From The Arizona Republic editorial board:
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.
How it fell apart – and came together
Two years ago, Buschatzke and Cooke were mired in a bitter fight over DCP.
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.
Negotiations ground to a halt. Other Colorado River basin states began publicly pressuring Arizona to get its act together or be left out of the regional deal.
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.