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Colorado River drought plan gets CAP support; heading for home stretch

A $135 million plan to keep Lake Mead from falling too low appears headed to the Arizona Legislature after getting unanimous support from the board governing the Central Arizona Project, which gets its water from the lake.

The CAP board’s vote last week caps five months of intense politicking over the plan, which was many times in serious jeopardy. In the last few weeks, oft-squabbling interest groups and agencies finally began to coalesce around basic principles for a plan.

As a sign of how much the debate has calmed, CAP’s board endorsed a plan introduced only a week earlier by the head of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, with which CAP was at war a year ago. CAP board members also dropped plans to push four amendments to the state’s proposal that were unpopular with other water users. The board did, however, condition that approval on making sure that developers and farmers achieve “certainty” about their access to water supplies that would compensate for the plan’s proposed cutbacks in CAP deliveries.

The drought-contingency plan would leave one-third to one-half of the CAP’s annual supply in Lake Mead from 2020 through 2026, without causing immediate, major economic disruption.

This bit of hydrologic alchemy would be accomplished by replacing some water supplies that would be cut with “mitigation” supplies from other sources. To make the drought plan even more complex, some of those mitigation sources are also controversial, which has forced planners to find still more sources to offset their environmental impacts.

The plan has gained strong support from a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation official, Leslie Meyers. She runs the bureau’s Phoenix office and sits on the 40-member steering committee representing water interests that is reviewing this plan.

More importantly, U.S. Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman is pleased with Arizona’s progress and believes the state has met her goal of producing a plan by the end of this year, Meyers said. “While it’s probably not perfect, it’s close. It’s good,” Meyers said.

It’s questionable at best whether the plan can be finalized by the end of the year, since everyone agrees that unsettled issues raised by the plan still need discussion. But the blueprint approved by the CAP board almost certainly will be the guts of whatever plan is approved.

The plan got the high sign last week from most major interest groups, including cities, developers, tribes and conservationists.

The lone holdouts are Pinal County farmers. That’s largely because no federal money has been allocated to keep them afloat by replacing their CAP water with well water.

The plan would spend $30 million to $35 million in federal funds to pay for new wells and other infrastructure for farmers to transition to groundwater pumping in 2023, after most CAP deliveries to them are halted.

Until there is assured federal funding, the four Pinal County irrigation districts that take CAP water can’t support the plan, their lobbyist, Paul Orme, has said. Orme also noted pointedly that even with the mitigation water the farms will get, he expects the cuts will require fallowing 40 percent of farmland inside the districts.

At the same time, rumblings of discontent have surfaced among some Democratic legislators about the prospect of major federal funding for groundwater pumping for agriculture, which is widely viewed by many environmentalists and researchers as unsustainable.

State Reps. Rosanna Gabaldon and Kirsten Engel, Tucson Democrats on the steering committee, said farms should become more water-efficient to avoid what Engel calls “unmitigated” groundwater pumping.

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