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Arizona governor to provide $1.2 billion for water funds

File photo
Colorado River

By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- Gov. Doug Ducey signed legislation Wednesday to provide $1.2 billion to fund grandiose projects to find new water for Arizona and smaller ones to conserve what the state already has.
The governor is particularly excited about the idea of the state being involved in construction of a plant to desalinate water, likely from the Sea of Cortez, providing fresh water that can be used for not only domestic use but also for the agriculture industry which consumes 70% of what Arizona now uses.
"We are in the second decade of the worst drought in recorded history,'' Ducey said.
"We continue to experience shortages on the Colorado River,'' he continued. "And the forecasts are not getting better.''
What the new law does is enable Arizona to come up with a new source of water from outside the state. And what that particularly means, he said is "the largest desalination project in history, anywhere around the globe.''
What that also will be is expensive -- more than the money in the legislation. But House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, said the state won't be picking up the entire tab.
"There are already groups, businesses that want to partner with the state,'' he said, calling what's in the legislation "leveraging money'' to make the state "a partner in larger operations,'' including with Mexico. And there are other options, Bowers said, like finding a way to get the floodwaters in Kansas to places where water is needed, like Arizona.
That, however, then leaves the question of how much more Arizonans may have to pay for water.
Tom Buschatzke, director of the state Department of Water Resources, has put the cost of desalinated water in the neighborhood of $2,500 an acre foot, about 326,000 gallons. That's the amount of water that, depending on the community, can serve about three homes for a year.
And any new costs would come on top of what's charged now for delivery.
The governor, however, said he doesn't believe Arizona water users will be in for sticker shock
"We're going to be the big boy of the lower basin states,'' he told KTAR on Wednesday.
"Right now we're the little brother,'' Ducey said, with Arizona having the lowest priority to take water out of the Colorado River. "We're going to have water to sell to other states to supplement and bring out costs down.''
All that, however, is years off. So the legislation also includes more short-term answers -- and $200 million specifically set aside for them. And many of them involve doing more with less.
"We have funding to address best management practices in our counties and our cities,'' said Rep. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford. That includes everything from recharging rainwater and use of more efficient plumbing fixtures to changing landscape practices to convert to more drought-resistant plants and replacing grass with artificial turf.
"I did that about eight years ago and it still looks great,'' she said.
"It's green, the dogs love it,'' Griffin said. "And I haven't used any water on it.''
And there's potable water reuse -- something that eventually could lead to what has been dubbed "toilet-to-tap,'' where effluent is treated to the point that it can go immediately back into the drinking water supply.
"It's not just one project,'' she said. "It's all of the above.''
But it was only the Democrats who spoke at Wednesday's press conference where Ducey signed the legislation who mentioned the controversial issue of why Arizona is hotter and dryer.
"Our state is confronted with the reality of climate change,'' said Senate Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix.
That, she said, comes in combination with the fact that the Colorado River has been "over-allocated,'' with the agreement on the amount of water each state was entitled to take set half a century ago. Only thing is, the actual flow of the river now is far below when those agreements were set.
And that already has forced mandatory cutbacks, with future reductions possible to keep Lake Mead from become a "dead pool'' with no water flowing over the Hoover Dam.
That rapid decline was noted by the governor who pointed out that he was signing the new legislation in the same location as he signed the 2019 "drought contingency plan.''
That move provided cash to help farmers who would be getting less water from the river to instead construct new wells and water delivery systems. It also paid money to tribes, who have higher priority claims to the river, to reduce their own use to keep more water in the river.
The plan was supposed to take care of water shortages through 2026, complete with some hopes that the drought would abate.
But that hasn't happened. And Ducey said that the state's financial surplus provided the opportunity to act now to shore up those supplies.
The governor has a mixed record on the issue of climate change.
In 2015, Ducey said that, after being briefed by experts, he was convinced the climate is changing.
"It's going to get warmer here,'' he said at the time. "What I am skeptical about is what human activity has to do with it.''
By 2019 he was willing to put aside that skepticism. Ducey said it only makes sense that people and what they do are having an impact.
"Humans are part of the earth, the environment and the ecosystem,'' he told Capitol Media Services at the time. But the governor has shown no interest in his now nearly eight years in office in changing Arizona laws and regulations to reduce greenhouse gases.
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