex conversation about what economic growth looks like in the future in Arizona. It would be imprudent to ignore the strong signals that are based on climate change and reduced supply in the Colorado River Basin. I don’t believe in the mindset (of) ‘I’m here with my SUV and my suburban home, and I’m going to roll up the carpet.’ But I do believe we need a new playbook for economic growth to reflect our water reality.
Q. What might this playbook look like?
A. I don’t know that I have a great prescription or handle on that. That’s not necessarily my expertise. But you have to acknowledge the reality of reduced and more volatile water supplies. Then you have to figure out, how do we plan as a state and as communities to manage within that reality?
Q. The drought plan legislation has $2 million to support conservation programs. In this hot dry state, is water conservation more than a $2 million problem?
A. It is more than a $2 million problem but that is a good start that I welcome. I do think we also need to be really, really taking on getting to the next level of the culture of conservation. There’s also a social and cultural accelerated evolution that we will need, given the realities that we face.
Q. What does that mean?
A. I think it means taking a look at what we have in our properties and in our yards and taking a look at moving even more towards low water use plants and even a broader application of xeriscape. Tucson has done a lot more on that than greater Phoenix, although there has been progress in that now. We need an even bigger push on that.
Q. What about farms?
A. The opportunities to continue improving efficiencies on farms — that’s an ongoing issue.