From The Arizona Republic (Ian James):
Proposed water legislation that might have upended Arizona’s Colorado River drought plan was set aside by a leading Republican lawmaker following a day of tense debate.
The dispute over the bill pitted House Speaker Rusty Bowers, who introduced the measure on behalf of a group of farmers and ranchers, against the Gila River Indian Community, whose leader threatened to pull out of the drought deal if the bill went forward.
Bowers’ decision to yank the bill from consideration on Tuesday appears to clear the path for Arizona to take a series of steps to finish its piece of the Drought Contingency Plan, which involves taking less water out of Lake Mead to prevent the reservoir from falling to critically low levels.
But even with what had seemed a difficult snag now somewhat smoothed over, Arizona still needs to finish a list of about a dozen water agreements to make its piece of the Colorado River deal work. And Arizona’s top water managers said they expect completing those deals will take longer than a March 4 deadline set by the federal government.
If Arizona and California miss that deadline and don’t sign the Drought Contingency Plan, the seven Western states that rely on the Colorado River face an uncertain process. Federal officials have said they plan to ask the seven governors for input on steps that should be taken to prevent the levels of Lake Mead from continuing to fall. It’s not clear how that process would end, or whether it would spark more disagreements.
On Tuesday afternoon, though, one big potential obstacle appeared to be out of the way after Bowers announced at a House committee hearing that he was pulling House Bill 2476.
The legislation would have repealed the state’s water-rights forfeiture law, a measure often called “use it or lose it,” under which water rights may be forfeited if water hasn’t been used for more than five years. The bill would have changed the law so that not using a water right wouldn’t result in automatic forfeiture.
The legislation was aimed at addressing the concerns of farmers and ranchers in the Upper Gila Valley in southwestern Arizona, where the Gila River Indian Community has filed forfeiture cases against some landowners.
Bowers said in a statement that he will not move forward with the bill but will “continue to fight” for landowners in the Upper Gila Valley. He said because the bill “has nothing to do with the Drought Contingency Plan, I refused to include it in those discussions.”
Bowers said he didn’t want to give the Gila River Indian Community “veto power” over water legislation, but that he also didn’t want to interfere with ongoing litigation that may affect well owners along tributaries of the Gila River. He said those factors, as well as the deadlines the state is facing, led him to hold the bill.
Bowers said he still thinks the bill focused on an important issue that has yet to be resolved.
“The concept of forfeiture of water rights is a terrible possibility for these thousands of rural folks across Arizona,” Bowers said in a statement. “And it deserves the attention of the Arizona Supreme Court in seeking a just and reliable remedy.”
From The Associated Press (Jonathan J. Cooper) via The Denver Post:
It’s the latest hurdle threatening the plan between seven states to take less water from the drought-starved Colorado River, which supplies 40 million people and 5.5 million acres of farmland. Missing the March 4 deadline could allow the federal government to step in and decide the rules.
About half of the 15 agreements that Arizona needs to secure among water users will be ready by March 4, said Ted Cooke, director of the Central Arizona Project, which brings Colorado River water to the sprawling cities and farm fields around Phoenix and Tucson.
“That’s an artificial deadline, and these are very complex agreements and very complex negotiations, and we will take the time that we need to do them properly,” Cooke told reporters Tuesday following a meeting of water users working on the drought plan.
He said he hopes to finalize all the agreements within 60 days…
Arizona lawmakers have approved the drought plan, but U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Director Brenda Burman has said the state also must finalize the complex agreements needed to implement it.
If that’s not done by March 4, Burman says she will ask governors what should happen next — starting a process that could result in federally mandated cuts instead of the voluntary plans negotiated by the states. That’s particularly worrisome in Arizona, which has the lowest-priority water rights on the Colorado River.
Cooke repeatedly declined to speculate on what would happen if the state doesn’t finish its work by the deadline. But he said Arizona would probably be done before the federal government could get very far down an alternative path.