Opinion: Think we’re too polarized to do anything meaningful? Tom Buschatzke and Ted Cooke prove that even those who disagree can work together.
The Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan is nothing short of historic.
Not necessarily because it’s a good deal. The multi-state agreement, which was signed in May, is costly and doesn’t solve any of the problems that threaten the Colorado River, which supplies about 40% of Arizona’s water supply.
DCP is monumental because it proves that people with wildly different viewpoints can learn to work together and accomplish things that matter. Even now, despite how divided our country has become.
California, Nevada and Arizona agreed to leave water in Lake Mead to keep it from reaching catastrophically low levels. Arizona also created its own plan to lessen the impact of those cuts on Pinal County farmers, who would have been heavily impacted by the deal.
That was a massive lift. Ironically, though, it probably never would have come together if two guys hadn’t decided to bury the hatchet – and in doing so, led a group of vastly different water interests to a deal they could all support.
It’s why Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, and Ted Cooke, general manager of Central Arizona Project, are The Arizona Republic’s 2019 Arizonans of the Year.
Their agencies had locked horns over the deal’s basic details, including how to manage water levels at Lake Mead. Dueling op-eds were published in The Republic, with Buschatzke vowing not to sign CAP’s proposed plan.
Then, in May 2018, after water bills stalled in the state Legislature, Buschatzke and Cooke decided to become Switzerland – and agreed to co-chair a steering committee that produced an insane amount of water policy in a matter of months.
“It wasn’t like Switzerland,” Cooke said in a joint interview with Buschatzke. “It was as if the two most visible combatants agreed to put down their swords and take another approach.”
Their first few appearances were awkward. Words were chosen carefully. There was a palpable tension lying just below the surface, and the long hours and tense negotiations took a toll on the pair, who by February looked pale and gaunt, like they had been through the war.
But that tension helped bring the deal together.
Their example spread behind the scenes
There were a lot of strange bedfellows working on this deal, groups that had vastly different ideas about who should get the water and how it should be used. Yet they kept trading ideas, even when many felt the effort was DOA.
Some later said they were compelled to keep at it when talks broke down (and they broke down a lot) because of the example Buschatzke and Cooke were setting.
It was a poorly kept secret that their partnership had its share of “lively discussions behind closed doors,” as Buschatzke characterized it. But Buschatzke and Cooke said they were going to work together for DCP’s sake – and everyone involved knew they meant it.
There were many other players who orchestrated major compromises behind the scenes, including Paul Orme, an attorney representing Pinal County irrigation districts, and HighGround, a public-affairs consulting firm that for two years facilitated meetings between cities and farmers.
Without their efforts, this deal would not have come together.
Equally instrumental were those who put money and water on the negotiation table, including the governor, non-profit environmental groups like the Environmental Defense Fund and the Gila River Indian Community. In fact, Arizona’s plan is one of the first major Western water agreements where tribes were actively involved and treated as key players in the deal.
No one was willing to let the effort die
That’s what makes DCP so remarkable.
It’s easy to dig in on water rights, and historically, disputes over limited supplies have devolved into a zero-sum game.
Yet farmers, cities and tribes made sacrifices and compromises that might not necessarily be in their best interests because they knew that being left out of the regional deal would put everyone’s water at risk.
When talks started to get off track, Gov. Doug Ducey wrote an op-ed that spelled out the principles that should be guiding the effort.
Few people liked the plan CAP passed to spare farmers from such drastic, immediate cuts. But it served as a catalyst for the plan that ultimately succeded.
Lawmakers were heavily involved – which was critical, considering they ultimately had to pass the plan – and in addition to the countless meetings that occurred behind closed doors, stakeholders met frequently in public to hold each other accountable.
These lessons have been noted repeatedly in committees that are tackling the state’s next big water crisis, a depleting groundwater supply.
Even now, collaboration continues
Even better, the working relationships that were created during DCP have continued far beyond the state’s many study groups.
The math driving DCP works only if Pinal farmers drill wells to use once their Colorado River water goes away. That means farmers will soon be pumping a lot more from an aquifer that ADWR contends does not have enough water to support everyone for the next 100 years.
Though the Legislature earmarked some cash to refurbish and relocate the wells farmers need, the project also relies on federal funding to be completed quickly.
Irrigation districts knew they would need partners to compete for that cash and began working with universities, municipal water providers, conservation districts, environmental groups and others, who have all ponied up cash to match the grant. They also have expanded the project, earmarking additional funds for farmers to experiment with low water-use crops and irrigation techniques.
According to the grant application, the goal is to involve at least 6,000 acres in these low water-use projects. The newly drilled wells also will help entities like CAP recover water they had previously stored underground for times of shortage.
This is about more than water policy
That’s a better solution than what we arrived at during DCP negotiations – one that aims to reduce the impact of groundwater pumping and spread use of the wells to more than just farmers.
And it’s yet another model that Arizona can point to as it works through water problems (or any problems, for that matter).
DCP is historic – and the example set by Buschatzke and Cooke is worth lauding – not because everyone is suddenly on the same page about our water future. Deep disagreements remain.
DCP matters because it proves that people with vastly different interests can get in a room and talk it out, maybe even shout it out in private. But they keep talking to each other. Keep looking for solutions they can live with, even if the ideas aren’t perfect.
Because they know that’s how you accomplish meaningful things.
This is an opinion of The Arizona Republic’s editorial board.
Irrigators in Northwest Colorado are facing a sea change in how they use their water, and many ranchers are greeting such a shift with reluctance and suspicion.
The final frontier of the free river, irrigators in the Yampa River region have long used what they need when the water is flowing with little regulatory oversight. Water commissioners have been encouraging better record keeping in recent years, but a first-ever call on the system during the 2018 drought led state officials to begin enforcing requirements to measure and record water use.
State law requires all irrigators to maintain measuring devices on their canals and ditches. Kevin Rein, state engineer and director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources, said such devices are widely used in other river basins throughout Colorado, where bigger populations and more demand for water have already led to stricter regulation of the resource. The Yampa River Basin is the last region to get into compliance, Rein said.
“The basin went under call for the first time in 2018,” he said. “I would not call that a driving force; I would call that affirmation of why it’s been important … to do this for so many years.”
Nearly 500 Yampa River Basin water users were ordered this fall to install a device by Nov. 30, although irrigators don’t need to comply until spring 2020, when irrigation water begins to run. Those without devices won’t be allowed to use their water and could be fined $500 daily if they do.
The new enforcement is being met begrudgingly by irrigators, many of whom are third- and fourth-generation ranchers and whose families have never measured and recorded water use in more than 100 years.
“Ever since the 1880s, there has never been a call on the Yampa River,” said Craig cattle rancher Dave Seely. “If there wasn’t any water, (ranchers) accepted the fact, so it’s unusual that suddenly we have all this coming down on us now.”
A call on the river occurs when someone with senior water rights isn’t receiving their full allotted amount, and the state places a “call” for users with junior rights to send more water downstream or stop diverting altogether. The move triggers administration of the river by state water commissioners, who make site visits to monitor how much water is flowing through each ditch.
An air of the Wild West still lingers in this sparsely populated corner of the state, where many ranchers would rather accept a shortfall than invite the government into their affairs by making a call for their water.
“They just took it on the chin and dry farmed,” Seely said.
State officials have seen this resistance to change before and accept it as a matter of course.
“It’s a rough, rocky road at first, but after a while, I think a lot of people will be glad they have a device there,” said Erin Light, Division 6 engineer with the Division of Water Resources.
Light and her colleagues reminded irrigators at the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable meeting in November that keeping accurate records helps protect their water right, since rights are considered abandoned if not used, although the state rarely enforces this.
“Your water right has a value, a value to water your livestock or your crops, but it also has a dollar value for your heirs,” Scott Hummer, a Division 6 water commissioner, said at the meeting. “The only way they have to sell the water or get a price for the water is if the engineers know how much water is consumed by your crop.”
But many irrigators feel mistrustful of state government having more oversight of their water and are worried that outside entities may have designs on the region’s largely unallocated resource. Climate change has led to hotter, drier conditions over the past 20 years, and growing populations have increased the demand for water — both in the Colorado River Basin and along the Front Range.
“It just raises the question of what’s the drive behind it,” said third-generation Yampa cattle rancher Philip Rossi. “It’s hard to have an opinion when you don’t fully understand the long game.
“They’re trying to put a monetary value on water,” Rossi said. “Are they trying to get a better understanding of exactly how much water there is … so they can put a value on it if they want to sell it? Are we helping ourselves, are we hurting ourselves, are we helping them? There’s so many of us that are not interested in selling our water.”
Other ranchers are concerned that increased oversight could mean new restrictions even when water is plentiful. Many are in the habit of using as much water on their fields as they need, regardless of their decreed right.
“When the water’s high, we want to get it across our fields quickly, so we take more water than (our allotted right),” said John Raftopoulos, a third-generation cattle rancher in western Moffat County. “The fear is that, even with high water, they’re going to cut you down to the maximum you can take … that they’ll regulate you to the strict letter of the law.”
Rein said users could continue using more than their allotted right when the river is a free river — in other words, not under a call — as long as they are not wasting it.
“There’s a statutory term called waste; you can’t divert more water than you can beneficially use,” Rein said.
He also said keeping accurate records would only protect the water user as demand increases statewide and across the West.
Measuring devices cost from $800 to $1,500, so installation can get expensive for the many ranchers who have more than one ditch. Rossi has three more devices to install. Raftopoulos has about five others, for a total of 15 on ditches irrigating roughly 2,500 acres of grass hay and alfalfa.
Light estimated 100 irrigation structures had requested extensions — which she is granting in many cases until either July 31 or Oct. 31 — but she won’t have an accurate count on how many ditches are in compliance with the orders until May or June.
“It’s something that was going to happen sooner or later because of water shortages. That’s the system, that’s the law,” Raftopoulos said. “It’s a burden right now, it’s expensive and it’s going to put more government in our ditches. There’s going to be more people watching what comes out.”
Aspen Journalism collaborates with the Steamboat Pilot and Today, the Craig Press and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of rivers and water. This story appeared in the Dec. 27 edition of the Steamboat Pilot and Today.