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Arizona House committee approves drought plan, deadline looms Thursday

Posted at 2:52 PM, Jan 29, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-29 22:03:53-05

FLAGSTAFF, AZ — Five hours after the hearing began, the Arizona House Committee on Natural Resources, Energy and Water passed out to the full house Arizona's version of the Colorado River drought contingency plan. Lawmakers also approved a series of measures to help Pinal County farmers deal with the water shortages they will face as part of the agreement.

Governor Ducey said passage of the contingency plan was his top priority. The state has until Thursday to submit it to the Federal Government's Bureau of Reclamation. Arizona is the last of seven Western states to approve the plan, which ensures shared water from the Colorado River doesn't dry up for millions of farmers, cities, tribes and developers.

Under the proposal, farmers will fallow thousands of acres of land and give up their rights to Central Arizona Water. In return, they will receive millions of dollars to upgrade pumping systems, install more efficient drip irrigation and be allowed to tap into ground water. Pinal County farmers say, even with the assistance, they will lose on average 30% of their business. That is expected to translate into higher prices for milk and other commodities at the grocery store.

The plan has faced criticism from environmental groups. The Sierra Club's Sandy Bahr said, "it is unfortunate that the discussion of the drought contingency plan has come down to this last minute effort to appease a few interests." Bahr does not believe the state considered climate change when it developed the plan.

Even with the conservation efforts by the seven states which rely on it, the Colorado River will continue to lose water during what scientists are calling a historic drought. Bahr believes allowing Pinal County farmers to use ground water will only create more problems.

"Ground water pumping has already contributed to land subsidence and fissures in Pinal County and now the state is going to pay for more of that to happen," she said.

But lawmakers say they have few options.

"I think we have all been dealing with the facts that are in front of all of us at the time and trying to make the best deal considering the risks," said state Rep. Kirsten Engel (D-Tucson).

The House will vote on the plan Wednesday. It must get through the Senate and signed by Governor Ducey before the end of the month.

Arizona is the only state a part of the agreement that required the approval of the state legislature.

If the deadline isn't met, the agency will ask the states to weigh in on how the overtaxed river water should be allocated ahead of a projected shortage in August. Without a consensus plan, the federal agency has said it will make the rules. "To date, Interior is very supportive and extremely patient with the pace of progress" of the drought contingency plan, the agency said in a statement.

The deadline requires only that the states sign off on the drought plan for the river that serves 40 million people in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California. There is no legal requirement to figure out exactly how states will live up to the reductions outlined.

Under existing guidelines, Arizona would be first hit and hardest if Lake Mead, on the state's border with Nevada, falls below 1,075 feet (328 meters). That's because Arizona has the lowest priority rights to the river. If the drought plan is approved, cuts would be spread more widely and eventually loop in California. Mexico also has agreed to cutbacks.

Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico had their plans done in December. If Arizona's proposal collapses and the federal government steps in, those states could put some of their plans in motion to meet their obligation to other states, water managers said. That includes sending water from reservoirs upstream of Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah line to keep it from dropping so low that water could not be delivered to Lake Mead.

Arizona must find a way to reduce its use of Colorado River water by up to 700,000 acre-feet -- more than twice Nevada's yearly allocation under the drought plan.

An acre-foot is enough for one to two households a year. In California, the Metropolitan Water District, a major user of Colorado River water, is pumping more to ensure the 500,000 acre-feet of water it has stored behind Lake Mead won't be stranded if the reservoir levels fall drastically and Arizona isn't on board with the plan, district general manager Jeff Kightlinger said.

"At the end of the day, Arizona needs this deal more than anybody, and they know it," Kightlinger said. "California is stepping up to the plate here. We actually have the senior right to the river. Some people in California are saying, `Why should we give anything?"'