Aug 22, 2022 - News

Arizona agriculture groups pitch payment plan for water conservation

Animated illustration of a droplet of water eroding the center of a stack of hundred dollar bills.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A coalition representing agricultural interests in the Yuma area are pushing a water-conservation plan in which the federal government would pay them to not use some of the Colorado River water they're entitled to.

Driving the news: The ​​Yuma County Agriculture Water Coalition drafted its Save the River plan in July.

Details: Farmers in Arizona and California would voluntarily conserve 925,000 acre-feet of water annually for four years in exchange for about $1,500 in compensation per acre-foot annually.

  • Yes, but: The conservation plan would result in reduced crop production.

Why it's important: The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation wants all seven Colorado River basin states, including Arizona, to find a way to conserve an additional 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water to help alleviate the 22-year megadrought that's gripping the region.

  • The bureau announced last week that the lower basin will be in a Tier 2 drought next year, which will trigger 592,000 acre-feet in cuts to Arizona's allocation of water.
  • Basin states have been unable to reach a conservation agreement over the past two months.
  • Some water officials were frustrated that the bureau isn't using its leverage to push the states toward an agreement or using its authority to impose a plan.

Between the lines: The Inflation Reduction Act that President Biden signed last week includes $4 billion for drought mitigation in federally designated reclamation states, with priority given to the Colorado River basin.

  • That money can be used to compensate farmers for reduced crop output caused by the temporary reduction in their water usage.

What they're saying: "What we're saying in Yuma is we don't want to be paid not to farm. We want to be paid money so that we can develop better production, whether it's in seed technology, other technology, infrastructure," Wade Noble, a Yuma water attorney who serves as a spokesperson for the coalition, tells Axios Phoenix.

Arizona's U.S. Sens. Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema both played significant roles in getting that money included in the Inflation Reduction Act, and the coalition has been in communication with both of their offices, Noble says.

  • Kelly's office told Axios Phoenix that the money could potentially be used for Save the River, with the bureau's approval.

Yes, but: The coalition hasn't gotten much buy-in on the plan yet. Noble tells Axios Phoenix that the coalition hasn't talked much with the bureau, the Arizona Department of Water Resources (DWR) or the Central Arizona Project (CAP).

  • The Yuma agricultural interests hope to reach an agreement with their California counterparts that would somewhat resemble Save the River.
  • Arizona farmers would account for only up to 200,000 acre-feet of the proposed water conservation, so the plan can't move forward without support from California.

The other side: During a press briefing after the bureau's drought announcement last week, DWR director Tom Buschatzke and CAP general manager Ted Cooke didn't address the coalition's plan directly but spoke critically in a broader sense about voluntary conservation and compensation for people to scale back on their water usage.

  • Buschatzke said voluntary programs create uncertainty and "we want to see an outcome in which there is 100% certainty that whatever the numbers are put out there, those numbers are the numbers that are going to actually happen."
  • Cooke described compensation-for-conservation plans as temporary Band-Aids that would do little to address a problem that needs more "durable solutions."

Noble says plans like Save the River would still reduce water use until drought conditions begin to recede.


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