Oct 7, 2022 - News

Arizona's mixed reaction to California water conservation proposal

Illustration of measuring tape poking through a horizon of water.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Experts and officials in Arizona had mixed reactions to a conservation proposal by water agencies in California.

Driving the news: In a letter to the U.S. Department of the Interior, the agencies proposed a reduction of 400,000 acre-feet per year through 2026.

  • The agencies want to be compensated for the voluntary conservation.

Context: The Colorado River basin is in the midst of a 22-year megadrought, the worst the region has seen in about 1,200 years.

Between the lines: Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said the proposal was a "mixed bag."

  • The 400,000 acre-feet is a continuation of what California proposed during talks that fell apart in August. That, combined with the 500,000-600,000 acre-feet in cuts that Arizona was contemplating during the talks, gets only about halfway to the low end of the bureau's target.
  • Buschatzke is concerned that the proposal is only voluntary, and said mandatory cuts would be needed to conserve at least 2 million acre-feet.

Yes, but: Buschatzke said there are also positive aspects to the proposal and the letter.

  • The $4 billion for drought mitigation that was in the Inflation Reduction Act provides more certainty than there was during the talks earlier this summer.
  • The agencies' suggestion to create a surplus shows a willingness to conserve more than 400,000 acre-feet.

What they're saying: Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at ASU, said it's hard to say what a sufficient cut from California would be but said 400,000 isn't enough.

  • "That's how, I think, a lot of non-California water users are going to see it," she said. "It's not going to be the offer that suddenly seals the deal for everyone."
  • Porter suggested that, in order to make up its share of water lost from evaporation and vegetation, California should be taking at least 700,000 acre-feet worth of cuts.

Of note: Though Nevada is also a lower basin state, it gets much less Colorado River water than Arizona and California, so Buschatzke said it's mostly up to those two states to find a solution.

  • Porter said no one is sure what the Bureau of Reclamation will do if the lower basin states don't reach an agreement.
  • There are questions over whether the bureau has the authority to impose cuts, she said, and if it attempts to do so the issue will likely go to court.

1 big criticism: U.S. Rep. Greg Stanton, who has publicly accused California of failing to do its part to conserve water, tells Axios that the proposed cut is "nowhere near enough to save the Colorado River and any serious person knows it."

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