PHOENIX — At the start of a subcommittee hearing on drought he chaired, U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., recited the old Arizona saying, “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.”
The subcommittee on Wednesday heard testimony from several experts in conservation and ranching as Kelly and the panel discussed what Congress and federal agencies can and should do to protect water resources in the drought-stricken Southwest.
“Water has always been a limited resource in the Southwest,” Kelly said. “The effects of the drought are made worse by climate change. Arizona is on the frontlines of this megadrought, but this affects 40 million Americans.”
Kelly mentioned fish and wildlife, wildfires, agriculture and even hydropower as areas threatened now and in the future by drought, which has caused reservoirs like Lake Mead and Lake Powell to decline to historic lows.
Despite praising Arizona for being prepared for initial cutbacks to Colorado River Basin water as part of the interregional Drought Contingency Plan and reminding listeners that most Arizona residents would not be impacted initially, he emphasized “we are not out of the woods here.”
Kelly highlighted central Arizona farmers as being on the frontlines of the drought and “an important community who will feel pain.”
Among those called to testify was Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke. He acknowledged the difficult situation Arizona faces, with the state set to lose an allotment of 512,000 acre-feet of water from the Colorado River at the start of 2022, and it could be in line for more cuts in 2023 if water levels don’t rebound.
Buschatzke said that his department supports voluntary conservation efforts over mandated cutbacks to water use but said “that will be a heavy lift.”
According to Buschatzke, most farmers maintain the right to pump groundwater, and various municipalities are sending water to farmers as part of a credit program, but the reality is that many farmers may have to fallow up to 40% of land to account for the loss of Central Arizona Project resources.
“We are doing the best we can,” Buschatzke said, “but we cannot fully mitigate the loss of water. Farmers are not going to be able to farm the way they have historically in southern Arizona.”
Buschatzke also called on an “ethic of collaboration” between Western states, tribal nations and Mexico to iron out further regulatory mechanisms that would achieve equitable water outcomes.
Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary for water and science with the U.S. Department of the Interior, said the agency had provided $100 million in funding to 220 different drought-related projects across the West since the start of the year, including infrastructure improvements. Trujillo also said the department supports efforts like recycling, and even desalination, as methods to increase available water.
Kelly spent some time detailing important drought-related measures in the bipartisan Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act, which he worked hard to advance. This includes $8.3 billion to repair aging Western water infrastructure and to enhance groundwater storage. Trujillo also mentioned expansion of the 242 Well Field near Yuma, which aims to capture underground water flows and keep more water in the upriver reservoirs.
However, Jennifer Pitt, Colorado River program director with the National Audubon Society, testified at the hearing and suggested climate change would lessen that act’s impact.
“We need long-term solutions,” Pitt said. “There is so much at stake. This is a sobering and scary time for everyone that depends on the Colorado River. In passing the first act, you have set the stage for important investments, but more is needed.”
Provisions within the second and larger infrastructure package, which could be passed via budget reconciliation, were not discussed. Included in that is a provision that would revoke a land swap agreement for the proposed Resolution Copper mine in Oak Flat, which critics contend would be a water intensive project. The reconciliation package also includes numerous measures related to climate change, including possible funding for a civilian climate corps.
Kelly has recently stated that while he supported certain measures, such as increasing renewable energy production and extending middle class tax cuts, he had concerns about how the reconciliation package would be paid for and how precisely it would benefit Arizona’s economy.
The senator was equally hesitant to take a definitive position on the Resolution Copper project, which is projected to use up to 250 billion gallons of water over the mine’s lifetime, although Resolution Copper claims it would use a fraction of that number and rely more on banked water than groundwater.
“Mining is an important part of Arizona’s history and a major contributor to our economy,” Kelly said in a statement. “I’m continuing to evaluate the environmental impacts of this and any project like it. I have met with and heard from leaders of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, local elected officials and folks on both sides of the issue. As this is considered by the courts and the Forest Service, I will continue to hear from stakeholders and remain committed to respecting tribal sovereignty and ensuring our state has the infrastructure and water supply needed to prosper.”
At the moment, Lake Powell and Lake Mead are at 30 and 35% of their capacity, respectively. According to the testimony, even slightly-below-average snowpack that feeds the Colorado River could lead to drastically reduced runoff, as climate change causes water to soak into the ground, or for it to be captured by vegetation, before it flows downstream.
The Senate passed the first $1 trillion infrastructure bill 69-30 in August; passage of both infrastructure packages is currently stalled in the House, after a vote was postponed last week.