Conference Panel Takes on How to Close Water Supply-Demand Gap

Summer 2014 Newsletter

transcript by Ann Posegate, WSP Graduate Outreach Assistant

On April 8, 2014, a panel of water professionals and thought leaders discussed ideas for closing the water supply-demand gap in Arizona, during the final panel session of the WRRC Annual Conference, “Closing the Gap Between Water Supply and Demand”.

Moderator Sharon B. Megdal, WRRC Director, opened the panel with a charge to the panelists to begin a dialogue on the topic, “Closing the Gap: How can we do it?” She provided brief introductions for all the panelists, noting that the first speaker, Jennifer McCloskey, Deputy Regional Director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Lower Colorado Region, would be providing background on the Colorado River water situation from the federal perspective.

The second speaker, Kathleen Ferris, spoke from over 36 years of experience with water issues. She co-wrote the 1980 Groundwater Management Act and worked with the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association for many years before being named its Executive Director in 2012. Rick C. Lavis has been the Executive Vice President of the Arizona Cotton Growers Association for the past 33 years. George Arthur was elected to the Navajo Nation Council in 1991 and served there for the next 20 years. He is a founding member of the Colorado River Ten Tribes Partnership and Immediate Past President of the Colorado River Water Users Association. Thomas W. McCann is the Assistant General Manager for Operations, Planning and Engineering for the Central Arizona Project. Sandra Fabritz-Whitney held several positions at the Arizona Department of Water Resources over her 20 years of service, most recently as Director. She is currently Water Strategy Director with Freeport-McMoRan. Speaking last on the panel, Rodney B. Lewis, of the Gila River Indian Community, is a consulting attorney to Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, advising American Indian tribes on federal and state public policy issues.

Panel Discussion

The following summary is an abbreviated transcript of the panel session.

Jennifer McCloskey:  The Colorado River is a key component of Arizona’s water supply, the allocation being 2.8 million acre-feet (maf) of water. On the Colorado River, we are in a significant drought. We have been in a drought for the last 14 years. This is very much driving the conversation about water around the Colorado River.

Through the course of this year, we’re expecting a decline in our reservoirs, going down to 53 percent at Lake Powell and 40 percent at Lake Mead. The good news is because of the management of the water supply, we have had a little bit of relief with the snowpack this year. The latest projection is that we’ll be back up for water year 2015. However, we do have a slight risk, even with our 9 maf projection, of being in a shortage condition in 2015. We have a little greater than a 50 percent chance of being in a shortage condition in the 2016 time frame.

Regarding our water budget for Lake Mead in the Lower Colorado River, for our apportionments in the lower basin, we’re on average expecting an inflow of around 9 maf. Our commitments, our outflows in the lower basin for Arizona, California, Nevada, and Mexico combined are 9.6 maf. That’s further exacerbated by evaporative losses of 0.6 maf, giving us an annual gap of 1.2 maf. These projections and these kinds of conditions, not only the drought, are also driving the conversation and putting a strain on the gap.

Reclamation has been a part of the conversation with the water users on the Colorado River. Part of that conversation is making sure that we continue to protect what we call the interim guidelines, which dictate how our reservoirs are going to operate. They also provide for reductions in use for shortage conditions and are an important part of protecting our water supply for sustainability purposes.

Several programs we have initiated contribute to closing the gap. We are re-engaging in a program called System Conservation. When we engaged in this program in the past, we entered into voluntary fallowing agreements. The water that we would be able to purchase as a result of this program would be put into system storage. We would keep that volume at Lake Mead to help stave off potential for shortage and help protect water supplies for the future.

Another program is intentionally created surplus. Today, we have stored about 1.5 maf of water in Lake Mead as a result. Finding ways to be flexible and expand this program into the future is going to be another key component.

Our agreement with Mexico in Minute 319 provides for Mexico to share in shortage with U.S. basin states. In the good times, they can also share in surplus. Mexico suffered a significant earthquake in the Mexicali Valley in 2010, and since then, it has been storing water in Lake Mead for future use as part of this agreement. We’re looking at investments in conservation in Mexico. I think our work with Mexico is going to be significant.

Another component is water for environmental flow. We’re looking to time the delivery of water for environmental commitments.

We’re also working on operational efficiency, on our ordering procedures, on communicating about water that gets delivered to farms and the irrigation district and which gets released out of system storage, and seeing what we can do to further refine that process so the amount released more closely matches the amount taken.

Kathleen Ferris: Conservation will continue to be necessary. But conservation and reuse alone will never close the gap. They are the tools that municipalities and water providers use first to stretch their water supplies. They won’t necessarily translate to reductions of diversions from the Colorado River. Municipal providers are on the front lines of conservation and I personally think that municipal providers have taken a bum rap in the last few years. We’ve had so much talk about how much we are not doing and so little education about what we are doing. While our population has increased by 152 percent since 1980, our water use has increased by only 87 percent. We do all this while providing clean, reliable supplies on a day in, day out basis.

Another point I want to make is that groundwater mining cannot be a way to stretch our water supplies in the West in general. We have spent decades protecting our groundwater supplies as a savings account for times like those we might be facing.

Another one of my truths is that I think we need smarter growth. Growth should occur where water supplies and infrastructure exist to serve that growth. We should discourage growth based on groundwater. We should prevent urban growth for which an adequate water supply is not acquired in advance. We should stop believing that every acre of land has a right to grow houses.

Finally, there are tradeoffs to everything that we do. We could in the future ban all swimming pools and water features and say we’re not going to have a blade of grass. But is that what we really want to do? Do we want to make the desert so inhospitable that no one would ever want to move here? Maybe some would like that, I don’t know.

Rick C. Lavis: I’m getting concerned about how we’re making water policy in this state. It isn’t the old water policy paradigm that we understood in 1980. There were three interest groups at the table: mining, cities and agriculture. Who wasn’t at the table? Developers, home builders, environmentalists, and others. We have fantastic representation in this room of people who are involved in water policy in this state. What’s missing? Leadership.

The structure created in the 1980 Groundwater Management Act was first-rate. There needs to be a conviction and a commitment to working on a new structure of policy making when it comes to shaping contemporary water policy for Arizona.

You have to get in the room and do business with people. It has to be a consensus. My message here today is, don’t walk out of this room thinking that various kinds of water solutions are supplies and demands issues. That’s only one part of the picture. We’ve got to think about how we do this. I want to emphasize how important it is for this state to create and capture a new process which represents all entities.

George Arthur: There has certainly been a variety of concepts and ideas stated as to how to bring the gap closer. But this panel is stating why it’s not going to work. In order for this to work, in order for the gap to come closer, the Tribes have to be at the table.

Also, is the next generation after us present here? No, they’re not. How do we get that segment involved, and who’s going to do it? The schools? The leadership? I think those elements are missing in closing the gap. It’s not impossible to implement. This university, I think, just by observation the past few months, is doing a tremendous job of educating and reaching out. Earlier, someone said that water is life, and indeed it is. It’s life to those generations that are yet to come. In Navajo terms, we speak about eight generations. In order for us to move forward, we have to be creative, we have to be conservative, but most often, we have to communicate. We have to cooperate. We have to listen, and we have to understand.

The Ten Tribes have asked the Bureau of Reclamation to do a two-year study that would involve them. It would be referred to as the Colorado River Basin Tribal Water Study. The partnership basically consists of Jicarilla Apache, Southern Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, Navajo, Northern Ute of Utah, Fort Mojave, Colorado River, Cocopah, Chemehuevi and Quechan.

Having been a party to both sides of the table, from a tribal perspective and through serving as the Colorado River Water Users Association President, I know that we can move forward and we can accomplish the task of bringing the gap closer in our time.

Thomas W. McCann: I want to start with a short quote, and see if this sounds familiar.
“ … assuming a long-term average annual supply of 14.9 million acre-feet, sometime after the Central Arizona Project is fully operational the Colorado River will not yield enough water under normal circumstances to meet Upper and Lower Basin demands, Mexican Treaty obligations, and system losses. Thus the Colorado River Basin faces future water shortages unless its natural flows are augmented or Basin development is curtailed.”  [“Westwide Study Report on Critical Water Problems Facing the Eleven Western States” U.S. Dept. of the Interior, 1975]

Today, it seems like we are just as far away, if not further, from where we were in 1968 [the Colorado Basin Project Act] as described in the 1975 Western U.S. Water Plan Study (see;view=1up;seq=9). If we are not willing to invest in, show an interest, have a willingness to pay, and have environmental willingness to do projects [to augment the water supply], then we need to look at the other side of the equation.

We’re in what amounts to an unsustainable condition. Kathy [Ferris] talked about groundwater mining; that’s not sustainable. Most of us know and accept that. But we’re doing the same thing on the Colorado River. We’re mining our storage in Lake Mead. For the last 14 years of drought, we’ve had normal releases from Lake Powell every year until this year and the elevation of Lake Mead has gone down. We got by in the 80s and 90s when the Central Arizona Project wasn’t fully on board yet, and we only started delivering [Arizona’s full 2.8 million acre-foot apportionment] around 2000, which happened to be when the drought began. Now we’re seeing the consequences of failure to take action, and we’re at the point where we have to do something. The choices that we have are not going to be pleasant for anybody. They’re going to involve money. They’re going to involve water. And they’re going to hurt.

Sandra Fabritz-Whitney: I came in here this morning looking for some very specific action items, specific words. I heard these words: cooperation, collaboration, coordination, working together, and augmentation. I’ve heard augmentation a total of 13 times and the others a total of 22 times.
Throughout the day, we have been given a lot of perspectives. There has been a lot of finger-pointing as well. But this is about all of us, this is about Arizona, and every single one of us is part of this. What we need to figure out is how to work together. The 1980 Groundwater Management Act brought mines, cities and agriculture users together. They were the biggest water users in the state, and they were probably the ones who should be doing something about their water use in the state and conserving water. So, from that perspective, that worked. But you’ve got to make sure that everybody is in the room, everybody is talking with each other, not at each other. That’s how we’re going to find solutions and close this gap.

Director Lacey this morning presented the state’s plan. ADWR has taken the initiative to try to solve the situation. Key and paramount to that is getting leadership to support these solutions, as others said. It’s not just political leadership. It’s the business community, communities, cities, towns, local politicians, individuals —we all have a role in solving these issues. Now we’ve got something to rally around. We have a vision from the State of Arizona. But it’s nothing new. As Tom pointed out, we’ve been talking about these things forever. It’s time to stop talking. It’s time to start doing something.

Rodney B. Lewis: One thing George [Arthur] mentioned earlier is that many times tribal groups have been left out of discussions about water in Arizona. Prior to 2000, in my opinion, there was considerable tension between the Tribes, Indian interests, the state and even the federal government, and of course other interests. We talk about cooperation now. The concept simply did not exist. Things didn’t change until we were gathered together under strict supervision, guidance and oversight by Senator Kyle, Bruce Babbitt and Governor Hull, who called us into a room and said, “Look, we’ve got to work this out.”

Prior to that time, I think the general attitude of many people in Arizona was that you can’t work with Indian Tribes. Why not just litigate to try to get people to assert their rights? There’s certainly a changed attitude now. Things have gotten a lot better. In a sense, the State of Arizona has matured, has come to respect and acknowledge that Indian tribes are entitled to water, that there are ways in which water can be allocated that perhaps do not harm existing users. That was the basis of the Arizona Water Settlements Act of 2004. Since that time, the pace has picked up. We have a lot of water settlements coming through. I think that’s important if we’re talking about how we close the gap as we look forward.

One way in which supply and demand can be met is with tribal groups working together. This is something we haven’t done very extensively. A lot of tribes have developed water policy and are working diligently toward not only protecting their rights, but actually using the water to which they’re entitled. The Inter Tribal Council of Arizona has a water policy council which is beginning to put Tribes together to think in the big picture, to work together with their water and develop a water policy and work with other interest groups to address the need for closing that gap.

We can look toward water exchanges. Tribes at some point in the future will be working with water marketing, leasing and participating in conservation efforts. What about taking a look at the true cost of water as far as consumers are concerned? That’s something to think about and something which water interests in Arizona should sit down and begin to work on with Tribal groups from this point on.

Sharon B. Megdal: What seems to ring through [these ideas] is the issue of process: How can we do it? I want to tell a story about an experience of my own as I was returning to the University in 2002. Having sat on the Governor’s Water Management Commission that finished its recommendations in late 2001, there was talk about the need to educate legislators on water, especially with term limits and questions about the knowledge base. I thought the University should be helping educate anyone who wants to be educated. We held a dinner and invited legislators. Thirty-three showed up. That was good, but it was a real challenge to get something scheduled because legislators are either running for election or they’ve just had their election and they’re very busy. How do we do the education?

Kathleen Ferris: Leadership is critical but elusive. There’s an elected official who decides that this is a really important issue and he or she is going to make sure that the stakeholders get in a room and hammer out their disagreements. In my view, it’s not enough to educate. We have to find somebody in the legislature or in the governor’s office who cares deeply about this issue and who is smart enough to take it on.

Rick C. Lavis: The question is: Who is going to lead? The shortage issue looms very large, and agriculture’s right smack dab in the middle of it. Also, we’ve all been living off the luxury of our successes. We’re not sitting in the room here talking about a crisis. We’re talking about how we make it better, how we take care of our water problems.

Rodney B. Lewis: You go to a lot of water conferences and a lot of the ideas are about how to work out negotiations. One way is to identify what’s important to the other party or all the parties in the room, and then you work on those. In the Indian experience in Arizona, that’s simply not how it works. It’s really been about how one can take Indian water without paying for it. It’s been a difficult kind of process. Leadership is absolutely essential. That requires the education of political leaders, and you in this room are the people who are able to provide that education for the respective political leaders in Arizona.

Sandra Fabritz-Whitney: The traditional model that worked very well in the Groundwater Management Act and the Water Settlements Act worked in those situations. I’m not disparaging it, but maybe the old model is not exactly what we should be using. Maybe it’s time to look for a new model as we think through these things, as we try to find solutions. Nobody can do this alone. We’ve got to work together. Maybe it’s new, innovative, creative ways of finding these solutions and somebody to lead that charge, whether it’s political leadership or business leadership.

In Closing

As time ran out, Megdal closed the panel with a call to action from the panelists and the audience. She noted that the panel provided some good advice, but left some unanswered questions on how to put their advice into effect. Reiterating comments by the panel, she emphasized the importance of dialogue and identified the need for that key person who puts people around the table. Finally, she stated that non-water people—the business community and others—need to be engaged in water issues, but that broader engagement will be a challenge. “We need to get people excited about water without getting them alarmed,” she said. “We need to excite people into action before we do have a crisis.”