What is the Drought Contingency Plan and will it affect me?
Arizona’s top water managers continue to meet to create a drought contingency plan for Colorado River water supply. Arizona Republic
Arizona's water leaders and lawmakers are running out of time to complete the state's Drought Contingency Plan, a blueprint for how Arizona water users would share a likely shortage on the Colorado River.
The water managers and elected officials working on the plan have tried to convey a sense of urgency to get the work done on what could soon be the most important water-related legislation in recent times.
But there are a lot of moving parts to understand and a lot of concepts that may seem overwhelming. Here are the things you need to know in advance of the Jan. 31 deadline to finish the plan:
What is the Drought Contingency Plan?
The Drought Contingency Plan is an interstate agreement among Arizona and other states whose communities depend on Colorado River water.
Arizona and those states that use the water have been developing the agreement for several months in an effort to divvy up expected cutbacks on the river needed to keep storage reservoir levels from dropping too low.
Before finalizing the interstate agreement, states must hash out intrastate agreements, among local water users, and that's what Arizona is still working on. The Arizona deal would try to avoid deep cutbacks by spreading them around.
What will it do and why is it needed?
In short, the water we use from the river is outpacing the water being replenished naturally — we're in a drought. The soon-to-be-finalized agreement addresses the anticipated shortfalls and tries to spread the pain among the states so that no one is hit too hard if the drought persists.
Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the US, is now 39 percent full and approaching its first-ever shortage. Lake Powell, the other major reservoir on the river, is 40 percent full and could drop lower.
Together, the two reservoirs help keep water flowing to the seven states even during dry years. Powell stores water that New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming depend on. Water from that reservoir is released downstream to Mead, which stores water for the states on the lower Colorado — Arizona, Nevada and California.
If water levels drop too low, water users across the region could face severe shortages. The drought plan is a balancing act to keep water flowing where it needs to and to preserve supplies for the future, keeping water levels for Mead and Powell where they should be.
Who is involved?
A group of 38 water leaders, state and city politicians, tribal leaders, farmers and business representatives are working through negotiations over who is assured what water and what money. In the end, some users will start relying more on groundwater and others will be paid for water they forfeit.
This group is focusing on water delivered by the Central Arizona Project Canal, not on Colorado River water used by farmers in and near Yuma. CAP delivers about 1.5 million acre-feet a year to Maricopa, Pima and Pinal counties for cities, businesses and farmers to use. Most Phoenix area cities use a mix of water from the CAP and other sources.
Who could be the most affected?
Right now, Pinal County farmers are among those who would take the brunt of those cuts. Those farmers were prepared for a more groundwater-reliant future but were not expecting it for another 11 years. They expected to lose assured access to CAP water in 2030 based on a 2004 water settlement, but those cutbacks would come quicker if and when this drought plan is approved, forcing them to adapt sooner.
Under proposed terms of the drought plan, the farmers would receive an interim supply of water through tribal communities and other water users. Some would pump groundwater sooner or leave farmlands fallow.
Money to buy water for the farmers would come from a $30 million appropriation proposed by Governor Doug Ducey in his budget and another $5 million to drill wells. But those farmers are asking for more CAP water and more money for those wells.
How will this affect me?
Unless you are a Pinal County farmer or one of the city, county and tribal water managers moving supplies around in exchange for something in this deal, you likely will not notice anything. Ducey suggested last week, he will promote water conservation education to Arizonans, asking them to use less water and save money.
So you can still expect to have water in your tap, as no direct cutbacks are likely, but you may soon be asked to voluntarily use less. If lawmakers continue these conservation conversations and turn those discussions into enforceable legislation, that is another issue for another day.
What’s their deadline?
January 31. If a plan is not signed by Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke by then, the Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees water projects in the West, is threatening to make the cuts for them.
Brenda Burman, the agency's commissioner, made that clear at the Colorado River Water Users Association conference in Las Vegas in December, a meeting where Arizona was ideally supposed to bring a close-to-final plan. Burman stressed that if Western states, especially Arizona, do not file a plan by then, the Interior Department will ask the states what the government should do.
"We will act, if needed, to protect this Basin," Burman said at the December conference. "This is absolutely not our preferred course of action. But if we do, we will give the states 30 days for those submissions. And the department will take those submissions and decide on a course of action."
Those cuts would likely upend the compromises built so far in these months of delicate negotiations. But it could end up forcing the state into a corner, leaving it no choice but to get serious about conserving water.
Are the feds bluffing? What about the government shutdown?
Apparently not. The Bureau of Reclamation is one of the many agencies affected by Washington’s longest ever political standoff, but it says the lawyers tasked to enforce that deadline have been deemed “essential” and will continue working.
Regardless of whether that deadline is enforced, lawmakers and water leaders are working to pass something and not risk finding out what happens if they do nothing.
Pinal County farmers and state legislators talk about the Drought Contingency Plan as the federal deadline looms. Arizona Republic
Why are we waiting until now to figure this out?
We have not been putting this off for that long. There has been a drought plan in place since 2007 when states first foresaw the severity and urgency of eventual reservoir shortages.
But as a shortage became more possible and it was clear more action would be needed, states got together to develop a Drought Contingency Plan to help share the pain of cutbacks. If they had not done that, Arizona would have had to cut back the most.
It is also important to remember these things take time to figure out because the people in charge are negotiating over one of the West's most valuable resources. Nobody wants to give away too much for too long, which is why the pace is so sluggish.
What comes next?
This process is now on two separate tracks. On one track, the state Legislature got drafts of an agreement last week, which essentially is a formalized version of what that group of 38 water leaders has agreed on.
Along with those formalities, the bill provides the legal mechanisms needed to enact a deal that does not yet exist and one that is not yet fully understood by many lawmakers. Lawmakers are being briefed by staff to better understand it, and once they do, they will introduce an official version to a committee and begin the legislative process with that January 31 deadline in mind.
On the other track, the group of water leaders must settle the sticking points, many of which are the same ones they were tasked to sort out in July and give the Legislature something to approve.
Where can I learn more?
Reach reporter Andrew Nicla at email@example.com.
Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and at OurGrandAZ on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.