2 Agencies Slugging It out for Management of Arizona's Water

By Davis, Tony | AZ Daily Star, October 29, 2017 | Go to article overview

2 Agencies Slugging It out for Management of Arizona's Water


Davis, Tony, AZ Daily Star


For three years, federal, state and local water officials have hunted for a solution to declining water levels at Lake Mead, a key drinking-water source for Tucson, Phoenix and their suburbs.

But in the past few months, a bitter power struggle between Arizona's two top water agencies has ground that effort to a halt.

The turf war pits the Arizona Department of Water Resources, which manages water issues statewide, against the agency operating the Central Arizona Project, the 336-mile-long canal that brings Colorado River water to Tucson and Phoenix.

The agencies are jockeying over a series of issues, many pointing to who controls the state's most precious resource -- and the population growth and jobs it can support.

But the conflict also cuts to the heart of how Colorado River water, the lifeblood of the West, will be managed.

The infighting is interfering with the agencies' ability to come up with a fix for Lake Mead's problems, caused by drought, climate change and chronic water overuse. It's also raising questions about government accountability, transparency and policy.

The field on which these battles are playing out is an effort led by Gov. Doug Ducey and the Arizona Department of Water Resources to overhaul much of the state's water management. Ducey wants to be able to assure investors that Arizona has enough water for future economic development.

Many officials say this would be the most sweeping change in state water laws since Arizona enacted the 1980 Groundwater Management Act, which ushered in an era of regulation to control excessive groundwater pumping that was draining the state's aquifers.

Well over a dozen proposed changes in water laws have been discussed since June behind closed doors by three committees and working groups appointed by the governor.

The proceedings are considered sensitive enough that state officials have released members' names of only one of the committees. Known as the Plenary, its 25 members represent an elite who's who of Arizona water interests: the governor's office, state and CAP water officials, ranchers, farmers, Indian tribes, utilities, a mining company, developers, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, legislators and a conservationist.

Among the issues are:

Whether the state or CAP makes the final decision to leave river water in Lake Mead that legally belongs to cities, farmers or Indian tribes, in the name of conserving it.Whether to establish a permanent program to compensate CAP water users who leave some of their water in Lake Mead.Whether Indian tribes can set up programs to leave their CAP water in Lake Mead on their own, which CAP says federal contracts don't allow.Whether Colorado River water that doesn't get used in a given year by cities, farms and tribes owning legal contracts for it should be automatically left in Mead or support future suburban growth and stored in the ground here.Whether the CAP should be forbidden from hiring outside lobbyists to represent it in Washington, D.C., and whether the CAP should be subjected to regular outside audits of its performance.Whether to require CAP officials to get the state's approval to even negotiate with the federal government or other states over Colorado River matters.

The governor's staff has said one purpose of this effort is to get the state's "act together" on water, and to have officials speak "in one voice" on the issue.

Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke says the proposals have a common origin. They stem from a series of actions by CAP officials that he asserts exceeded that agency's authority, could have harmed the state, or demonstrated an unwillingness to collaborate with local water officials in the Tucson and Phoenix areas.

"The soul of water management in Arizona" is at stake, says Kathy Ferris, a former state water director who sides with her former agency, the Arizona Department of Water Resources, and sits on the governor's Plenary. …

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