PHOENIX -- Arizona lawmakers gave final approval Thursday afternoon to a drought contingency plan, just hours ahead of the deadline set by a key federal official for the state to act or face having their Colorado River water supply determined by her.
That nearly unanimous approval came despite objections from some legislators who questioned why the state was not just allowing Pinal County farmers to once again pump groundwater for their crops but was also going to provide cash to help them do it.
The deal provides $9 million in cash to help construct new wells and the systems to deliver the water to farmers, with $7 million directly from state taxpayers and another $2 million already in the coffers of the Department of Water Resources. Several lawmakers pointed out the original offer was for just $5 million overall.
There was also concern about a provision in the law which would appear to promise the farmers -- or at least the irrigation districts that serve them -- another $20 million if they need it.
Farmers are hoping to get a federal grant for those dollars. But Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, questioned whether it's really going to leave Arizona taxpayers on the hook for the entire amount.
Pinal County Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, said that's not the case.
"That's not actual spent money,'' he said. "It's a grant guarantee.''
He said it's no different than when the state pays the up-front costs of fighting fires knowing that there eventually will be reimbursement from Washington.
But House Speaker Rusty Bowers cautioned colleagues that it isn't that simple.
"The government isn't guaranteeing us anything,'' he said. "They're just saying there is a grant program.''
State action became necessary because existing agreements say that when Lake Mead drops below 1,075 feet above sea level it triggers automatic reductions in how much water can be taken out of the Colorado River. Projections are the lake will drop below that point next year.
The six other states and Mexico that all have rights to Colorado River water have all agreed to make cuts in what they draw to restore the lake back to close to 1,090 feet. Much of the credit goes to Nevada and California who have agreed not to draw some of the water they are entitled to take right now, before the lake hits 1,075 feet.
But it also means that Arizona needs to reduce its draw from the river by up to 700,000 acre feet between now and 2026. An acre foot is about 326,000 gallons of water, considered enough to serve a typical family of two for a year.
And with farmers having the lowest priority, they would be the ones to take the first cuts.
The rush came because Brenda Burman, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, warned that unless all the state signed off by midnight Thursday night she would begin the process of coming up with her own plan. And that is likely to give Arizona even less river water than the deal the state ratified.
This plan helps farmers deal with getting less river water by paying tribes, who have higher priority claims to the water, $30 million to reduce their use. And then there's the part of the pact to put Pinal County farms back on groundwater with taxpayers footing part of the bill to do that.
Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said he was concerned about what this was encouraging.
"What I do have a problem with is all of these subsidies and all of this money going to allow farmers to plant super water-needing crops like pecans and cotton,'' he said.
Kavanagh pointed out that this was an area of the state that more than a decade ago was experiencing fissures and subsidence. To deal with that, he said, the farmers were switched to water delivered through the Central Arizona Project.
"They stopped pumping the groundwater and that problem stopped,'' Kavanagh said.
"But now, because of this crisis, we're taking them off CAP and throwing them back in the groundwater,'' he continued. "And I'm assuming there's a good chance we're going to be getting more fissures and subsidence.''
But Bowers said it isn't that simple.
"Farmers don't just say, 'I like cotton,' '' he said.
"They grow cotton because we use cotton,'' Bowers explained. "They grow alfalfa, a high water-consuming crop, because dairy cows need it.''
And he said 35 to 40 percent of the dairy products used in the state's metro areas come from Pinal County.
Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, said that question of supply and demand governs other crops, like the truckloads of melons, another water-heavy crop, that come from the San Rafael Ranch in Santa Cruz County.
"These melons ... are sold from the Mississippi to Canada to Mexico,'' he said, with the farm being the second-largest producer in the nation. More to the point, Cook, whose district includes part of Pinal County, said Arizona is in competition with other states.
What that means, Cook told colleagues, is that if major buyers like Walmart fear that they can't count on melons from Arizona they will choose to sign long-term contracts with farmers elsewhere.
Kavanagh appeared unconvinced all that was sufficient to promote renewed groundwater pumping.
"People grow crops that aren't water intensive,'' he said. "Maybe the subsidence is God's way of saying you can't grow pecans in the desert.''
Cook, however, suggested that the plan doesn't go back to the way things were before.
He said prior to getting Colorado River water the farmers were removing 500,000 acre feet of groundwater a year.
This plan, Cook said, allows the farmers to pump just 70,000 acre feet annually. And it also provides for better system to recharge treated effluent back into the ground.
The other key point, said Bowers, is that the existing plan for water use, the one adopted in 2007, always anticipated that Pinal farmers would start losing their Colorado River water sometime after 2026.
But he said that presumed much of the farmland would have been sold off for development, something that did not happen.
Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, complained about having to vote for the package on a take-it-or-leave-it basis -- and do it less than 10 hours before the midnight deadline for adoption. He these are issues that "should have been addressed years ago,'' blaming the rush on failed leadership by the Legislature, the governor and the stakeholders involved.
He also complained that the package fails to consider crucial related issues, including conservation and climate change. Instead, Quezada said, lawmakers are told these will be dealt with in a future plan.
"Step No. 2 is too late folks,'' he told colleagues in voting against the plan. "We should have been doing Step. No. 2 right now.''
And Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, complained of provisions he called "welfare for water-intensive uses.''
Sen. Lisa Otondo, D-Yuma, acknowledged the measure may not be perfect.
"Everybody doesn't like something in the bill,'' she said. "But that was the negotiation amongst the stakeholders.''
She also said lawmakers need to understand the need for the action and what it is -- and is not -- designed to do.
"This is not a Band-Aid,'' Otondo said. Nor is it a solution to the state's water woes.
"This is an intervention,'' she said, making changes to that 2007 plan made necessary by the drought, and doing so in a way to mitigate the loss of Colorado River water to users in Central Arizona.
And she agreed that there is more the state can do. But Otondo said that, for the moment, there is no choice but to approve the plan.