On Friday, January 31, after three marathon days at the legislature, the Governor signed into law the legislation necessary for Arizona to sign on to the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP), a strategy for preserving Lake Mead’s water.

The Lower Basin DCP is a multi-state agreement regarding how to implement water allotment cuts when a shortage is declared on the Colorado River. Once enacted, the DCP will require Arizona to reduce its Colorado River Deliveries by 512,000- acre-feet. While the terms of DCP have been a topic of discussion among the lower-basin states for years, recent hydrology shows the chances of a shortage in Lake Mead are more probable than not, starting in 2020. That made 2019 the time to act. This lit the fire under the feet of the stakeholders involved, increasing pressure to strike a deal before a shortage was declared.


The Central Arizona Project canal brings Colorado River water to Arizona and has fostered a tradition of the Colorado River keeping Arizona a vibrant and thriving state.

Of the states involved in the plan (California, Nevada, and Arizona), only Arizona needed express legislative authorization to sign on to the DCP.  But before that could happen, water users in Arizona had to decide just how to spread the pain of 512,000 fewer acre-feet of Colorado River water to go around.

As the lowest priority users of Arizona’s Colorado River allotment, agricultural districts in Pinal County were set to absorb the entirety of the DCP-mandated cuts. Thanks to a summer-long stakeholder process, agreements were made to identify 595,000- acre-feet of water, delivered over the next six years, to mitigate the losses in Pinal County. But just over 300,000- acre feet of that water is surface water. The rest will consist of groundwater that the Districts don’t currently have the infrastructure to access. Obtaining that water will require about $50 million in new and improved well infrastructure in the Pinal County irrigation districts, this despite efforts over the last several years to improve infrastructure.

The legislation was in two parts. The first was a resolution giving the Director of the Department of Water Resources the authority to sign DCP when the opportunity to do so arises. The second was codification of the agreements needed to provide mitigation to Pinal County, including a total of $9 million dollars to begin the well infrastructure improvement.

It’s not over until there’s water in the ditch.

Despite Arizona passing the DCP bills by the federal deadline, the Bureau of Reclamation on Friday opened a notice in the Federal Register, directing the Governors in the Colorado River Basin States to suggest ways to prevent catastrophic losses on the River, if DCP is not signed into law. This doesn’t mean that the Federal Government is taking over control of our water, but it does mean the Feds are still putting pressure on all the states involved to make sure that a DCP is signed, sealed, and delivered before the lake reaches a tier 1 shortage.

The agricultural industry is also working diligently to obtain the rest of the money necessary for well improvements, including an estimated $20 million from federal funding sources. The $9 million from the State, in addition to $1.3 million per year in a repurposed pump tax and at least $10 million combined from the districts themselves and from the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, will go a long way toward beginning the projects. But the key will be making sure that new wells are ready to go by 2023 when wet water mitigation is no longer available. Therefore, the bulk of that money is needed sooner rather than later – and with the federal government, “sooner” is almost never an option.

To that point, Representative David Cook is the sponsor of a bill (HB2590) that would appropriate $20 million to the Department of Water Resources for the purposes of well infrastructure in Pinal County. Though the irrigation districts have every reason to believe that the federal money will come through, they need that money up front in order to complete the projects in a timely manner. This $20 million would be an insurance policy for federal funding. 

What does this mean for consumers?

Arizona is truly dependent on Colorado River Water. Not only does it bring life to the states that border it, but it has also brought decades of healthy economic activity to Maricopa, Pinal, and Pima counties thanks to the Central Arizona Project canal mainly driven by the agriculture industry. By protecting this river and the precious resource it carries, DCP is good for every Arizonan.

But this protection is not without its costs. The loss of surface water in Pinal’s irrigation districts will mean that the farms in that district won’t be able to produce the alfalfa, corn, and other grains that our dairies rely on for feed. With 39% of the state’s dairy sales coming from Pinal County, this will inevitably increase the price of the ice cream and other dairy products you and I cannot do without. We will also see an increase in the price of beef, as Pinal County’s top-notch feedlots are no longer able to source affordable, local feed. Therefore, the agricultural community will keep fighting for what it was promised: the resources to improve well infrastructure to mitigate the water loss necessitated by DCP.

To continue the river’s legacy of a vibrant Arizona, we must make sure that we don’t leave the industries that rely on its water – quite literally – out to dry. 

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