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Despite fits and starts, officials optimistic a water deal is close

After months of wrangling, state and tribal officials, industry and agriculture representatives walked out of a meeting at the end of last month with high hopes they were nearing agreement on a complex water-conservation plan.

And at the beginning of this month, they found themselves grappling with new demands that threatened to derail the deal.

That two-steps-forward, one-step-back process is typical of the delicate negotiations as Arizona officials try to hammer out how the state will implement its share of a multistate drought contingency plan that would take effect if water levels in Lake Mead continue to drop.

And the clock is ticking: If Arizona cannot come up with proposal to present to state lawmakers for their approval this spring, the state runs the risk of having federal officials making decisions for the state.

But with the multistate Colorado River Water Users Association set to begin its annual conference Wednesday, most appear cautiously optimistic that a deal will get done in the near future.

Planning has been going on for years but the most-recent talks, on how the contingency plan would be implemented in Arizona, have been the subject of seven meetings of the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan Steering Committee since late July.

The last meeting, on Nov. 29, included the surprise announcement that Gov. Doug Ducey would include $30 million in his next budget request to help fund the plan.

“We worked really hard for the last six to eight weeks to achieve this outcome,” Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said at the outset of that meeting.

In a subsequent editorial, Ducey said that funding request, and commitments from other parties involved in the deal, “has generated real momentum behind this plan…. Let’s seize the moment.”

The moment didn’t last long. By Dec. 3, Buschatzke was raising concerns about an amendment proposed by the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, which governs the Central Arizona Project, that would have let it keep 75,000 acre-feet of water a year in exchange for paying the Colorado River Indian Tribes to divert a like amount.

“This really caught everybody by surprise,” said Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community, which is entitled to about one-quarter of CAP’s annual water delivery.

“There are some real issues with it that concern us,” Lewis said. “The friendly amendment undoes a lot of the work that has been done so far.”

A group of agricultural irrigation districts in Pinal County that are CAP users continue to insist on assurances that infrastructure will be funded to shift them from river water to groundwater by 2023 as the plan requires, seven years sooner than currently required.

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