water supplies

Arizona spending $30 million to 'rent' water rights

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PHOENIX — Arizona is dropping another $30 million in to buy — or, at least, rent — some water rights to help stave off further drought-related cuts in what the state gets from the Colorado River.

Tom Buschatzke, the director of the Department of Water Resources, said plans are to negotiate with tribes and others who have guaranteed allocations of water to leave it in the river in exchange for cash. That's on top of $10 million the legislature gave him earlier this year for the same purpose.

But Buschatzke acknowledged that this, coupled with another $30 million that already was given to one tribe years ago to defer some of its water rights for three years, does not solve the fact that decades of unusual drought have left Arizona and other states along the river with less water than they hoped to be able to draw.

In fact, he said, what this is mainly designed to do is get the state to 2026 in hopes that there will be bigger — and more permanent — solutions.

That could include a plan to desalinate water from the Sea of Cortez. But aside from the cost — potentially $2,500 an acre foot, or about 0.7 cents per gallon — there are also issues ranging from politics to technology.

“Honestly, that kind of project is seven to 10 years away,” Buschatzke told Capitol Media Services, if it happens at all.

There are other options, including what would amount to domestic reuse of treated effluent. But Buschatzke apparently aware of the “ick factor” in the minds of some.

“We don't call it ‘toilet to tap,’ “ the water director said. “We call it ‘direct potable reuse.’”

All this comes as new projections show that the level of Lake Mead will drop to 1,050.6 feet by the end of next year. And even more alarming is a projection that the lake will hit 1,026 feet in July 2023, forcing even deeper cuts than already planned reductions.

Yet about 70% of the water being used in Arizona goes to agriculture, including crops like cotton, pecans and alfalfa.

Buschatzke called the question of getting rid of desert farming a policy question. Gov. Doug Ducey, who does get to make policy, along with the legislature, has no interest in looking at such options to cut water use.

“I don't accept the premise that it's finite,” said press aide C.J. Karamargin. He said his boss is counting on all that yet-to-be developed technology as an alternative to having to go that route.

That leaves the kind of interim actions that are happening now, like giving tribes and others another $30 million to not use their Colorado River allocation, at least for a while.

These are the latest steps in the drought contingency plan approved two years ago by lawmakers here, officials in other states and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation which controls the Colorado River.

In that deal, the seven states and Mexico that all have rights to Colorado River water have all agreed to make cuts in what they draw in a bid designed to restore the lake back to close to 1,090 feet.

But it also means that Arizona needs to reduce its draw from the river by up to 700,000 acre feet between now and 2026, against the state's current annual pre-drought allocation of 2.8 million acre feet. An acre foot is about 326,000 gallons of water, considered enough to serve a typical family of two for a year.

Part of that was supposed to be addressed with the first $30 million paid to the Colorado River Indian Community. In exchange, the tribe left 50,000 acre feet of water each year for three years.

That agreement ends, however, at the end of 2022 — about the same time Lake Mead could hit even new lows.

Ducey is using federal COVID relief dollars to provide the new $30 million. But Buschatzke said this isn’t just kicking the can down the road.

“It's not just trying to buy time and hope the river recovers,” he said. "It's trying to stabilize the lake levels as we work towards what the next set of guidelines will be.”

Only thing is, things aren't getting any better, even with the 2019 deal and the arrangements to draw down less. In fact, the lake is now barely above 1,067 feet — with those predictions of further declines in 2023.

“We are seeing that the historic flow of the river is not what we're seeing in the last 30 years or so,” Buschatzke explained. And even that flow, he said, is 10% or 11% below historic levels.

And there are no answers yet about what happens after 2026, he said.

So, in the interim, what does $30 million buy — or lease — in water that can be left in the river each year?

“Within Arizona, we are probably targeting a couple of hundred thousand acre feet,” he said.

He acknowledged that's not enough, even as a short-term solution. So Buschatzke said Arizona is working with California and Nevada, the other lower-basin states, to see what they could do to lower their demand, though the director said he has no specific numbers in mind.

That still leaves the question of all the water being used by farms.

The 2019 deal did reduce what farmers get from the Colorado River. But that did not result in a commensurate decrease in farmland, as they were allowed to replace some of what they lost with groundwater —precisely the thing that the Central Arizona Project and the Colorado River water was designed to eliminate.

It hadn’t been thought that would be necessary.

The assumption was that by the time the first cuts in river water came, much of the farmland in Pinal County would have been converted to new home subdivisions. But that didn’t happen after population growth last decade slowed at times to a crawl.

So the farmers kept farming at least some of their land. And Karamargin said his boss sees no need to address any cutbacks in three of the five C's that define Arizona: cotton, citrus and cattle.

“Right after the C's, there's a D,” he said. “And the biggest topic in this D is desalinization,” Karamargin continued, calling it “part of a possible solution.”

Ducey's position on farming is not new.

In 2019, just weeks after signing the contingency plan for cutting water use, he told Capitol Media Services there's no need to give up growing cotton in the desert.

“Arizona’s been a proud cotton state in the past,'' he said. “And I believe we can be one going into the future as well.”

Karamargin said he's convinced the cost will come down, just as it has for solar and wind energy. And he said the fact that places that are drier than Arizona, like Israel, depend on desalinization shows that it is a realistic option.

As to that toilet-to-tap, or whatever you want to call it, the already state is pursuing that — but very indirectly.

Buschatzke said there is a plan for Arizona and Nevada to pay California to start using its own sewage, now dumped into the Pacific Ocean, for drinking water. In turn, California would leave more of its allocation in the Colorado River, helping stabilize the level of Lake Mead.

He said that Phoenix also has been looking at the technology to make the city water self-sufficient and that Tucson has been talking about the issue for more than a decade.

But Buschatzke said that runs into another problem: demand.

“Twenty years ago, there wasn't a great hue and cry for reclaimed water to remain in the rivers for the benefit of the riparian habitat, the environment, the critters,” he said. “And that has become more of a value to multiple stakeholders.”

And then there's the fact that the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station west of Phoenix is cooled with treated effluent, much of that coming from Phoenix.

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