For years, advocates for a drought-contingency plan for the Colorado River have said it’s all that stands between us and catastrophe for Lake Mead.
They say the plan, by limiting our take from the lake for the Central Arizona Project for the next seven years, will prevent or at least delay the time that the lake drops so low it will be impossible to get virtually any water out of it.
But for longtime Sierra Club lobbyist Sandy Bahr, the plan, far from being groundbreaking, represents another run at “business as usual” for the state. As the Arizona version of the drought plan is now written, she says it’s propping up what she sees as unsustainable growth and unsustainable farming practices.
As the plan is now conceived, Pinal County farms and Phoenix-area cities along with the Tohono O’Odham and Gila River tribes, would give up some or a good deal of their CAP supplies.
But farms would get at least $18 million in state subsidies to build new wells and other infrastructure to pump groundwater in its place. The cities would not lose any of their highest-priority CAP water until Lake Mead drops more than 50 feet lower than it is today.
Here are some questions and answers from Bahr about the drought plan, which is being pushed to meet a Jan. 31 federal deadline to enact it. If Arizona misses that deadline, U.S. Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman says she’ll take whatever steps she feels are needed to protect Mead and its companion, Lake Powell, and make a decision on that by mid-August.
Q. Why do you think this plan is business as usual?
A. Business as usual, in that we’re acting as if we really don’t have a water issue and we’re continuing the kind of rapid growth and development and thirsty agriculture that is unsustainable. Every time the governor talks about the need for DCP, he frames it as something needed to ensure we can keep having economic development.
They talk they talk a lot about sustaining agriculture in Pinal County. We know a lot of that land is for development. These lands are being leased from people who are interested in developing them, but they are not worth much unless they have water. Actually, I think this is worse than business as usual. At some point, we’ve decided that trying to limit groundwater pumping isn’t all that important.
Q. Pinal County farmers have known for years they were eventually going to have to give up all their CAP water due to a deal they cut in 2004 as part of an Indian water rights settlements act. But until recently, it was thought they wouldn’t have to give it all up until 2030. Now, it’s looking more like all their CAP could disappear by 2022. Don’t they deserve time to transition to other water sources instead of being cut off so abruptly?
A. How long have we known that this was coming? Even if you only go back to 2007, when the seven river basin states drew up earlier guidelines for dealing with shortages, the writing was on the wall that it was coming. If you were paying attention before that, we knew climate change has been having significant impacts on the amount of water flowing in the Colorado River. We have known for decades the river was over-allocated. This really isn’t the last minute. The only thing that is last minute about it is our willingness to do anything.
Q. Are you saying you don’t think we should have any economic growth? Or that it needs to be slowed down? Don’t we need growth to feed our families? How feasible is it to limit growth?
A. There’s a difference between having growth and encouraging it and subsidizing it and wanting to continue the same style of development and the same intensity. It’s not just about growth. It’s about how we develop and the intensity of it. A lot of times, the argument is made that if you just get rid of agriculture, you can develop more. We really need to think about what is sustainable in a place that’s pretty dry, and where parts of the state are pretty darned hot and getting hotter. I’m not trying to say the apocalypse is near. But we need to plan, and not just say we can grow and develop and grow alfalfa and cotton the way we did for the past 30 years.
Q. Arizona is willing to give up nearly half its CAP supply as part of this drought plan. Doesn’t the state deserve commendation for that?
A. That was part of the deal for getting CAP built, that we’ll take the first shortage. Now, we should be willing to stick to what we agreed to. CAP was built in part to limit groundwater pumping. Now that we’re taking cuts in CAP water, we’re going to crank up the pumps. I don’t see how that’s commendable.
Q. Don’t we need to protect the Colorado from catastrophic decline for its own sake, not just to promote growth? Doesn’t that justify DCP even if you don’t want growth?
A. The problem is that I don’t see where the joint resolution, or anything I’ve seen as far as bills, indicates that we are going to start working on addressing the shortages and really looking at conservation and some of the other ways that we can limit water use. Our signing off on the entire Lower Basin DCP is really not the big issue here. It’s how we’re getting there.
Q. So would Lake Mead and Arizona be better off if Brenda Burman took over managing the river?
A. It’s a big question mark as to what the feds would do. I can’t really answer that question. What I can say is that we can do better than what’s on the table.
Q. A lot of environmentally minded folks who would sympathize with what you say would argue that the course you’re suggesting isn’t politically feasible. Is it possible that you’re looking for the perfect at the expense of the good?
A. If we always accept a lousy deal from the governor and the leadership at the Legislature, then we surely will always get a lousy deal. I hope that no one thinks it’s unfeasible to do a better job of really developing a plan to reduce our water use and to make it clear that there are some places where there are going to be limits on what we can do, limits on development, limits on agriculture. If you don’t keep trying to push for something better, it will just continue to be the same old thing.