The Colorado River supplies nearly 40 percent of Arizona’s water use, providing water through the Central Arizona Project (CAP) to farmers, municipalities, and tribal water users. CAP’s service area covers Arizona’s biggest cities, including Tucson and Phoenix, as well as nine Native American tribes and the productive agricultural land around Yuma. Given the crucial role of the Colorado River in supporting Arizona’s population and industry, the state had a strong interest in a robust and effective Drought Contingency Plan (DCP). In this interview, Tom Buschatzke of the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) speaks withIrrigation Leader Managing Editor Joshua Dill about the planning and implementation of the DCP in Arizona.
Joshua Dill: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Tom Buschatzke: In 1982–83, as a graduate student at Arizona State University, I interned at the ADWR. I then became a permanent employee of the department, working various jobs and moving up the ranks to become a program manager in the Water Rights Adjudication Section. In March 1988, I left the department to work for the City of Phoenix. I worked for 14 years in the City of Phoenix’s Law Department on water rights and other issues, then moved in 2002 to a position as water resources policy advisor in the city manager’s office. In summer 2011, the director of the ADWR asked me to come back as assistant director, officially overseeing all the policy prescriptions and programs performed by the department, including regulatory programs under the 1980 Groundwater Management Act. I was in that position until January 2015, when Governor Ducey nominated me to be director. My nomination was confirmed by the Senate as required by law, and I have been the director since then.
Joshua Dill: Would you give us a basic explanation of why the DCP was needed?
Tom Buschatzke: The end goal of the DCP is to lower the risk of Lake Mead falling to critically low elevations. In 2007, an agreement was put together on interim guidelines for the coordinated operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead when shortage criteria obtained. Those guidelines were also intended to lower the risk of Lake Mead falling to those unhealthy levels. At the time, the risk was in the single digits. Over time, because of the ongoing drought and other issues, that risk started to climb. In some hydrological scenarios, the risk had risen as high as 45 percent. The actions taken under the DCP are intended to reduce that risk back down into the single digits by 2026, the end of the plan period.
Joshua Dill: Would you tell us about the planning process by which the different states came to the agreement as it exists now, and how your agency contributed to Arizona’s position?
Tom Buschatzke: In June 2013, the seven basin states’ principals had an audience with Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and asked her to allow the states to put together a plan recognizing increasing risks to Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The basin states’ principals had their staff-level people—in Arizona’s case that was me, as the assistant director—get in a room together for a while and consider an outside-the-box plan for all seven states. We were asked to think creatively and perhaps, as Jim Locke, the head of Denver Water, put it, to seek a grand bargain among the states for better management of the Colorado River. Recognizing that that was a very tall order, and having worked on it for about a year, the upper and lower basins parted ways and pursued separate plans, always with the intention that the two plans would come back together to achieve their common goal. We worked on that through 2014.
The results of that process included a memorandum of understanding that allowed for the conservation of water in Lake Mead. Then, in summer 2015, Esteban Lopez, then the commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, contacted the basin state and water district principals, folks who could make decisions in real time, and asked them to try to negotiate a larger deal among Arizona, California, and Nevada. We embarked on that process in July 2015. Through the rest of 2015 and into 2016, we came up with what is essentially the DCP we have now, aside from a few tweaks. I was the principal negotiator for the state of Arizona because I was the principal-level person for Arizona at the point in time at which Commissioner Lopez reached out to us.
Joshua Dill: Were there other entities within Arizona that provided their input into what the state’s position should be in the negotiations?
Tom Buschatzke: Yes. ADWR had created an ad-hoc group of Colorado River stakeholders around 2005, and it conferred with them throughout this entire process, back to its beginning in 2013. Starting in 2014, we conferred
with representatives of Yuma County and Mojave County, two counties along the river in central Arizona,
and representatives of CAP. When we embarked on the current DCP plan in July 2015, Commissioner Lopez
asked for the group to be as small as possible. Arizona’s two representatives at that point were myself and Ted Cooke, the general manager of CAP. Mojave County and Yuma County were willing to rely on me to represent their interests in that process, but we continued to confer with them and other stakeholders with Colorado River water rights as we negotiated.
Joshua Dill: Now that the DCP has passed, what actions will the State of Arizona and the federal government undertake?
Tom Buschatzke: The State of Arizona, in order to build support for the DCP, has an intra-Arizona implementation agreement with several elements. One of those is the conservation of water for Lake Mead, either through system conservation—the creation of water that has no one’s name on it—or through intentionally creating surplus water, which can come out of Lake Mead at some future point under a set of conditions defined within the DCP. One of the key elements of the DCP, as compared to the 2007 plan, was to further incentivize the storage of water in Lake Mead, even if that storage was somewhat temporary, as is the case with this intentionally created surplus. About 400,000 acre-feet of water will be created for Lake Mead. At the same time, agricultural water use and the water use of some tribes and cities within CAP who will be experiencing incrementally increased reductions under the DCP will also be partially mitigated. To do this, CAP will use resources that include water that it has stored in Lake Mead through prior conservation efforts. The ADWR, the Colorado River Indian Tribes, the Gila River Indian Community, the Arizona Water Banking Authority, and the United States will offset their water use on at least a one-to-one basis. Increasing the amount of water coming out of the lake by creating new water going into the lake sounds complicated, and it is, but it was a way to make the mandatory reductions included in the DCP fall through Arizona’s priority system and honor folks’ water rights contracts. The state legislature passed legislation authorizing the director of the ADWR to sign and bind the State of Arizona to the interstate DCP.
On the federal side, Reclamation will do its annual August 24-month study, which projects Lake Powell and Lake
Mead elevations for the next calendar year. Based on those projections and looking at the DCP and the 2007 guidelines, operating criteria will be put in place for 2020. We expect, based on April’s 24-month study, that we will undergo the first level of reduction under the DCP. In Arizona, we call it tier zero. Arizona will take a 192,000-acre-foot reduction starting in 2020; Nevada will take an 8,000-acre-foot reduction starting in 2020. That will all be triggered by Reclamation’s August 24-month modeling study, which generally comes out around mid-August.
Another important thing to mention is the role of Mexico. Mexico is a participant in the DCP through the Binational Water Scarcity Drought Contingency Plan. Under a treaty that the United States and Mexico entered into in 1944, Mexico gets 1.5 million acre-feet of water a year from the Colorado River. Since 1944, there have been over 320 minutes, or interpretations, added to the treaty. In September 2017, the United States and Mexico signed Minute 323, which includes this binational plan. It is in parity and alignment with the lower basin DCP, meaning that Mexico will do the things that we’re doing, get the flexibilities we’re getting, and get the incentives we’ve created in a manner that is proportional to the amount of water they receive. Mexico will also take a reduction starting in January 2020, assuming the 24-month study holds what we expect it to hold. Mexico’s participation is important because it means that all the Colorado River water users below Lake Mead are participating. Mexico actually signed onto the plan before we finalized it.
Joshua Dill: What are some of the approaches that Arizona water users are taking on conservation?
Tom Buschatzke: Since 1980, when Arizona passed the Groundwater Management Act, and starting effectively in 1987 when the regulatory programs were ramped up, we have had mandatory conservation requirements in our agricultural, industrial, and municipal sectors. Our agricultural and municipal users are very efficient and will continue to become more so. That law applies in the central corridor of Arizona, including Tucson, Phoenix, and Prescott—basically the area where 80 percent of our population lives. Outside the area where that law applies, especially in the Yuma area, where there is large-scale farming using a million-acre feet of Colorado River water, water users have become efficient in response to market forces. While we can always save a bit of additional water, there is no increase in efficiency that is going to create huge volumes of water. That is only going to occur through real reductions in use—by reducing farming or forcing the cities to cut back. The other factor to consider is that many of our municipal water users have water supplies in excess of their needs. That is because the Groundwater Management Act stated that cities, towns, and developments can only grow when they show that they already have adequate water supplies for the future. That incentivized the accumulation of supplies that go beyond municipalities’ needs. On the flip side, though, to achieve conservation we need to bolster the elevation of Lake Mead through intentionally created surplus, which is actually conservation. There’s going to be some land fallowing by farmers, and in some cases, entities that currently store water underground will stop doing so and leave it in Lake Mead.
Joshua Dill: What do you see as the next big issues that need to be tackled?
Tom Buschatzke: The DCP only runs through 2026. It is an interim agreement. At a hearing in the U.S. House
of Representative in March, Congressman Raúl Grijalva stated that the DCP is a safe haven that allows the states and stakeholders to go off and negotiate the next phase of Colorado River management beyond 2026. That’s
very important. The 2007 guidelines required the states to reconsult no later than December 31, 2020. From my standpoint, we are not going to wait anywhere near that long this time. We need to get rolling soon on the next incremental bargain, or maybe a grand bargain or a massive scheme for the river. Arizona entities need to coalesce and put together their thoughts, positions, and priorities. We will roll that into an Arizona-wide position. Arizona will probably reach out to the lower basin states and establish a basin-wide position, then reach out to the upper basin states to develop a collective plan. That process needs to start now.
Joshua Dill: What is your vision for the future?
Tom Buschatzke: I see a future for Arizona in which we continue to serve water users as we have for many decades. I see a future in which hard choices that have been made over many decades by many leaders continue to be made. I see a future in which Arizonans will reach consensus on the best way forward for the state. That will require lively debate. That is something we have a long history of doing when our backs start to get put up against the wall. We coalesce as a group and come forward with one position for the long-term good of the state. I see that continuing.
Joshua Dill: Was there anything you wanted to add?
Tom Buschatzke: I just want to emphasize one point. Water management on the Colorado River has worked
well when we make incremental steps. Sometimes there’s frustration among various user groups that we can’t make a bigger leap forward. I like to say that if you have a plan that is not implementable, it is not a plan, just a wish. We always have to keep that in mind. We will take incremental and attainable steps rather than regretting that giant leap forward that was never really feasible in the first place. There are political, optical, legal, and financial issues at play. That’s an important point for people to understand.